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Save money on your next trip: Use these tips to never pay full price for a rental car

Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with the latest information. 

Summer brings warm weather, a break from school and plentiful opportunities for travel. However, traveling during summer can be quite expensive, especially if you need to rent a vehicle. Rental cars (like everything else) are no longer as affordable as they used to be. Plus, the initial price advertised can be misleading, as there are often hidden fees, damage waivers and other expenses to take into account.

If you’re looking to cut costs on your upcoming car rental, you’ve come to the right place. This guide will provide all the tips and tricks you need to save money on your rental car.

Related: Underrated summer travel destinations

Use a  corporate, university or alumni code

row of rental car checkin counters at airport
JEFFREY GREENBERG/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

Using a corporate code from your job or university is one of the simplest ways to save on rental cars. It’s worth checking your corporate or alumni travel site or student benefits page for rental company discounts. Many universities have deals with Avis, Enterprise, Hertz and National that can save students and alumni significant money. Some codes may even offer additional benefits, such as free extra drivers or waived fees for drivers under 25.

Always ensure you can use these codes on personal rentals, as some corporate codes are exclusively for business travel. Sometimes, your company or university may have a separate code for personal use.

And although these codes can often be found online, using a code you are not eligible for is highly discouraged. Rental car companies often request proof of employment or alumni status, so booking with a code that doesn’t apply to you isn’t worth the risk.

Related: How to rent a car without a credit card

Join AAA to save on rental cars

Woman on a road trip
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You’re likely familiar with AAA, the auto club that offers its members roadside assistance and discounts on various services. One of the most significant discounts is on rental cars: You can save up to 20% on all Hertz rentals with the AAA discount code.

Using AAA’s code when you book with Hertz provides several other benefits, such as waived fees for drivers under 25, discounts on prepaid fuel, a free additional driver and a complimentary child, infant or booster seat. Depending on how often you rent from Hertz, these discounts can more than compensate for AAA’s membership fee of $64.99 to $124.99 per year.

Once you become a member, you can use Hertz’s dedicated AAA website to book your discounted rental car. The process is the same as booking through the standard AAA website; all discounts are shown on the checkout screen.

Related: How to redeem points and miles for car rentals

See if you’re eligible for USAA discounts

Family travel
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USAA members are eligible for discounted rental cars with Avis, Budget, Enterprise and Hertz. By booking through the USAA portal, you can receive up to a 35% discount on your next rental and still earn points through the rental company’s loyalty program. Additionally, you’ll be eligible for discounts or waivers on various fees, such as those for additional drivers and drivers under 25.

However, not everyone is eligible for USAA discounts; membership is open to current and former military personnel and their spouses and children. If you qualify, it’s worthwhile to start your car rental search with USAA to determine the baseline discount before comparing costs with credit card perks and other portals.

Related: The best military travel discounts and perks

Leverage credit card perks and discounts

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Several travel credit cards offer rental car perks and discounts. Here’s a quick overview of what to expect from some of the most popular travel cards.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers a suite of car rental discounts. To take advantage of them at Avis and National, you must enter your Visa Infinite discount code at booking and pay with your Chase Sapphire Reserve card. At Audi on Demand, all you have to do is add your Chase Sapphire Reserve as the default payment method in your account.

The Platinum Card from American Express

Those with The Platinum Card® from American Express have access to a suite of benefits with Hertz, National and Avis (enrollment is required) that can save you money and elevate your rental experience (terms apply).

At Hertz, cardmembers can enjoy the following:

  • Complimentary Five Star elite status, which provides priority service at the counter and one-car-class upgrade when available
  • Up to 15% off standard rates and 25% off Prestige Collection vehicles
  • Free additional driver for spouse/civil partner
  • Four-hour grace period for rental returns

To take advantage of these benefits, you must first enroll in Hertz Gold Plus Rewards and then book your rental directly with Hertz or with Platinum Travel Services.

If you rent through Avis, you can get:

  • Priority service at the counter
  • Discounts on your rental
  • Free two-day weekend rental coupon after completing two qualifying rentals from Avis of two or more days in a six-month period

To use these perks, you must enroll in Avis Preferred and then book your rental directly with Avis or Platinum Travel Services.

If you rent with National — enrollment is required to receive a complimentary Emerald Club membership with Executive status — you can receive the following benefits:

  • Executive members can choose their own car from the Executive Selection area
  • Receive automatic upgrades when a full-size through luxury car is reserved
  • Earn a complimentary rental day after six qualifying rentals
  • Receive airline miles or hotel points from one of National’s partners

United Club Infinite Card

Lastly, the United Club℠ Infinite Card includes complimentary Avis President’s Club status, the highest tier in Avis’ loyalty program. This includes the following valuable perks:

  • Complimentary two-car-class upgrades when available
  • Guaranteed car availability when you book at least 24 hours in advance
  • Expedited rental service
  • Dedicated phone line for reservations and customer support

If you don’t have one of the aforementioned cards, it’s worth checking to see if your credit card offers similar benefits. Often, these discounts can be applied to your rental by booking through a specific portal or using a designated discount code.

Related: Credit cards that offer elite status for car rentals

Use a credit card that includes a rental car damage waiver

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Damage waivers are an important part of renting a car. If you incur any damage to a rental (anything from a fender bender to theft), the damage waiver may provide coverage, limiting your out-of-pocket cost.

You can buy these waivers from your rental company, but they can be costly — usually between $10 and $20 per day. However, some credit cards include a primary collision damage waiver when you charge the rental cost to your credit card.

Two of these cards are the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve. Both cards offer a primary damage waiver in case of damage or theft. There are a couple of exclusions — namely for exotic, “expensive” and antique vehicles — but your average rental car shouldn’t be an issue.

Since the insurance is primary, you won’t have to file a claim with your personal car insurance if damage is incurred. This is helpful since you won’t have to pay a hefty deductible or be subject to rate changes. Just note that coverage is only valid on rentals of 31 consecutive days or less.

Book a rental car through an airline portal

United Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner Newark
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Many major airlines have partnerships with rental car companies, offering discounts, the ability to earn miles and more. For example, United Airlines MileagePlus members can earn up to 1,250 miles per qualifying rental and enjoy discounts of up to 35% at Avis and Budget. You can find more information, as well as current deals and offers, at United’s car rental portal.

Better yet, many airline programs offer complimentary rental car status to their elite members. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines offer status matches for elite members at certain rental companies, with United also offering status to select cobranded credit card holders.

Car rental status can include guaranteed free upgrades, bonus points and a wider selection of redemption options. The value of these perks can add up depending on how often you rent cars, so we highly recommend taking advantage of a status match if you’re offered one.

That said, you’ll miss out on rental car points if you choose to earn airline miles with your car rental. Consider which you find more valuable before you decide which currency you want to earn. Contrary to popular belief, rental car points can be very valuable depending on how you use them.

Related: Delta Air Lines expands its partnership with Hertz

Check alternate rental locations

rental car garage
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Major rental companies have numerous locations in key cities and airports. For instance, Hertz has over a dozen locations in New York City and Enterprise has more than 15 in the Denver metro area. To find the best possible deal, compare prices at all nearby locations.

Renting in town may save you money on airport pickup taxes and fees. These savings often apply to rentals where you pick up in town and drop off at the airport.

However, there are drawbacks to renting in town — mainly that in-town locations typically have fewer cars to choose from. This might be frustrating if the car you want is unavailable, and it may restrict your upgrade options.

In addition, picking up a rental in a city and then returning it to the airport at the end of your trip may subject you to one-way fees or daily rates — which can sometimes be exorbitant. Be sure to carefully compare prices to make sure you’re not overpaying.

Related: Can’t find a car rental? Here are secrets that may help

Rent a car from Lyft

A woman lyft driver in a car
LYFT

Did you know that you can rent a car from Lyft instead of requesting a ride? Most rentals are fulfilled by Flexdrive or Hertz, and prices are similar to what you’d pay directly.

When you rent with Lyft, you’ll generally receive a $10 Lyft credit when you return your car. You can use this to pay for a ride from the rental car agency.

Related: How to easily earn points and miles on your Lyft rides

Borrow someone else’s car with Turo

Embrace the open road with open arms
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You might also consider renting with Turo, a platform that allows you to rent cars from individuals in major cities across the U.S. Not only are the prices often competitive, but you can also rent unique cars unavailable from traditional rental companies, like electric vehicles, sports cars and specialized luxury vehicles.

To determine the best deal for your specific dates, compare the costs of traditional rentals with Turo. Some Turo rentals can even be dropped off and picked up at an airport lot, making it as convenient as any other rental.

Related: Are Turo car rentals covered by credit card insurance?

Find a deal with AutoSlash

Cars in a Europcar rental car lot in Hamburg, Germany
STEFANIE LOOS/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

AutoSlash is a free website that helps you find the best possible deal on car rentals. When you enter your rental specifications and any eligible discounts (such as AAA membership), the website searches for rates from different companies as well as coupon codes that you can use. This simplifies the process of comparing prices.

Since AutoSlash is free, there are no downsides to using it. However, keep in mind that it cannot search for corporate and university codes, so it’s essential to cross-check AutoSlash’s price with your corporate code’s price.

What distinguishes AutoSlash from other car rental sites is its ability to track rates and notify you when they decrease on a rental you’ve already booked. Specifically, AutoSlash finds cheaper rates using coupons, discount codes and membership-related discounts. You can then cancel your first reservation for a full refund and rebook at the lower rate.

Related: How to use AutoSlash to save on rental cars

How to avoid common fees when renting a car

Mature woman doing payment via credit card at fuel station
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Sometimes, it seems like there are endless fees associated with renting a car, but most are avoidable. Here are ways to avoid common rental car fees that add up quickly.

Fill up the gas tank before you return a car

To avoid inflated fuel prices charged by the rental company, the best approach is to fill up the gas tank shortly before returning the car.

Another option is to prepay for a full tank when picking up the car. However, remember that most rental car companies don’t offer refunds for unused fuel, so this option is only beneficial if you plan to use most of the tank. Therefore, we recommend refueling before dropping off the rental car to save money.

Bring your own toll transponder

Rental cars may come equipped with toll transponders — for instance, Hertz’s PlatePass transponders can be used at cashless toll locations for E-ZPass and I-Pass throughout the U.S. Although these transponders are convenient, you may encounter convenience fees for using them.

When possible, bring your own toll transponder or pay tolls in cash and keep the rental car’s transponder in the provided case. Otherwise, you may end up facing high convenience fees.

If renting a car in New York City, you can enroll in Pay Per Trip to pay for your bridge and tunnel tolls. All you have to do is register your rental license plate on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority website, and all tolls will be charged to your credit card on file.

As a Florida resident, TPG’s senior editorial director, Nick Ewen, keeps a SunPass Pro transponder that works across Florida and 21 other states. Meanwhile, E-ZPass is an option for visiting Florida, as is the Visitor Toll Pass program for those flying into and departing from Orlando International Airport (MCO).

Skip the under-25 fee

As mentioned in this article, there are multiple tricks young renters can use to bypass the costly “under 25” fee. You can avoid this fee — and save a considerable amount of money — by booking your rental with certain corporate codes, AAA discount codes and university codes.

Related: How you can rent a $100,000 BMW for $3 a day

Bottom line

Renting a car can be expensive, but there are various ways to save money. Keep these tips in mind when booking your next rental, and remember to compare prices and read the fine print before you book — that will help you find the best deal and enjoy a stress-free rental car experience.