Getting the best deal on a rental car has always been complex.
These days, it's getting trickier.
As everyone from rental companies to online travel agencies fiddle with features and pricing strategies, it's getting tough even for seasoned travelers to decode the best deals.
Cendant Corp.'s Avis Rent A Car offers six different types of insurance and damage waivers. Ford Motor Co.'s Hertz has 26 different car classes, eight of which consist of a single vehicle. Due to a lack of industry pricing standards, companies can, and do, charge differently for the exact same cars.
Meanwhile, add-on fees, designed to finance projects like airport expansions and new sports arenas, are multiplying like stale fries on the floor mat.
In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry recently signed off on a proposed 6 percent car-rental tax in Dallas County to help pay for a possible new stadium for the Dallas Cowboys football team -- on top of the 5 percent car renters in Texas already pay to cover construction of the American Airlines Center, which is home to the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.
California recently approved a bill that requires rental-car companies to collect an extra 2.3 percent fee; as part of the deal, rental companies also will be allowed to include a separate charge covering state vehicle-license fees, which tripled last summer.
It's happening as airports, municipalities and of course, rental-car companies, look for ways to boost revenue amid a travel slump. Rental companies have rolled out an array of new options, from in-car satellite radio for an additional charge, to special online sales packages designed to encourage renters to bypass the rental counter and book online.
Even casual travelers know you generally should decline the extra insurance, since you're usually already covered by your own insurance. But saving serious money when renting a car increasingly requires an insider's knowledge of the intricacies of the car-rental game.
Here's our guide to knowing when, where and how to rent a car to get the best deal possible.
Book early and often. Booking early and often is the key to saving money. According to Travelocity.com, most travelers book airplane tickets and hotel rooms 21 days in advance, and 10 days in advance, respectively. However, they wait until just a week before a trip to book a rental car.
That's a mistake. Unlike airlines and hotels, rental-car firms don't charge penalties for cancellations. As a result a good way to lock in the best deal is to make a reservation early, whenever you spot a good price. Then, keep shopping around and if you see a better one, book it and cancel the first one.
Play the date game. During most of the year, renting vans, pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles during the week can save money, since demand for large vehicles is higher during the weekend.
Conversely, renting luxury cars such as Lincolns during weekends is cheaper because demand for those cars is higher when road warriors travel on weekdays. And like airline tickets, renting a car with a Saturday night included can save money.
"Oftentimes, you're going to find aggressive weekend rates because the companies want you to stay over Saturday," said Phil Kennewell, Travelocity.com rental-car expert.
Sometimes, getting the best deal on a rental can seem counterintuitive.
For instance, even if you only need a car for five days, it's worth seeing if you can end up paying less if you take the weeklong rate. For example, a midsize car rented from Budget Rent A Car at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport recently was $55.99, or $279.95 for five days, compared with the weekly rate of $144.99 at the same rental company.
Know what you want. This is one of the toughest decisions. Making it worse is that the same car can be in different classes at different companies -- and even at different locations of the same company.
For instance, a Pontiac Grand Am is "midsize" at Avis, but classified as a larger and pricier "standard" at Enterprise. And pricing is all over the map.
How can renters sift through all of this? For starters, if you know exactly what model you want, you can price it across rental companies. For people who are less finicky about specific models, there are other tricks.
For instance, sometimes it boils down to location. Because many rental locations in business markets, such as Chicago and Dallas, don't have lots of small cars in their fleets, often they run out of smaller vehicles. Savvy travelers can take advantage of that by reserving a subcompact or compact car and then getting a free upgrade to a midsize or full-size car at the counter.
Warning: This tactic is less likely to work in such leisure markets as Florida and Hawaii, where smaller cars are more abundant.
Get out of the airport. Whenever possible, try to rent from a shop that's not on airport grounds. Renting at the airport is convenient for fliers, but add-on fees can jack up a bill 12 percent or more.
When Will Geiger took a monthlong trip to the Canadian Rockies, he got a cab from Denver International Airport, rented a car from a downtown shop and returned the vehicle to Denver airport. He saved hundreds of dollars.
"You can save yourself big bucks," said the retired chemical engineer from Fort Collins, Colo.
In addition, travelers to New York should pick airports carefully; it can change the total cost of a trip substantially.
A midsize car recently rented at Hertz for $96.99 a day at La Guardia International Airport, for instance, compared with Hertz's rate of $53.99 at Liberty Newark International Airport. At $43 a day, the difference can add up quickly -- and in most cases, the renter can drop the car off at La Guardia airport without paying a fee.
Think small. It also pays to think small.
Renting from such smaller regional and local rental firms as Advantage Rent-A-Car and Payless Car Rental can be cheaper than even the no-frills major companies such as Enterprise, Dollar and Alamo Rent-a-Car.
The downside: Smaller players often don't offer the premium services the major companies do, such as express lines and frequent-renter clubs. And local firms often don't show up on major travel Web sites. That means more research is necessary, either by looking on airport Web sites or cracking open the phone book.
An exception: Orbitz.com offers a comprehensive listing of smaller rental firms.
Start online. Start the search online. Travel sites usually offer the broadest sampling of rates, as well as estimates of taxes and fees. With that knowledge in hand, call the rental companies to see if they will sweeten the pot.
For instance, an intermediate-sized car rented directly from Budget Rent A Car was $35.14 a day at Chicago O'Hare International Airport recently. But the same car at Budget was just $26.99 a day through Travelocity.com.
It's always worth pushing for a deal if you spot a better price at a rival: Most companies will match it, in keeping with an industrywide push to turn telephone inquiries into sales.
As a general rule, however, traditional travel agencies won't offer the best prices on rental cars -- with one notable exception: If it's part of a larger travel package. That's because rental companies sometimes offer travel agencies deep discounts as part of all-in-one packages.
Grab the extras. Frequent-renter programs are generally worth the time to sign up. They offer discounts and other incentives, including express lines, free upgrades and airline frequent-flyer miles. Sometimes you can get a membership for nothing: National Car Rental offers complimentary memberships to solve customer-service problems, or to people who simply ask for it. Hertz waives its $50 fee on its Gold Club for anyone renting four times a year.