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If you travel like we do at CellStream, you have noticed the sharp rise in rental car costs, especially since the economic downturn.  For example, before 2010, you could get rental cars in San jose, CA for around $20-$25/day.  Today, you can't get a rental car for under $45/day plus charges.  That is a 100% increase at the very least.  Along with the daily rates, you can expect a plethora of fees (just like baggage fees for airlines) such as airport fees, drop-off fees, taxes and countless other fees (some we really wonder about) will jack up your rental car bill incredibly. We have even seen cheap daily rates quickly offset by inflated fees.  Beware of this.

So like most, we are always on the lookout for great tips to save money on rental cars.  Here is our list:

  • First thing you can do is not rent one!  Especially for 1-day trips, consider the costs of a taxi [or Uber/Lyft] instead of the rental car.  For example, in San Jose, CA if you take a cab from the airport into the heart of Silicon valley, the cost is about $25 one way or $50 round trip at the most.  Renting the car for one day can be anywhere between $80 and $100!
  • In the same vein of not renting the car, also consider hotel buses, or shuttles.  Call your hotel and ask what options there are.
  • OK, if you are going to use a rental car, use a site like Kayak.com to shop all the rental cars before you reserve.  Make sure you reserve at least 30 days in advance.  Get the best deal.  Now here is a secret, about 5-7 days before you rent check again with the company you are renting. Don't "change" your reservation, instead make a new one. You may have an opportunity to rent at a lesser rate, and if not, you have the original reservation.  If you find a better rate, cancel the prior reservation.
  • Get a AAA card and ask for discounts when checking in at the counter.
  • Although sometimes inconvenient, rent your car "off airport".  These locations tend to have reduced fees and rates.  A $10 cab ride to the off site rental company could save you $20 or more a day.  Sometimes your hotel provides a free shuttle from the airport and then they have a rental counter right in the hotel!
  • Here is an interesting thing to try.  Make a reservation using the cheapest off airport rental agency you can.  These rentals are cheaper because they do not pay the airport "fees".  When you get to the airport, look for the "Cars Available" signs.  Go up to the counter, and present your reservation for the competing company.  Ask the in airport company if they can match or beat the rate.  Frankly they may or may not be able to.  However, we have been surprised how actively some companies will go after your business.  If you approach this with a positive attitude, you may be very pleased, and again, if not, you have a great buy already in hand.
  • If your travel is absolute, we have often found great deals can be had at Priceline.com and HotWire.com.  They will usually require you to pay up front, use whatever provider they pick, and you cannot cancel or change your reservation.  Beware of this, especially during poor weather travel months.
  • Decline fuel options - always fill up the car right before you return it.
  • Decline the insurance options if you are already covered - check with your insurance agent.  Few personal policies do not cover you while renting.  Certain credit cards also provide protection if the rental is made and paid on the credit card.
  • Always reserve the smallest car.  These usually run out, especially at smaller locations, and you get an upgrade for no additional cost.  Make sure you keep your expectation to get the small car.
  • Sometimes you can rent a car for a week and get a cheaper daily rate.  When you return the car early, they will adjust your bill to the lower daily rate.  Don't expect this to work for one day rentals.

If you can think of some other tips, let us know in the comments below.


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