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Get Cheap Car Rentals From Priceline (or Hotwire)

Written by Nickel - 16 Comments

By the time most of you read this, I’ll be airborne. I’m heading out for a short work-related trip, and will be renting a car at the other end. Unfortunately, I waited until the last minute to book a car rental, and the rates were atrocious.

According to Kayak (my overall favorite travel site) the best I could do was $149/day for a full-sized car. Yes, smaller cars were marginally cheaper, and they might upgrade me at the rental counter due to availability, but I’m tall and want the guaranteed legroom.

After a quick perusal of the rental agency web pages confirmed these rates, I decided to try something I’ve never used before… Priceline.

Checking rental car prices at Hotwire

Before heading over to Priceline, I decided to check Hotwire to get a feel for the types of discounts that might be available. For those that are unfamiliar with these services, Hotwire and Priceline are both travel discounters with a twist.

Neither Hotwire nor Priceline let you know who your service provider will be prior to the transaction. Hotwire does, however, list prices up front. In contrast, Priceline lets you “name your own price.” Of course, they won’t necessarily accept it, but it’s worth a shot.

According to Hotwire, I could get a full-sized car for $89/daymuch cheaper than going straight to the source. Moreover, since Hotwire only uses “mainstream” rental companies (Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, and National), I wasn’t too concerned about which one it would end being.

Naming my own rental car price at Priceline

With the $89/day price point in hand, I headed over to Priceline. Like Hotwire, Priceline only uses major rental companies (Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, and National) so I wasn’t too concerned about which one I’d end up with.

I’ve read that a good strategy for figuring out what to bid on Priceline is to undercut the Hotwire price by about 20%. I ended up bidding $70/day for a full-sized car and got shot down. However, they offered me a “one-time opportunity” to rent for $83/day. Not wanting to spend any more time on this, I accepted.

In the end, I was able to save roughly 45% over the going rate. I could’ve probably gotten the car even cheaper (and saved on some taxes/fees) if I’d been willing to look at off-airport car rental locations, but this is a very quick trip and I don’t want to deal with it.

The downside of travel discounters

The biggest downside to both Priceline and Hotwire is that your arrangements are non-refundable and cannot be modified. If your Priceline bid is accepted, you are charged immediately. Likewise, if you accept a Hotwire deal, you pay immediately. Here’s the scoop from Priceline:

Priceline rental cars are non-refundable, non-transferable and non-changeable even if the reservation is not used.

If your offer is accepted, we will immediately lock in your reservation and charge your credit card. If your offer is not accepted, your credit card will not be charged.

Additional changes may apply at the counter if you pick-up or drop-off the car at a different date or time than you requested for your reservation.

Only the driver will be able to pick up this rental car at the counter. You will be able to add an additional driver at the counter for an additional charge.

The driver will be required to present a valid driver’s license and a valid credit card or debit card in his/her name with a minimum of $200 available credit as a security deposit on the vehicle. If you plan to use a debit card, you may be required to provide round-trip flight information at the rental counter.

Your offer price does not include vehicle liability, collision or personal accident coverage for your rental car. You should determine if you have insurance coverage prior to pick-up. Additional insurance can be purchased at the rental counter.

Something else to keep in mind is that you can’t instantly re-bid on Priceline. In fact, you can only bid once every 24 hours for a particular date, type of car, and location. You can, however, bid more often if you’re willing to change one or more of those variables.

Finally, as I’ve already noted, you don’t find out who you’ll be dealing with until after you pay. For rental cars, I don’t really care. As long as it’s a reputable company, I’ll rent from pretty much anyone. But for hotels? In some instances, location is critical, and not being able to control exactly where I’ll be staying could be a problem.

Into the unknown…

And now I’m just hoping that there’s actually a car waiting for me at the rental counter when I arrive. :) While I expect everything to be fine, I’ve never used Priceline before (have you?), so I’m still in the “get to know you” phase.

I’m assuming that everything will go smoothly, but I’ll be sure to update when everything is said and done.

Published on August 17th, 2009 - 16 Comments
Filed under: Frugality, Travel

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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16 Responses to “Get Cheap Car Rentals From Priceline (or Hotwire)”

  1. 1
    The Daily Mickey Says:

    I’ve rented cars via Priceline twice this year and both experiences were positive ones. I was able to get both rentals (economy size) for approximately $40/day. They were both positive experiences and I’ll definitely use Priceline for future rentals.

  2. 2
    Michelle Says:

    Four years ago I used Priceline to book a hotel in London. To avoid a rat motel in a scary neighborhood, I set my parameters to hotels rated 4+ stars and affluent neighborhoods.

    We ended up in a Holiday Inn (more a business hotel in Europe) in the Kensington neighborhood, only a block away from the tube. My researched bid of $75 a night was accepted (and paid to priceline in US dollars, so no need to worry about the conversion cost). All other options would have cost double that plus subject to currency conversion costs.

    The only downside was that when my husband and I arrived, we discovered that our room had 2 twin beds instead of a double. When we asked about an upgrade, it would have cost us another $150 a night.

  3. 3
    KC Says:

    I’ve used Priceline for car rentals for many years and always been satisfied. However you used to get a much deeper discount than you can now – that is the nature of the car rental business now, not Priceline. Recently we tried to rent a car in Seattle for a week. I was appalled that prices were over $60/day for a standard (which is a step down from what we normally drive, or so I thought). We weren’t able to get much more than $2 a day knocked off the cheapest price I could find. But that was a few dollars less. We get there (Hertz) and we find out our standard car is a friggin Kia. My husband “upgraded” to a Corolla. We feared for our lives everytime we got on the highway and we had to yell at each other over the incredible noise in the cabin. But, alas, that its the nature of the car rental business now. It costs a fortune and you get some little bitty car. It used to be airline prices that kept me from flying, but now it is car rental prices that keep me from flying. If I’m going anywhere east of the Mississippi I’m driving there myself – it is considerably cheaper.

  4. 4
    steve Says:

    I’ve always had good luck with Priceline. I’ve gotten rental cars for $12/day in certain cities. But it doesn’t happen all the time. But it always worth a shot.

    One thing to consider: If the rental company has a retail office near the airport and provides free pickup, you may save about $100 in airport usage and taxes, for a weeks rental.

    If a rental car shuttle at the airport takes you to an office site office, this is not it. It’s actual store locations.

  5. 5
    Suzanne Says:

    I did not have a good experience with PriceLine. I rented a mid-size car for 9 days for my trip to Florida last November. The car shown pictured was a Pontiac Grand Am – I have rented and owned one in the past and found it to be very comfortable and functional. I arrived at the car rental counter only to find out their version of a mid size car was a roller skate on wheels! I had to do an expensive upgrade to get the equivalent of what I thought I had signed on for.
    I would advise everyone to check the issuer’s site (Enterprise, Alamo, etc) to verify what they rent in each catagoriy so you know what type of vehicle you will really be given upon arrival at the rental counter before you sign on!

  6. 6
    Kevin@OutOfYourRut Says:

    I think the discounters can work if you travel light, that is no kids in tow! If you’re traveling with more than two people, you lose the flexibilty to do the stand by thing, or the waiting thing.

    Personally, I can put up with a lot of surprises, but my family… that’s another story.

  7. 7
    craig Says:

    I have yet to use priceline but have heard you can get good deals last minute on hotels. Not so much for the other services but mostly hotels.

  8. 8
    steve Says:

    @Craig: I’ve gotten great deals on hotels thru priceline, by naming your own price. It was also the weekend though. I’ve gotten $49-$59/night at the Hilton in Columbia, MD.

    Obviously it depends on the city and state you want.

    I haven’t tried Hotwire yet.

  9. 9
    Lily Says:

    I’ve never used priceline for car rentals but have used it for hotels and am 100% pleased! A year ago I bid $40 for a 4-star in Bakersfield, CA and it was accepted. Since then I’ve had to bid about $50 to get the same type of hotel. In San Francisco, I bid $60 last year and got an extremely lovely 4 star hotel in Union Square. This year it took a bid of $70.00 to get a similar hotel in Union Square. At the latter, I was taking my niece to SF for her first time experience. Since the weather was nice I asked for an upgrade and it only cost me an additional $50 to upgrade to a lovely room on a city-view floor (28th floor). It may have made a difference that I schedule all my lodging during week days. Not weekends.

  10. 10
    Nico Says:

    Followed your tip to check out Hotwire first then bid 20% under on Priceline — and it worked! Thanks.

    Expedia and the rental car company site had prices at about $50 for an intermediate-sized car. Hotwire had it for $26. I bid $20 on priceline. That’s more than a 50% savings, and the car will come from Avis.

  11. 11
    Savings With Sadie Says:

    Hello -

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  12. 12
    Maple Says:

    Priceline sucks! I hate priceline with a passion. Do not use it. it’s a total rip off!

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