20 Car Rental Tips to Keep You from Getting Ripped Off

Judy Antell Avatar

Things to Do in This Serene River Gorge Town - Our VRBO between Carson and Stevenson
Photo credit: Kristin Shaw

Car rental prices, like airline tickets, fluctuate wildly. You may pride yourself on buying low-cost plane tickets and getting a great deal on the hotel – and then you blow your vacation budget on a rental car. Our car rental tips, including a secret site savvy renters use, will help you save money on your next car rental.

From choosing which type of car to rent to knowing when to book your rental, and what extras to choose (or not) renting a car can be complicated. These insider car rental tips will help you save money and your mental health, on your next vacation.

Read More: The Best Road Trip Vehicles for Your Next Adventure

1. Compare prices.

Start early — at least two months before your vacation. Check Kayak.com or Expedia first. This will give you a ballpark figure of what your rental will cost. Kayak and Expedia are aggregators — which means they comb through all of the car rental companies and compile the deals in one place. The results from that search will give you the best price available — the price you want to beat.

2. Book as early as possible.

The key here is to book a REFUNDABLE rate. That way you have locked in the best deal you could find but still have the flexibility to find something even cheaper. Then, two weeks before your vacation, check prices across the rental companies again. Do it again one week ahead. And then the day before. Rental agencies tend to run specials when they have a lower-than-expected demand for car rentals. When you find a deal, rebook at the special rate and cancel that refundable reservation.

3. Check Priceline after step 2.

You might be able to snag an even better deal. Bid low; you can always bid again in 24 hours if your bid is rejected. Priceline rentals are non-refundable, so no more price checking after this!

4. Decline extra rental car insurance.

Check your own car insurance policy to see if it covers collision damage on a rental car. The American Express credit card and many other premium credit cards cover auto insurance for car rentals. Check your travel insurance, too. Chances are it covers car rentals.

5. Bring your own GPS, toll pass and car seat.

This saves you money so you don’t have to pay extra to rent these. Use Google maps on your phone for navigation. If you bring your own toll pass, be sure to hold it up so the toll reader records your payment. I was a little slow at a toll reader recently, and Hertz charged me the full toll price (not the reduced price my transponder would have charged) plus a $12 ‘convenience’ fee for emailing me a bill. If you prefer to rent a car seat, read tip #19 below.

6. Don’t pay extra for satellite radio.

Load some audio books and music on your smartphone and your content is free. Car rental companies assess extremely high daily surcharges for add-ons like satellite radio.

Even with high gas prices in Canada, it was cheaper to fill the tank on the way to the Montreal airport than to pre-pay. Photo credit: Judy Antell

7. Beware pre-pay gas options.

This one takes a little analysis and research. Pre-pay works like this: You buy the first tank from the rental company, and bring it back (ideally, for you) on fumes. But the pre-pay per-gallon price is usually higher than you would pay at local gas stations. And, if you don’t use all the gas, you definitely pay more than you need to pay.

The right answer is to forgo pre-paying and fill up the tank yourself just before you return the car. Download the Gas Buddy app to find the cheapest gas close to the airport. Don’t wait for the last station before you turn into the airport — it likely charges more than a station a mile or two away because of all those car renters desperate for a top-off. You can usually drive five to 10 miles after a fill-up with the fuel gauge still registering full.

Just remember to leave yourself a few extra minutes to stop for gas. The most expensive option is to drop off the car without a full tank in violation of the rental agreement. The rental car company will fill it up for you — at monstrously high per-gallon rates.

8. Cut down on the number of days of the car rental.

The biggest way to save on a rental is a shorter car rental period. One year, we had a late flight into Florida over the holidays and stayed at an airport hotel the first night. We took the free shuttle to the hotel, then took the free shuttle back to the airport the next day to pick up the car, saving $100 on that day’s rental.

9. Rent from non-airport locations.

When SheBuysTravel contributor Nasreen Stump visits Seattle, she takes the bus into town and rents from a downtown location. She notes that “airports charge all kinds of additional fees. Often you can rent from a downtown location and return to the local airport for no additional charge and not pay airport fees.” And if you are a Zipcar member, you can rent in town for just the period you need – maybe even just for a day trip.

mother and daughter in the bed of a Nissan Frontier truck
When renting a car on vacation, beware the upgrade that can cost more in the long run. Credit: Judy Antell

10. Be nice.

Ask for an upgrade. Chances are you can upgrade for no additional charge. But it always pays to ask nicely. Just beware that it isn’t completely without cost. Upgrading from an economy car that gets 37 miles per gallon to an SUV that gets 20 MPG means you will pay a lot more for gas. I once got an unwanted ‘upgrade’ when the car I wanted was unavailable. The vehicle, a pickup truck, not only burned a lot of fuel but I was charged extra at the hotel garage for an oversize vehicle.

11. Pass on frequent flier tie-ins.

You might get charged a convenience fee if the rental car agency has to communicate with another loyalty program about points. It may not be worth the increased cost.

12. Choose one driver.

Additional driver fees, even for spouses, can be $10 a day or more. Since I’m better at figuring out directions and the infotainment systems, I usually ride shotgun and my husband drives. But we also switch occasionally. Just having one renter definitely can save a lot of money.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Don’t even think about paying for only one driver and letting the other person drive. If you get caught speeding or you have an accident, you could be in for a world of hurt.

13. Drive safely, avoid penalties and return the car on time.

All your savings will go out the window if you nick the car, return it late or don’t fill the tank.

14. Beware ‘no-name’ car rental companies.

I try to get the best deal possible with the big 3 car rental companies: Enterprise, Avis and Hertz.  Enterprise owns both National and Alamo. Avis owns Budget, Payless and Zipcar. Hertz owns Dollar and Thrifty. You know the car rental fleet is well maintained and if something goes awry – a flat tire, broken windshield – the company will take care of you.

15. Let someone else do the work.

AutoSlash is the secret site travel experts use to get the best rate on rental cars. It’s built on a simple idea: Car rental prices change constantly, and the only way you know you’re getting the best price is to check them constantly. The best part: AutoSlash does it for you! Just input your confirmation number and AutoSlash emails you if there’s a lower rate available.

Even after you book a car, AutoSlash keeps checking, up to the time you pick up your car. If the price goes down more, your savings automatically increase.

16. Membership has its privileges.

Costco, Sam’s Club and AAA memberships all offer group rates for car rentals that are competitive. You can still use AutoSlash afterward to make sure you’re getting the best price.

17. Take a chance on a non-refundable rental.

Sometimes you find such a great rate that not even AutoSlash can beat it. Usually, this is non-refundable, so if you cancel your trip – or even if you miss a flight due to weather – you are still charged for the rental.

However, there are exceptions in extreme circumstances. Just before most of the country went on pause due to Covid-19, we were in San Francisco and had rented a car just for one day. With the country shutting down, we switched our flight. We were still on the hook for the rental, but decided to just call and see – and guess what? We were refunded. It may have helped that we are Hertz Gold Plus members. But also, my mantra – be nice. Call and explain, calmly, why you need to cancel that non-refundable rental and you just might get a refund.

18. Look for one-way car rental deals.

You can sometimes find a great one way car rental deal. These are offered seasonally to drive in or drive out of tourist destinations. The most common is to drive into Florida in the fall and out in the spring, but from time to time you see Arizona and Nevada deals. My kids got an amazing deal to drive a car from Cleveland to NYC for $80, less than a typical  one day rental in New York.

19. Use these car seat rental tips.

In advance, specify what type of car seat you need – infant, rear facing, booster, etc. Ask what models the company has so you can familiarize yourself with how to install. Don’t expect the rental agency to know. You might have to pay $10-15 a day for the rental. AAA members get a free car seat rental with Hertz, a nice perk.

20. Book the lowest cost car model.

Book the cheapest option. It might be small economy car, or there might be a deal on a mid-size. Always scroll through all of the car choices and rates before you book. Chances are you’ll be able to get an upgrade when you arrive (see tip #10 about the importance of being nice — and the increased costs you might still incur for that “free” upgrade).

What to Look for in a Family Road Trip Car Rental

If you’re renting a car for your family road trip, you’ll want a vehicle with space for everything (and everyone!). Here are a few things to keep in mind when booking:

  • Most rental agencies indicate the number of suitcases that will fit in the car. Make sure all of your bags will fit and include room for a cooler too if you plan on packing one for your road trip.
  • If you’d like to save money on your family road trip, consider a hybrid car rental. You’ll feel good about sustainability and save money on gas. And time at rest stops. I recently drove the Kia Sorento Hybrid EX, which gets 39 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg overall.
  • Luxuries in a rental car, like a panoramic sunroof, individual entertainment consoles and roomy captain’s chairs can make a family road trip comfortable and fun. Gone are the days of crowding into the way back of a rear-facing bench seat in a station wagon.
Driving a Tesla around Cincinnati was easy because we stayed at a place with free charging. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Should you Rent an EV?

There are many reasons to rent an electric vehicle:

  • They are better for the environment
  • They are quiet
  • Rental companies are offering great deals since so many drivers are unfamiliar with them
  • Charging can be very inexpensive


  • Research the availability of chargers where you are going.
  • Check with hotels to see if they have chargers in their parking garage (many do – and sometimes they are free!)
  • Make sure the chargers are for the kind of EV you rent. Right now, that means Tesla, or everything else. But Telsa chargers will soon allow other car companies’ electric vehicles to charge at their stations.

7 responses

  1. Thanks for the tip about how I could also opt for a hybrid when planning to rent a car. I want to find a good car rental service because I will need to visit my parents soon. It’s going to be an interstate trip so I want to make sure that I could use a car where I could be comfortable for an extended period of time.

  2. Your blog is the best guide when it comes to car rental tips. All the 20 tips are well explained and easy to understand. Great post.

  3. It’s a great and helpful piece of info. I’m happy that you just shared this helpful info with us. Please stay informed like this. Thank you for sharing Car Rental Tips.

  4. I like how you mentioned that you should consider the model of the car for you to be familiarized. My best friend mentioned to me the other day that he was looking for a car rental for their family vacation and gathering next week, and he asked if I had any idea what would be the best option to do. Thanks to this helpful article, I’ll be sure to tell him that they can consult a well-known car rental service as they can answer all their inquiries.

  5. I see good deals on Ford Escape…great mpg and Sienna…great mpg. but, the “similar” might be much higher gas usage. Tips to avoid the switch

  6. I like how you said to bring your own GPS to save money. My husband and I are planning on going on a trip with our family in a couple of weeks, and we are wanting to rent a car for the trip, and we wanted to know some tips so that we can plan our budget properly. We’ll make sure to keep this information in mind as we search for a car rental company that can help us.

  7. Thank you for your car rental tips. I would add a great website I found called rentalcarmagic.com. They not only give you price comparisons, but also find and aplly discounts and then email me my lowest price. For my upcoming Florida trip they found me a midsize at Dollar for over $400 cheaper than I could find!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *