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There is also the convenience factor. The major car rental agencies have cars available right at the airport. The second tier agencies might require you to take a two to three mile shuttle ride. Even so it’s time you might not have. If that’s the case, check out the Alamo or Thrifty rates. They tend to have both their counters and their cars at the airport and their rates are usually more competitive than Avis or Hertz.
But let’s go back to the huge 250% divide between picking up a four day rental at JFK versus Seattle. By declining insurance coverage, you can knock off over $50 from the Hertz rate - but that still leaves you with a $300.00 bill. Now, of course most people don’t have the luxury of changing their destinations just to save a couple of hundred bucks on a rental. And that’s where you have to get creative. You can start by checking the rates in Newark. And what a difference that makes. The cheapest quote on Hotwire.com for Newark was $109.45. And here’s the rub - it was from Hertz.
How can that possibly be? For one thing, you don’t get to pick it up at the airport. You need to go to go to a ‘back alley’ four miles from the airport located at 1649 Springfield Avenue in Maplewood. Tell them I sent you and check for dead bodies in the trunk before you sign the contract. If you decide it’s worth the hassle - make sure you ask about their business hours. Not that it matters, because you can always use the key drop box. But the end result is that you narrow the gap between a rental in Seattle and one in New York to $10 - a ten percent premium. If you’re going to book a car for a couple of weeks - the savings might be enough to cover your airfare. And chances are, if you’re renting a car in the New York Metropolitan Area, you’re not heading to Manhattan anyway.
The lesson here is that you should always check the car rates before you book a flight. In this particular case, it might convince you that it makes infinitely more sense to fly into Newark instead of JFK. As an added bonus, the flights to Newark tend to be cheaper.
If you’re flexible on your travel dates - you can usually get the best car rental deals during the weekends. That’s also true with airline tickets and many hotels that usually cater to the business traveler. That brings us to another quirky thing about car rentals - If you stay longer, the daily rate might go up because it includes more ‘premium’ business days. In the case of the Seattle example, if you extended the booking from four days to six days, the lowest daily rate went from $15/day to $21/day.
Car rental agencies are nothing like Costco - when it comes to setting their rates, they have their own peculiar madness. Take Miami, you might get the cheapest rates during the high season. Why? Because a lot of retired New Yorkers and New Englanders rent their cars one way and then drop off the vehicles in Miami and they just sit there till the snow birds get ready to drive back north. So there is usually a huge surplus of cars available for rent in the winter.
And these days, the car rental agencies can’t give away SUVs, because they consume so much gas. So, you might actually get a better deal than a compact. That’s the equivalent of paying less for a five star hotel because their room air-conditioners use more electricity. The only difference being that with car rentals you end up paying the fuel bill.
There are a few final tips that might help slash your car rental bill. Don’t forget to top of the tank before you drop off the car. If you think gas prices are high, check out the price of filling her up at your friendly car agency. Don’t show up late - they’ll charge you for another hour or two at nearly the day rate. If you’re going to be renting for a few months, try to get a short term lease from a car rental company. Aside from being cheaper, a lease might help you dodge some of “Tax and Fee Recovery Charges” that apply only to rentals.
Another trick is to rent the smallest or next to smallest car for the lowest rate. Oftentimes you will walk in and they will offer you an upgrade to a larger car. Many times that is code word that they are out of your small car and are hoping to get you to upgrade. People want smaller cars because of the price of gas. Don’t, half the time you will get the midsized vehicle for free.
The Frugal Nomad has travelled to over 40 countries and lived, studied and worked for extended periods of time in London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Wellington, New Zealand and Alexandria, Egypt. He calls Seattle home - for now.
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