Save money on your next car rental

The cost of a rental car usually represents less than a quarter of your overall trip expense, which may be why few ever talk about how to save money when you book a car.

And when they do, it’s a footnote to a story or a TV broadcast. A mention about using coupons, here, a tip about bargaining your way into an upgrade, there.

The folks running the rental companies are delighted that most travelers think of car expenses as marginal, if not non-negotiable. It makes separating them from their money a whole lot easier.

This must end. Here’s how:

* You are the most effective coupon. Pay no attention to the “10 percent off” slips that your airline includes in each frequent flier mileage statement. They’re good, but you’re better. How so? Don’t be a pushover when you call to inquire about a rate. Ask if they can do better. When you arrive at the check-in counter, don’t say “OK” when you’re told what the daily rate is. Question it. Phone agents and front-line employees don’t like to argue, and they’ll do just about everything they can to make you go away. That includes offering you a better price.

* Join the club. Don’t do it because of the discounts. Don’t do it because of the preferential treatment, like expedited rentals. Instead, do it because your car rental company will give you the benefit of the doubt when you really screw up. For example, I’ve run up huge fuel charges and even used the car an extra day, but once I waved my preferred card (which I use less than once a year) all those charges suddenly disappear.

Dean Kennedy, an accountant from Phoenix, says his employer even pays the annual fee for the preferred renter programs. “I get discounts of between five and 20 percent on rentals, too,” he adds. Bottom line: The card gives you additional clout with the car rental company. Use it to your advantage.

* Timing is everything. Jim Panto, who runs a sign company in Washington, says it’s worth paying attention to the clock when you’re renting. Car rental companies track the time carefully and will often charge you for a full extra day if you exceed your allotted time. Rental companies also distinguish between a weekly and a weekend rate, which can make a big difference in the price you pay.

“If I am renting for a weekly rate, I try to pick up the car on Thursday afternoon,” says Panto. “Then the weekly rates are calculated based on the lower daily weekend rate and are up to 50 percent lower.” Can a coupon cut your price in half like that? I don’t think so.

* The personal touch works best. Getting a car rental company to treat you like a person, not a number, is perhaps the most effective path to a discount. I’ve already mentioned that you are the best coupon, but if you’re personable, it can take you ever farther. Here’s an example:

A friend of mine who was in his final year at a top-tier business school had rented a subcompact in Los Angeles. When he arrived at the airport, a manager happened to be handling his paperwork. My friend noticed that the company had just introduced a new line of convertibles and offered the manager a few tips on how to promote the automobiles. Well, you can guess what happened next. He got upgraded to one of the sports cars. Who says an MBA is worthless?

Once you are convinced that you can save serious money on your next car rental, you’ll begin to use some of these strategies to cut your travel expenses. Car rental companies won’t be happy about it.

But your bank account will be.

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