Budget Car Rentals: Money-Saving Tips and Hacks

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Renting a car can be an expensive endeavor, especially for longer trips or in popular destinations. Cheap car rentals provide an attractive alternative for travelers on a budget. But what exactly constitutes a “cheap” rental car?

For our purposes, cheap rental cars are those that cost significantly less than the average daily rate. Average rental costs vary by location and vehicle type, but cheap rates could be anywhere from 25-50% below the typical amount. We’ll explore strategies for finding these bargain-basement deals.

In this article, we’ll cover the pros and cons of cheap rental cars, where to look for deals, major rental companies to check out, important rental policies to know, extra services to consider, and whether airport or off-airport rental facilities are better for scoring a deal. We’ll also discuss alternatives to traditional car rentals that can save you money. By the end, you’ll have insider knowledge to land cheap rental cars for your next trip!

Pros of Cheap Car Rentals

Renting an inexpensive car can offer several advantages for travelers and locals alike. The main benefit is cost savings, allowing you to keep more money in your pocket for other parts of your trip or daily expenses. Cheap rental cars provide transportation at a fraction of the price of owning a vehicle long-term.

Another pro is getting to test drive different makes and models. Renting gives you the flexibility to drive various sizes and styles of vehicles, from subcompact cars to SUVs and luxury brands. This variety can make road trips more interesting. It also allows you to choose the ideal car for your trip’s needs, whether hauling luggage or exploring off-road areas.

Inexpensive rentals also provide more overall flexibility in your transportation arrangements. You can rent for as long or short as you need, whether for a couple of days or several weeks. There are no long-term commitments or hassles of maintenance and insurance. The freedom to change cars and plans is a major perk of affordable rentals for many.

Cons of Cheap Car Rentals

Cheap car rentals may save you money upfront, but they often come with significant drawbacks you’ll want to consider before booking the cheapest option you can find. Lower-quality vehicles, poor customer service, and hidden fees are some of the biggest cons associated with cheap car rentals to watch out for.

Lower-quality vehicles

The car you rent for next to nothing likely won’t be the nicest or newest model available. Cheap rental cars are usually older, have high mileage, and may have more mechanical issues or physical damage than pricier rental options. Don’t expect a luxury vehicle or even a late-model economy car at bargain rental rates. Be prepared for small, compact cars with minimal features. Make sure to thoroughly inspect the vehicle at pickup and document any prior damage to avoid getting blamed.

Poor Customer Service

In addition to lower-quality vehicles, cheap car rentals often come with subpar customer service as well. You may wait in long lines at the rental counter and deal with unhelpful agents just trying to process customers as quickly as possible. If any issues come up during your rental, don’t expect white-glove service to resolve them. The emphasis is on renting cars cheaply, not providing a stellar customer experience. Be prepared to be patient and advocate for yourself if any problems arise.

Hidden Fees

The base rate for an ultra-cheap rental car may seem like a steal, but you’ll likely get nickel and dimed with hidden fees that drive up the total cost. Watch out for excessive surcharges like airport fees, taxes, underage driver fees, and fees for additional drivers or extras like GPS, toll passes, or car seats. Make sure to factor in the potential for lots of added fees so your “cheap” rental doesn’t end up costing nearly as much as a pricier but more transparent option.

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Finding Deals

Booking your rental car in advance is one of the best ways to get a good deal. Most rental car companies offer cheaper rates when you reserve 7-14 days ahead of your travel dates. The further out you can book, the lower the daily rate is likely to be.

Signing up for a rental car company membership or loyalty program can also help you save. Programs like Avis Preferred, Budget Fastbreak, Hertz Gold Plus Rewards, and National Emerald Club allow you to bypass lines, add additional drivers for free, and give you access to members-only deals. Additionally, you’ll earn points on rentals that can be redeemed for future rental credits or other rewards.

Traveling during off-peak times is another easy way to score discounts. If you can avoid renting during popular travel weekends, school vacations, and summer months, you’ll generally find lower rates. Weekdays almost always have cheaper pricing than weekends, too. The savings can be substantial, especially when booking off-airport locations that see less demand versus airport locations.

Leveraging coupon codes and promotions can provide additional savings on top of already-discounted rates when they’re available. Rental car companies periodically offer percentage discounts, dollar-off promo codes, and other incentives you can take advantage of. Signing up for company email lists will alert you when special offers are released.

Rental Car Companies

The major rental car brands known for affordable rates include Enterprise, Budget, and Dollar. These companies have large fleets and widespread locations, allowing them to offer low prices, especially for last-minute rentals when they need to fill unused vehicles.

Enterprise is the largest rental car company in the world. They are able to leverage their size to secure fleet discounts and pass on savings to customers. Enterprise started out focusing just on the replacement renter market, renting to people who needed vehicles while theirs were in the shop. Now they cater to all kinds of renters with their low costs and convenient neighborhood locations.

Budget is known for being one of the cheapest car rental companies. They appeal to thrifty travelers who want to save money above all else. Budget has partnerships with many large hotel chains, airlines, and travel booking sites to be featured as their go-to affordable rental car option. They also have a website and app that make it easy to compare rates and find deals.

Dollar is another discount brand that competes directly with Budget in the low-price space. They are owned by Hertz but position themselves as a more affordably priced alternative. Dollar airport locations are often situated right next door to other rental counters so customers can compare shops. Like Budget, Dollar looks for partnerships that will drive volume rentals even if it means slashing prices.

The combination of huge fleets, streamlined operations, and high volume discounts enables these major brands to offer some of the cheapest car rental rates around. Their prices aren’t always rock bottom, so it pays to check both them and local companies when booking. But they provide an accessible starting point for finding an affordable rental car.

Important Policies

When renting a car, especially for a low price, it’s important to understand the policies around insurance, mileage restrictions, cancellation, etc. This will ensure there are no surprises or hidden costs once you arrive to pick up the vehicle.


Most rental car companies will offer various insurance options beyond the basic liability insurance required by law. A collision damage waiver (CDW) and a loss damage waiver (LDW) help cover damage to the rental car if you’re in an accident. Personal accident insurance provides medical coverage for you and your passengers. Reading the fine print is essential, as basic insurance may leave you unprotected. While avoiding insurance can seem like a way to save money upfront, you risk significant out-of-pocket expenses if anything happens to the car. Evaluate your existing auto insurance and credit card coverage to determine if purchasing additional insurance is worth it.

Mileage Restrictions

Cheap rental cars often come with strict mileage limits, sometimes as low as 100 miles per day. Going over can lead to exorbitant overage fees of €.25-.50 per mile. Be realistic about your driving needs. Also factor in any side trips you might take, like to area attractions. Airport rentals in particular usually specify “unlimited mileage,” which is preferable if you plan substantial driving.

Cancellation Policy

While it’s tempting to book the cheapest rental car far in advance, keep in mind there is usually a penalty for canceling or changing the reservation. Make sure to read the fine print. Often you can cancel for free up to 24 hours before pickup. Policies run the gamut after that, from a percent fee to forfeiting the entire rental amount. Weigh booking further in advance vs. retaining flexibility in case plans change.

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Extras to Consider

When renting a car, there are often additional options and fees to consider beyond the basic rental rate. Three common extras to factor into your cheap rental car search are GPS devices, car seats, and additional driver fees.

GPS Devices

Most rental car companies will give you the option to add a GPS device to your rental vehicle. This can range from €10-15 per day. While it may seem expensive, a GPS can be worth it if you are visiting an unfamiliar area and want navigation assistance. Some travelers bring their own GPS or use phones for navigation, but built-in rental car GPS units are convenient since they don’t require any set-up and offer large screens that are easy to view while driving.

Car Seats

If you are traveling with small children, you will need to rent a car seat to comply with laws and safely transport your kids. Expect to pay about €10-13 per day for a standard rear-facing infant or convertible car seat. Booster seats for older children are usually around $8 per day. Always verify that the car seat is the appropriate size and age for your child. It’s advisable to bring your own car seat when possible since you’ll know its complete history and proper installation.

Additional Drivers

Most rental car companies will let you add additional drivers to your reservation for an extra fee, usually around €10-15 per day. This grants driving privileges to others, like a spouse, so you can share driving responsibilities. It’s a good idea if you are taking a long road trip. Verify additional driver ages and requirements, since some companies have minimum ages. Adding additional drivers when not needed is an unnecessary expense to avoid.

Airport vs Off-Airport Rentals

Renting a car from an airport location comes with pros and cons compared to renting from an off-airport location.

Airport Rental Pros

  • Convenience – Airport rental counters are located right in the terminal, so you can pick up a car quickly without having to take a shuttle or other transportation to an off-site location. This saves time and hassle.

  • Hours of operation – Airport rental locations are open for extended hours and many are open 24/7, making it easy to pick up a car no matter when your flight arrives. Off-airport locations may have more limited hours.

  • Return process – Returning a rental car to the airport is straightforward since you can just drive to the rental car return area before heading into the terminal. Off-airport returns may require a shuttle ride or other transportation back to the airport.

Airport Rental Cons

  • Higher rates – Due to the convenience factor and captive customer base, rental cars from airport locations typically cost more than renting off-airport. Rates can be 10-30% higher.

  • Availability – During peak travel times, airport rental car counters may run out of certain vehicle classes, whereas off-airport locations may have more availability.

  • Longer rental counter lines – Major airports tend to be busy, so pick-up and drop-off lines may be longer compared to smaller off-airport locations.

Off-Airport Rental Pros

  • Lower rates – You’ll usually save money by renting from a location just outside the airport grounds compared to on-airport. Make sure to factor in transportation costs to/from the airport.

  • Wider vehicle selection – Off-airport rental locations tend to have more inventory and a wider variety of makes/models to choose from.

  • Quicker rental process – An off-airport rental counter will generally be less busy so you can get in and out faster.

Off-Airport Rental Cons cheap car rentals

  • Inconvenient – Reaching off-airport locations requires a rental car shuttle, public transportation, or other means of getting to the rental office. This adds time and logistics.

  • Operating hours – Off-airport locations may have shorter hours or be closed on Sundays, for example. Be sure to confirm operating times.

  • Difficult returns – You’ll need to budget extra time when returning your car to an off-airport location and getting back to the airport terminal via shuttle.

So in summary, airport rentals offer simplicity and convenience, while off-airport saves money but requires more transportation logistics. Consider your priorities when choosing between the two options.

Alternatives to Car Rentals

Renting a car is not always the most cost-effective or convenient transportation option when traveling. Here are some alternatives to consider:


Services like Uber and Lyft can be cheaper than renting a car, especially for shorter trips. The convenience of on-demand rides and no parking to worry about are also advantages. Downsides are less control over the vehicle and driver. Pricing varies based on location and demand.

Carsharing cheap car rentals

Carshare programs like Zipcar allow you to rent cars by the hour without long-term commitments. They may offer lower hourly rates than traditional rentals and include gas and insurance. But you can only use cars at designated spots and availability is not guaranteed. Annual fees may apply.

Public Transit

Buses, trains, and other public transit are usually the cheapest option if available for your route. You avoid driving-related costs like gas and parking. But routes are fixed and schedules are limited. Convenience and accessibility can be issues in some areas.

Non-car Options

You may not need a car at all, depending on the location. Walking, biking, and scooters can work for shorter trips. Rideshares, taxis, and shuttles can fill in gaps. Staying at hotels near public transit hubs reduces reliance on cars.

Conclusion cheap car rentals

Renting a car can be an affordable and convenient way to get around, especially when traveling or needing a temporary vehicle. While cheap rental cars may not have all the bells and whistles, they provide basic transportation at a low cost.

To summarize, focus on comparing prices across rental companies and look for discount codes and other savings when booking. Avoiding upgrades and add-ons like GPS and insurance can also keep costs down. Renting outside the airport tends to be cheaper, but factor in transportation costs. Compact cars and older models typically have the most affordable rental rates.

Keep in mind rental car companies make the bulk of their revenue from additional charges, so saying “no” to extras can really pay off. Consider all policies carefully and be sure you have adequate personal car insurance coverage for rental vehicles. With some savvy shopping and flexible travel dates, cheap rental cars can stretch your vacation budget.

For a last-minute or short-term need, car-sharing services like Zipcar provide an alternative to traditional rentals. Or see if you can borrow a car from a friend or family member. Wherever the road takes you, safe travels!

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