July 14, 2009 in Personal Finance

Getting a good deal on a car rental this summer may take some doing.

Rates on car rentals are up and in some cases way up from a year ago, according to Abrams Consulting Group, based in Purchase, N.Y., which tracks car rental rates.

The biggest rate hikes are on vehicles rented from airport locations.

In early July, the average rate for a one-day rental of a midsized car booked a week in advance from an airport location was $99.81, up from $75.96 a year ago.

That extra $23.85 per day can put a real dent in your vacation budget.

And opting for a weekly car rental from an airport could be a real shock to your wallet as well.

On July 6, the average rate for a weekly rental of a compact car booked a week in advance from an airport location was $396.50, up from $296.43 a year ago.

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“There is sticker shock,” says Neil Abrams, president of Abrams Consulting.

Choosing to rent a car from an agency not located at an airport will save you some dough, but even those rates are higher than they were year ago.

On July 6, the average rate for a weekly rental of a compact car booked a week in advance from a non-airport location was $198.03, up from $174.34.

And if higher rates weren’t bad enough, there are also fewer cars available for renting this summer. Rental car companies have slashed their rental car fleets by about 20 percent to curb expenses, according to Abrams. 

To get a good deal on a rental car for your summer vacation, you’ll need to be a savvy shopper. These tips will show you how.

Do plenty of online research. Web sites such as Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, Vroom Vroom Vroom, Carrentals.com and Bookingbuddy.com allow you to search for the best rental car deals available by city or airport location.

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Study the search results from each of these sites carefully.

“Make sure taxes and fees are included in the cost comparisons,” says Joanne Helperin, a senior editor at Edmunds.com.

You can also search an individual rental car company’s Web site for rate quotes as well as sales and discounts. Keep in mind that the online quote is often lower than the rate you’d receive by making a reservation over the phone.

Just a few minutes of online research could save you some serious cash on your next car rental. So get cracking.  

Use discounts. Belong to AAA or AARP or Costco? Now is the time to scour all your frequent flier clubs, credit cards and membership organizations for discounts on car rentals. Even a 10 percent discount or $35 rebate off a weekly rental will help to offset rising rental car costs.

“There are all sorts of discounts that rental agencies offer,” says Joel Widzer, author of “The Penny Pincher’s Passport to Luxury Travel.” “Find those discounts.”

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Snap up deals on weekend and weekly rates. Some rental car companies offer rock bottom rates on the weekends, as much as 50 percent lower than the daily rates offered during the week. 

“If you have flexible dates, you’re better off going on the weekend,” Helperin says.

And don’t overlook specials on weekly rates. Daily rental rates are so expensive that renting a car for five days (and paying the daily rate multiplied by five) could be more expensive than the weekly rental rate.

Be sure to crunch the numbers carefully.

Consider off-airport rental locations. With car rental rates at airports so high, it’s a good idea to check out car rental deals in the city or near the destination you’ll be visiting.

So take a few minutes to a find the best available rate from an off-airport rental car agency for your upcoming vacation.

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Next, factor in how much it will cost to travel by bus, taxi or subway to your hotel or destination and to the rental car agency to pick up your car.

Some rental car companies have agencies in or near major hotels. Other rental agencies may allow you to pick up and drop off your car right at your hotel. Be sure to ask.

With airport rental car rates so high, there’s a good chance you’ll save some money by renting from an off-airport location. Just make sure it’s not too much of a hassle to get to and from your rental car agency. This is your vacation after all.

Look beyond national chains. Be sure to check out rental car deals available from smaller, regional chains and local independent agencies. They may have lower prices than the big national chains. 

Regional car rental chains include Midway Car Rental, Fox Rent A Car, Triangle Rent A Car and Ace Rent A Car.

“They may not have all the bells and whistles, but they’re good companies and you can save money,” Abrams says. “A car is a car.”

To search for rental car deals from smaller chains and independent car rental agencies, check out Carrentalexpress.com, which allows you to search for local rental car deals by airport, city and even your address.

Another way to track down a smaller rental car agency near your vacation destination is to ask for a recommendation from the hotel or resort where you’ll be staying.

The local agency may even be willing to drop the car off at your hotel.

Book early. As soon as you decide on your vacation plans, book your car rental. Wait until the last minute and you could get stuck paying much higher rates, and you may have a tougher time finding the vehicle that you want.

“Book early,” Abrams says. “You can always cancel. Lock in the rate.”

So be sure to make your car rental reservation weeks before your vacation. If you find a better deal closer to your trip you can always snap up that deal and cancel your other reservation.

“Most times you can cancel without penalty,” says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. “Always check that upfront just to make sure.”

Set your price. Not fussy about the particular car you’ll drive or the company you rent from? Check out Web sites such as Priceline.com and Hotwire.com. These sites offer nifty discounts on car rentals to consumers who are willing to be locked into a preset price before finding out which national car rental chain will be providing the car.

Companies such as Alamo, Avis, Budget and Hertz provide vehicles to Priceline.com and Hotwire.com customers.

“You know what the car class is and for most people that’s good enough,” Banas says. “In most cases, that’s where you can find some of the best rates.”

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