Save Money on Car Rentals

A bit over a year ago, I wrote about how to get cheap car rentals through Priceline and/or Hotwire. Today I want to revisit the issue with some additional info that might help you score a great deal.

I’m writing this on Tuesday night. By the time you read it on Wednesday morning, I’ll be a single dad. No, my wife didn’t leave me. Rather, she’s flying cross country to visit family and friends for five nights, leaving with with all four boys until early next week.

Upon arrival, she’ll need a car, so I offered to book one for her. As I’ve noted in the past, I’m a fan of both Priceline and Hotwire when it comes to car rentals. Both companies deal with mainstream rental agencies such as Budget, Hertz, National, Enterprise, and Alamo. These are pretty much all the same to me, so I shop solely based on price.

Note: I’m not quite so cavalier when it comes to finding flights or hotels. I’m sure I could get some screaming deals, but I’m not crazy about the lack of detail when it comes to travel itineraries or hotel locations.

So… Here’s how it went down.

Checking out Hotwire

As always, I started by checking prices on Hotwire. While they don’t have a “Name Your Own Price” option, they do offer “Hot Deals” where they list the price, but not the rental agency in advance. You also have to pre-pay at booking, and there are no refunds.

Another wrinkle with Hotwire is that they don’t always have a “Hot Deal” at your location of interest, or for the car type you’re looking for. That being said, even if they don’t you can still book a reservation through them, and it’s still (usually) below market rates. Moreover, when you make such “regular” reservations, you don’t have to pre-pay and you can cancel at any time.

I first check Hotwire about 10 days in advance of the trip. At the time, the price for a full-sized car direct from a mainstream website was around $60-70/day. Hotwire didn’t have any Hot Deals, but they were offering a regular reservation for $42.95. Not great, but certainly better than booking direct through a rental agency.

Comparing to Priceline

From Hotwire, I jumped over to Priceline. When you search for cars at Priceline, you’ll first be presented with a pricing grid that is about on par with market prices. But the beauty of Priceline is that there’s also a “secret” pricing grid that you can bid against.

Simply select the “Name Your Own Price” option and take your best shot. I’ve found that undercutting Hotwire by about 20% is a good strategy, though in this case Hotwire was already far below Priceline, and my bid was immediately rejected.

Once you’ve bid and been rejected, you’re not allowed to bid again for 24 hours unless you change the car type, location, or dates. I decided to wait. A day or so later, I upped my bid slightly and tried again. Rejected. Oh well, it only took a few seconds, so nothing was really lost.

Patience pays off

Here’s where it gets interesting… Last Wednesday, exactly one week before the desired rental date, the pricing landscape changed entirely. Suddenly Hotwire had a Hot Deal for every car type, and the full sized pricing had dropped to $32.95/day. I was tempted, but figured I’d take another shot with Priceline.

Over at Priceline, I skipped right past the initial pricing grid and took a shot. I had previously been bidding in the mid-$30s per day, but I could now get a better than that at Hotwire, so I went lower. I took a shot at $27/day, and they accepted.

Overall, I saved around 55% over market rates. For a five day rental, that works out to a savings of $165 plus about 15-20% in taxes and miscellaneous fees.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing that I learned here was that pricing landscape can change dramatically as the deadline draws near. It could have just been coincidence, but I suspect that the one week mark is when things really start to change, and prices drop substantially.

Of course, you also need to consider the context. This was a rental in early October at a non-vacation destination. I probably wouldn’t press my luck around the holidays in travel hotspots, as rental agencies sometimes run low on inventory and prices rise.

But whenever I’m traveling during off-peak periods, I’ll definitely keep a careful eye on the prices and wait until the one week mark to book unless I stumble onto a screaming deal before then.

What about you?

Have you ever booked rental cars through travel discounters? If so, do you have tips or tricks for getting a great deal? Please share your strategies in the comments.

6 Responses to “Save Money on Car Rentals”

  1. Anonymous

    It’s good to know these strategies work for car rentals. It’s always hard to commit to something without knowing exactly who it’s from and all the specific details. This seems also to be one of those special instances where booking something closer to the date could be to your advantage. The only time I’ve used this strategy is with Expedia and hotels where you can go for “unpublished” rates but all you know is the Star class of the hotel. So far it’s worked out great for me.

  2. Anonymous

    Surprisingly, the best deals I’ve found after comparing Priceline, Hotwire and others – has been when I use my Costco discount/coupon combination offer. My last rental was a midsize from Fri. – Sun., all for around $36 (including the taxes and surcharges).

  3. Anonymous

    I find rental coupons at retailmenot.com, which have always yielded good savings. Your note about destination hot spots should be heeded: This summer we picked up our car in Kauai and the lady behind the counter was shocked at my low rate of $100 a week. I told her I’d booked it about 4 months earlier and she told me that customers behind me would be paying $90 a DAY! I also put the rental on a credit card that provides insurance coverage, plus I have AAA, so I decline their expensive coverage.

  4. Anonymous

    We rent cars often and find the prices through Costco are almost always the best. Sometimes you get these deals but they don’t include the second driver, be careful this is a costly mistake. With Costco the second driver is free.

    I usually book and then a week or so before the rental period I double check the price I was quoted and if I can get cheaper I cancel the first reservation and viola. This is one the hidden Costco benefits.

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