Tips for getting the best deal on car rental
Travelers have been able to score decent deals on hotel rooms and airfares over the last year. But car rental prices have increased dramatically despite the weak economy.
“It’s the one area of the travel industry where you have not been able to get a break,” said Nina Willdorf, editor-in-chief of Budget Travel magazine.
Compared with a year ago, car rental prices increased nearly 50 percent on daily rates for midsize cars booked a week in advance, according to the Abrams Travel Data Rate Index, which tracks major car rental brands.
“Why do they charge these rates? Because they can get them,” said Neil Abrams, president of the Abrams Consulting Group in Purchase, N.Y.
He said car rental companies responded differently to the weak economy than hotels and airlines. “When you have a 30-story hotel and demand falls 20 percent or more, you can’t lop off some of the floors, but you can reduce prices,” he said. “And it takes airlines months to shut down routes and get planes out of service. But the ability of a rental company to scale down a fleet of cars is much more nimble.”
Car rental companies have cut the number of new cars they buy for rental fleets 25 to 50 percent, Abrams said. Demand for cars is down, too, but reduced supply is what really drives rates up, he said.
So to get the best rates possible, consumers need to do their homework. Here are some tips:
_Look for discounts. “There are hundreds of membership programs and professional associations that offer discounts,” said Paula Lyons, who lists 350 discount codes for eight car rental companies on her Web site.
Sources for car rental discounts include AAA, unions, frequent flyer and loyalty programs among others. Your employer may also have a corporate discount rate with one rental company that workers can use for leisure trips.
Joining a car rental company’s loyalty program is free and not only gets you a discount, but lets you skip the line at the airport to get your car right away as a preferred customer, Willdorf said.
_Search for car rentals on travel-booking Web sites. “You can quickly and easily see how the prices compare,” said Willdorf. But know the terms. Does the quoted price include taxes and fees?
Priceline in particular is known for offering deals. “The general rule of thumb is bid 40 percent less than what you’re seeing advertised,” Willdorf said.
Just remember that prepaid reservations on Priceline are “non-modifiable, non-refundable and non-cancellable. That’s the reason they give you such a great rate,” said Lyons.
_Book in advance. “You can book a car two months in advance, then call back every three or four weeks, give your reservation number, and see if the price has gone down,” Lyons said. “You can usually rebook at whatever the lowest price is. I would even call the day before to see if there are any last-minute specials.”