Budget Travel: Three steps to a cheaper car rental

Three main components go into any vacation package: Hotel, Airplane and Vehicle bookings. Once you can get around and have a place to sleep, activities and food can just fall into place as the days roll in.

Here at Gadling we’re covering all of the niches of vacation bookings in our Budget series. Earlier in the week was plane tickets. Later, will be hotel bookings. Today’s focus? Getting a good deal on your car rental.

It’s not as difficult as you think. The same booking engines (Kayak, Expedia etc.) used to find your bargain basement airplane tickets can be used to find cars as well. But with car rentals, the strategy is a bit different. Most of the time, airfare prices that are quoted from a search engine are fares that you’re stuck with until the bitter end. With car rentals, that’s the point from which you start.

From that marker, you optimize you booking in three ways:

  1. Join the club
  2. Get a coupon
  3. Be Flexible!

We’ll start with Joining the Club.
Like most hotel, airline and credit card brands, car rental companies will do anything they can to hook you into their product. By making you believe that you’re loved, you’re more likely to stick around, identify with them and feel better about yourself. Happiness is money.

National‘s Emerald program, for example, means absolutely nothing. Anyone off the street can join, get the card and walk to the Emerald Aisle when booking, it just takes time to follow the right links, sign up for service and fill in the forms.

Being a member, however, affords discounts. Coupon codes for Emerald members float around the internet freely, and by being in the “club” you’re entitled to these rates.

The same applies for basic membership in many other rental agencies — sign up for basic service and you’ll immediately see the benefit. Furthermore, you get the added bonus of getting through the line at the counter faster (or often bypassing it) and earning points, so it’s a win-win situation.

Get a Coupon

The internet is RIFE with coupon codes for car rentals. If you want a good place to start, check the repository at flyertalk.com, where coupons should be filed under each specific agency.

As a word of waning, remember that different policies and insurance coverage come with each contract code or coupon. You might get a great deal by renting under the Missouri Alligator Hunters contract ID, for example, but after you get into that fender bender, you also might find out that all insurance is waived. Just make sure you read the fine print and know what you’re getting yourself into.

That said, many a coupon code that we have found online have resulted in huge (40-50% discounts) over the rack search engine rate. Never, ever book without a coupon.

Be Flexible

Being flexible in pickup time, location and vehicle has its benefits, but some days, your favorite car company just doesn’t offer the best price on your itinerary. It’s difficult breaking free from your preferred carrier when you’ve worked so hard to earn that “granite status” that gets you the free windshield wash fluid, but you have to remember: most car rental agencies are charging you way too much to begin with. If they can’t offer a competitive rate, you can’t let their perks sway you. Join the competitor’s rewards program, do the research and book the cheapest fare. Hey, you might like the vehicle that you get to drive.


The nice thing about vehicle rentals is that getting a good deal is less time dependent than in working with airplane tickets. There is almost a higher supply than demand for cars, so usually a near term rental isn’t much more expensive than a reservation that you make three months out. Airplane seats, conversely, often sell out.

So take your time. Book your airplane tickets first, hotel second and spend a while shopping around for car rentals. Get the perfect convergence of membership rewards and coupon codes lined up, and you just might drive away with a bargain.