6 tips to save on rental cars

1. Get big savings by avoiding big names

Consider renting from a company you’ve never heard of. FlightCar lets outbound travelers rent their cars to inbound ones at discounted rates; RelayRides is a car-sharing company that’s less air travel-specific.

2. Waive the 24-and-under surcharge

There’s a lot to recommend being over 25, such as the ability to legally serve in the House of Representatives and to rent a car hassle-free. Though some companies will lend to the pre-quarter-life-crisis crowd, they often levy a hefty surcharge. Here are a few ways to avoid the fee, which can run up to $25 a day. Be warned, though, that those under 21 are probably stuck with the young invincible surcharge.

  • Search for discounts.
  • Consider Zipcar or similar offers. Short-term car rental services may have an affiliation program with your university that’ll get you lower rates.
  • Look for affiliation discounts. The USAA, for example, lets members 21 and up avoid the surcharge; military personnel are also exempt.

3. Find rewards and discounts

No matter where you book or how, you’re sure to find discounts with a savvy combination of credit cards and coupons. Here are some good sources to earn money back or get a deal on rentals:

  • Credit cards that give bonus rewards on travel or car rentals. Look for one that’ll give rewards on any rental, without tying you to a specific set of dealers. Be careful, though – some only give rewards if you book directly with the rental agency, instead of Kayak or a similar agency.
  • Coupon aggregator websites. They’ll tell you which companies are offering promotions like 20% off or one day free. One such is Zalyn, which aggregates rental car deals and lets you filter by location and date, rather than the (more limiting) rental company.
  • Rewards malls and cashback websites. NerdWallet’s discount tool can help you find coupons as well as tell you which sites will give you 5% or more back on your rental.
  • Affiliation discounts. AAA, the AARP and other organizations offer cut-rate rentals for their members.

4. Go for the compact, hope for the upgrade

Rental companies stock far more mid-sized cars than compacts. If they don’t have a compact on site they will often give you an automatic upgrade at no additional fee. The caveat to this is that you have to hold your ground and not fall for the upgrade fee early on in the conversation. If you remain steadfast the company will have no choice but grant you a complimentary upgrade.

5. Check weeklong rates, even if you’re booking for the weekend

When booking, play around with your rental dates. Sometimes weeklong rates end up being cheaper even if you end up not using the car for the entire seven days. This strange occurrence is due to the fact that during the weekends or peak days, the rate tends to be higher on a day-to-day basis. By renting using the weeklong rate, you avoid these inflated rates.

6. Bundle up

Another good way to save money at the rental car counter is to book a combined flight and car or flight, hotel, and car option. Check out your favorite online travel agency for package options.