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Savings Secrets: How to Get Discounts on Car Rentals Every Time You Travel

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Rental cars can add up to a huge part of your travel budget, but you don’t have to take it lying down! Those of us who rent cars a ton have figured out how to work the system and how to get discounts on car rentals basically every single time.

In this article I’ll outline my favorite strategies and hacks for saving on rental cars. You might not use every trick every single time, but consider these as a toolkit for rental car discounts. Learn about these options and then try them out for different types of trips to see what works best!

I’ve even included some of the best rental car discount codes… be sure to read closely.

As a real world case study, I recently paid $0 out of pocket for this awesome Volvo XC40 on our recent trip to Texas. At the end of this article I’ll share exactly how I did it!

1. Use the right credit card for rental cars

One of my best tricks for saving on rental cars is to use the right credit card, and there are some clear stand-outs on that front: the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Capital One Venture X. They offer benefits you won’t find anywhere else!

First, both of these credit cards offer primary rental car insurance as long as you decline all of the coverage offered by the rental car agency. That means if the car is damaged while it’s in your hands, your own insurance won’t even know. Your savings here are two-fold: you won’t have to pay for extra insurance on any rental (that’s $30-50 per day) and you also won’t have to pay anything if the car is damaged.

If you plan to rely on this coverage, know that Capital One excludes Israel, Jamaica and Ireland from its rental car coverage. Chase imposes no geographical exclusions from rental car insurance coverage, so it’s great for globetrotters.

Note that American Express cards only offer primary coverage if you add on premium rental car protection for a fee. We did that many years ago, before either of the above cards existed, and it worked well. In part we needed a better solution because the Amex exclusion list is extensive: Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, and New Zealand. We’ve driven rental cars in all but one of those places so it wasn’t a useful long-term option!

Second, both the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Capital One Venture X come with $300 annual travel credits that cover a huge chunk of the cards’ annual fees. What could be better than getting your rental cars for free?

Chase makes it incredibly easy to use this benefit: you just reserve your car as you normally would, and a credit appears on your statement. You don’t have to use it all at once, you’ll just keep receiving credits on all travel expenses until you’ve gotten all $300. The Venture X requires that you book your car through the Capital One travel portal. Sometimes the cost is a little higher than through other avenues, but I’ve reserved some cars for less than the direct cost.

Third – and this is a big one that many people overlook, these two credit cards give you high-tier status with major rental car agencies. The Chase Sapphire Reserve gives you Avis Preferred Plus and National Emerald Executive statuses, while the Capital One Venture X confers Hertz President’s Circle status. Even better, once you activate these statuses you can request a status match from other agencies! Since I currently have the Venture X, I was able to parlay my Hertz status into the top-tier Avis President’s Club just by sending an email. Hertz makes it easy with this form.

How does rental car status save you money? In two big ways. First, having top-tier status allows you to reserve a lower tier of car (for a lower price) and then get a one- or two-class upgrade, or even select any car from the designated section. On our recent trip to Maui we reserved a Camry but I could have opted for a minivan at no additional cost! Thanks to my Avis President’s Club status, I’m entitled to a double upgrade on every rental.

You’ll also accrue earnings within the rental car’s loyalty program faster if you have a high-tier status. Then you can turn around and redeem those earnings for free rentals! For example, Hertz and Avis top tier statuses earn free days 50% faster than their general member levels.

One important note on how these credit card pieces fit together: if you decide on the Capital One Venture X, when booking through their portal to use the $300 credit you only get your status benefits with Hertz.

Once you’ve exhausted your $300 credit and are paying out of pocket, you’ll earn 3 points per dollar on rental cars with the Chase Sapphire Reserve or 2 points per dollar with the Capital One Venture X. Personally I find Chase points to be extremely valuable since I can transfer them to Southwest and Hyatt. You can learn more about how these (and a few other options) stack up in my roundup of the best credit cards for family travel.


2. Try to arrange a business discount

Another huge game-changer for saving on rental cars is working out a business discount. There are two ways this can work: either through your employer, or for your own small business.

If you work for an employer of any size, ask your corporate travel department or HR if they have a negotiated rate with any rental car company. The bigger the company, the better the discount! Often those discounts can be used on personal reservations and it’s definitely worth checking. While some people are tempted to use the discounts of random corporations they find on the internet, you could be asked for proof of your affiliation. I don’t recommend lying about this.

Small business owners like me can apply for discounts with all of the major companies. They’ll generally want to see that you do ample volume of rental cars to make it worthwhile to pursue your business. I’ve found that Avis/Budget and Hertz are particularly easy to work with, while National was more restrictive and looking for higher volume than the others.

One of the huge benefits of small business discounts is that at least for Avis/Budget, the rate doesn’t depend on your travel dates or how far in advance you book. Your discount tier includes several different city groups (depending on how expensive the market is) and your daily rate for each vehicle class is fixed in a table. It really decreases the cost and uncertainty.

Small business owners can also consider using the Chase Ink Business Preferred for their primary rental car insurance. This is the card I personally use for car rentals associated with running this blog. It has virtually the same coverage as the Sapphire Reserve (though the “exotics” exclusion list has Tesla on it, so keep that in mind). The annual fee is much lower, but you won’t get an annual travel credit or top tier rental car status that allows you to book a lower class of car and get upgrades.

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3. Pre-book, but don’t pre-pay (usually)

Have you ever booked a flight and then kicked yourself when the price dropped by 20% the following week? That can happen with almost anything in travel, including rental cars.

But the good news is that you absolutely don’t have to lock yourself in at a particular price. Rental car rates fluctuate a ton (unless you’re using a corporate rate I discussed above).

My suggestion is that you arrange a fully cancellable rental car as soon as you book your flights. There’s no harm in doing so, and it may be the lowest price you ever see. But as your trip gets closer you can keep checking to see if the price has dropped substantially. I wouldn’t personally stress over this for rentals under ~$200, but if you’ve arranged a pricey week-long rental it can save you a huge amount of money.

Rental car companies usually make it extremely easy to change an existing reservation. Often you can just select “modify” and it’ll show you the updated rate.

I also appreciate the overall flexibility of a cancellable rental car rate. In 2020 and 2021 we all learned the value of having travel plans that can be adjusted at the last minute!

My exception to the “no prepayment” policy is if a trip is coming up very soon and there’s absolutely no chance I’ll need to cancel or change it. In that situation it can be worth pre-paying as some brands like Budget will give you a discount up to 35% for doing so. Just be very careful to weigh the value of that discount versus your flexibility – the longer the time until a trip begins, the more flexibility I generally prefer.


4. Consider pricing from all sources

I’m generally a fan of booking travel directly with suppliers – you just have more protection if something goes wrong, and it’s easier to connect if you need to make a change. But rental cars are one area where I’m willing to be a little more forgiving if the price is right.

And sometimes the price for making a third-party rental car booking is very right! For our upcoming trip to Iceland, we were able to save several hundred dollars by booking through Priceline. But you’d better believe we checked a lot of other options before (and after!) making that fully-refundable reservation.

Here are some great options to check before making a pricey rental car reservation:

  • Expedia – This is my go-to for 3rd party bookings. The interface is easy to use and the rewards program often provides big discounts once you book one part of a trip. For instance, after booking a hotel you may have an offer to save 20% on your next hotel booking.
  • Priceline – I don’t love the interface as much as Expedia (particularly after making a booking) but if you sign up for a free Priceline account they often offer some of the best rental car rates around.
  • Booking.com cars (formerly RentalCars.com) – I’ve been using this for years. Booking buys days in bulk at a discount and passes the savings on to consumers. As you advance through the Genius program you’ll be eligible for additional savings.
  • Discover Cars – This is another online aggregator, but they are among the best at showing if a country requires additional mandatory liability insurance. If you don’t have a credit card that offers primary rental car insurance, Discover’s in-house insurance option is also one of the most affordable.
  • Undercover Tourist – The best way to save on rental cars that you’ve never heard of is Undercover Tourist. They’re a travel agency focusing mostly on theme parks, but any time you’re spending $100+ on activity tickets (even for movies, aquariums and more all over the country) you can unlock up to 50% off your rental car! That saved us hundreds of dollars on our trip to Walt Disney World and was by far the cheapest option. If you happen to be visiting a theme park, you’ll still get all of the promotional pricing offered by the parks themselves.
  • AARP – You don’t need to be a senior citizen to join AARP, and they often have really great rental car rates (plus you can score discounts at some hotels). Grab a discounted membership, and if you have a Chase credit card make sure to see if you have an AARP discount in your personalized offers. It’s often there and brings the cost to just a few dollars. Then jump over to Expedia and hit the “Show AARP rates” button.
  • AAA – Use PC 211358 to save big on Hertz rentals.
  • Avis – Use AWD G883000 for the friends & family discount
  • Budget – Use BCD U112000 for the friends & family discount

5. Leverage cash back on rental cars

My friends, if you aren’t in the cash back game you’re leaving money (or points) on the table. My own bank account has thousands of extra dollar in it because of shopping portals, much of it related to travel bookings.

Shopping portals are affiliates of many brands (just like me!) and they kick back a portion of their revenue to members in order to gain more sales. It’s completely legitimate and allowed by brands. You can sometimes get up to 20% back on your travel bookings by going through a portal! The cash back rates do fluctuate over time so if you’re booking something like a tour that has stable pricing it’s worth waiting for an elevated offer.You’ll find all of the major rental car companies (Budget, Avis, Hertz, National, Thrifty etc) plus third-party booking sites on both platforms.

The two portals I use most often are Rakuten (this is a referral link that gets you an extra bonus) and TopCashback. TopCashback often has better cash back rates though it isn’t always the one I pick, which I’ll explain in a moment. I recommend that you join both and install their browser extensions so that you never miss out! The most straightforward way to access your earnings is to set up Paypal transfers – but there are better options!

TopCashback gives you the choice to take your earnings at face value for cash. But they also offer a wide range of gift cards you can select for your payout at bonuses up to 5%. Travel lovers can choose Delta, Southwest, Disney and Hotels.com among others.

Why do I often choose Rakuten even if the percentage is a little lower? Because I hold an American Express credit card that earns their valuable Membership Rewards points! Rakuten allows you to earn those points instead of cash, and when transferred to one of Amex’s airline partners you can easily achieve a value of 2 cents per point. In essence I can double the stated percentage on Rakuten to figure out the value of the shopping bonus.

Here’s a real world example for you. As of this writing, TopCashback is offering 7% back on rental cars through Priceline and Rakuten is only offering 5.5%. If I redeem my TopCashback earnings for a Southwest gift card a $100 car reservation will send $7.35 my way. On Rakuten I’d get 550 Membership Rewards points – worth around $11 when transferred to an airline partner and redeemed wisely. But to complicate things even more, my companion pass makes that Southwest gift card worth almost twice as much!

Rakuten
TopCashback

If this all seems like too much to process, it’s fine to stick with regular old cash back that you can use for meals and incidentals on your epic vacation! I’d classify some of this strategy as “Award Travel 201” material. If you’re new to the whole thing, be sure to check out my recommendations for the best travel rewards credit cards.

Use Rakuten and TopCashback for all of your travel bookings and you’ll have a nice collection of pocket money from every trip to defray your costs!


Case study: putting it all together

So let’s get back to that Volvo XC40 I got for free on our recent trip. Want to know how I scored our free rental car?

Initially used my Avis small business discount to reserve a Toyota Camry for $167. While we prefer something a little bigger, we could have lived with that car for the limited needs we had; however, my President’s Club status means we would have had a high likelihood of an upgrade.

Since that reservation was fully cancellable, a week before I hopped on to the Capital One travel portal to check the rental car rates. Hertz was offering a Ford Focus for just $106! That entire amount would be covered by the annual travel credit on our Capital One Venture X. Even better, Hertz reservations through the Capital One portal give you all of your President’s Circle status benefits including the biggest one: you can select any car from the top-end President’s Circle section at participating locations!

We waltzed right in, picked the swankiest car that would fit our family and drove on our merry way. I just had to show my Venture X at the exit so they could confirm the card and its included primary insurance coverage and that was it.

Not so difficult, eh? With these tips, you’ll be able to score inexpensive car rentals every time you travel!


Before you go, be sure to check out our in-depth tips for renting a car all around the globe:

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