If COVID-19 concerns are keeping you away from airports this year, a road trip might be your only route to get home for the holidays. But the pandemic has changed the rules of the road, and getting a rental car might be unusually difficult during peak holiday times.
“The rental car companies are struggling to figure out what the demand curve is because it’s so different from normal years,” says Jonathan Weinberg, CEO of AutoSlash, a site that helps consumers save on car rentals. If your plans this year depend on a car rental, these tips can help you get the best possible rate.
1. Book right now
Seriously. Book your rental car right away. “The most essential thing is to plan” and make your reservation as early as possible, says Weinberg. “We’re already seeing some locations around Christmas where larger vehicles are not even available.” More car renters mean more people competing for limited vehicles on peak holiday weekends.
2. Make a ‘pay later’ booking
Go ahead and book your car, but don’t stress if your plans end up changing because most car rentals don’t require money upfront to book. “You can make what they call a ‘pay later’ reservation that doesn’t even require a credit card. Then you can always cancel or change your plans later,” says Weinberg.
3. Track your rental price
Some services can help you compare and track your rental car price to ensure you’re getting the best deal. To compare prices from different companies, try sites like TripAdvisor, Priceline and Kayak.com.
[ Read: The Best Cheap Car Insurance Companies ]
AutoSlash helps find discounts that apply to you and uses them at checkout and will track the price of your rental to see if it drops from the time you booked to the time you pick up the car. “We automatically check every day to make sure you got the best deal,” Weinberg says. “And if we find a lower rate, we email you so you can cancel your original reservation and rebook.”
A Hertz spokesperson adds that the rental company is offering flash sales and other holiday promotions, and is offering touchless pick-up and return for increased safety during travel season.
4. Can’t find a car? Go to the airport
No, not to get on a plane. Because air travel is down, airport rental car locations have a bigger selection of available cars, but be aware you could end up paying a bit more. Rental car locations not within an airport don’t have to pay certain fees and taxes, so your car may be less expensive, “but they might not have the supply right now, so keep checking both,” says Weinberg.
5. Be prepared when you get to the counter
When you get to the counter to pick up your rental car, they’re going to try and sell you up, so “it’s important to think about exactly what you do and don’t need,” says Weinberg.
Most consumers don’t need to get rental car insurance, according to Weinberg, because they’re covered by existing auto insurance or credit cards that provide it as a benefit. Figure out if this applies to you before you get to the front of the line. And never fall for prepaid gas.
[ Read: Do You Need Rental Car Insurance? ]
“Rental car companies do everything in their power to convince you it’s going to be cheaper if they sell you a tank of gas, but it never is cheaper,” says Weinberg. This is mainly due to the extra fees rental companies charge customers to recoup from operating at airports. If a rental company says their prepaid gas will cost $2.99 per gallon, it could actually be as much as $3.73 per gallon after you’ve accounted for all of the taxes and fees, says Weinberg.
And they’ll often charge you for a full tank regardless of how much you use, and “it’s pretty difficult to plan your trip in such a way that you consume exactly all of the gas in the tank,” says Weinberg.
Other road trip considerations
Car sharing vs. renting
Another option you might consider is a car-sharing service, which typically requires a membership but potentially can be competitively priced. Zipcar, Turo, and getaround are a few popular car-sharing companies, but make sure you compare prices. If you’re trying to decide if a car share service is right for your trip, the first consideration is distance and membership cost.
Zipcar, for example, has a membership fee — $70 a year or $7 a month — and a per-hour or per-day rental fee. There’s also a 180-mile limit for each 24-hour period of your rental, so if you go over that, you’ll incur an additional per-mile fee.
A car-share option might make more sense for a shorter outing, especially if you’re going to be making multiple shorter trips over the holiday season, to get the most out of the membership fee. Here’s how a 2-day Zipcar rental in New York City compares to a similar Enterprise rental, whose rates are subject to change:
|Zipcar||• $7 monthly membership fee• $90/day for economy vehicle• Gas and insurance included||$187|
|Enterprise||• $192.52 for 2-day economy rental• Gas and insurance not included||$192.52|
But when you compare the two for a longer 7-day trip, you might get a better deal on a conventional rental (make sure to factor in estimated gas and potential insurance costs if you don’t have a credit card that offers it):
|Zipcar||• $7 monthly membership fee• $90/day for economy vehicle• Gas and insurance included||$637|
|Enterprise||• $474.25 for a 7-day economy rental• Gas and insurance not included||$474.25|
You have to be a member to access a Zipcar, but since the pandemic, the company has implemented an instant access feature where you can apply on your mobile phone and drive away once you’ve been approved. And you can cancel your membership at any time.
Weinberg’s advice to book early applies to car share too. Zipcar has added 1,300 vehicles to its global fleet in recent months but has also seen increased demand, according to Sebrena Sussman, a spokeswoman for the company. In New York City, for example, she says Zipcar has seen a 40% increase in member applications.
Driving under 25?
If you’re under 25, you may be subject to additional young-driver fees, though no services rent to anyone under 18. For Zipcar, the young driver fee is an additional $10-12 per day, but in New York it could be up to an additional $25- $50 per day.
Rental car young driver fees can be up to an additional $30 per day, but Hertz has waived its young driver fee through Dec. 31, 2020. We reached out to Enterprise for comment and will update the story if the company responds about how they’re approaching the holiday season.
Use your credit card perks
A road trip is a great opportunity to capitalize on your credit card rewards. If you have a card that offers rewards on gas, make sure you’re using it every time you fill up at the pump to get the most out of your purchases. Booking a hotel at your destination? Dining at restaurants along your route? Use your travel rewards card to stock up on points.
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