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Getting the best price for car rental, and the worst deal




us car rental

The brochure shot

The one thing we knew about driving in the US is that it’s practically mandatory. Even after just a few hours here it was clear that everything is much further apart as land is so much cheaper.

This meant we needed to hire a car. Our first search direct with the car hire companies for a 16-day one-way deal gave prices ranging from $990-$1480. This felt like too much, so a lot of tip reading and searching later; I checked some aggregators and got the price down to $212, which was great, along with a $240 one-way fee.

$452 for a compact car felt much more reasonable.

On arrival at the National Car Rental office we were told that the Oregon roads were desperately unsafe and covered with ice, so we needed an SUV. To drive a standard car along the coastal highway would apparently end up with us crashing into the sea in a screaming ball of fire or similar. This sounded unlikely, but we played along.

He applied a bunch of discounts and offered us a Jeep Compass for a grand total of $770. This was quite a bit more than our original estimate, but came with a free fuel and insurance upgrade (in theory). The two tanks of fuel were worth $70 and I’m a terrible driver, so the insurance wasn’t such a bad idea. In all we’d be getting a lot more room, comfort and security for around $150 difference, which over 16 days is not bad.

We signed up for the $770.


Driving off-road through the California giant redwoods

Two weeks later…

We arrived in San Diego, handed back the car and were told the charges were automatically applied to the credit card. No damages to inspect thanks to the full insurance, no credit card signature required, and no invoice or receipt given.

Fine, we had a plane to catch and appreciated the speedy service and the shuttle to the airport.

Two weeks later…

Credit card bill arrives and there’s a charge for $770. Fine. There’s also an earlier charge for $212 to Expedia. Not so fine.

Calling National they claim that they don’t get any money from Expedia for bookings (which seems a strange business model), so don’t know how much we’ve already paid and that “Grand Total”, means “Additional Charge”.

Of course, this is mostly our fault for not checking the language used, but the terminology used by the agent is very misleading.

Unsurprisingly there was nothing wrong with the roads of Oregon, and we saw plenty of smaller cars driving along without randomly exploding, but don’t begrudge the upgrade. We had a nice car and we made use of the off-road facilities and insurance.

What grates is the deliberate use of language to misrepresent the price of the upgrade. “Total of x” or “New total of x”, is clearly very different from “additional x” or “extra x”.

lost in oregon

Taking a detour in Oregon

 US Car Rental Tips

From a lot of research, both in advance and too late, here’s a few tips to get the best deal:

  • When booking direct, be wary of local taxes and fees. They vary considerably by state.
  • There’s usually an extra “convenience fee” for picking up at an airport. Either take your hotel shuttle or public transport into town and visit a different rental location. On our booking this saved $120.
  • Unless you have a special corporate code, the best deals were found was through online holiday aggregators. General travel providers such as Expedia or Priceline were always cheaper and more upfront about fees than specialised car hire sites such as CarRentals who suggested that a one way fee ‘may be applied’.
  • Searching on non-US sites (such as Expedia UK) generally seems to be cheaper or provide better value (thanks to P.T. for the reminder in the comments)
  • Upgrades – desk agents get paid commission on all desk sales, so they push hard. The full tank of gas, additional insurance, car model upgrades all equate to the agents sale bonus and are generally unnecessary.
  • Lots of tips lists say decline the insurance as your credit card will provide free insurance. This is only true for US credit cards. Foreign cards generally don’t provide insurance cover, so you’ll be charged for any damage to the car.
  • Always ask for the new combined total, and check whether it includes your initial payment. It seems I’m not the only one to fall for this.

Any other tips would be much appreciated





Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.


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  • Some years back I was looking for a car rent from NYC area. Your tip about the airport convenience fee is spot on. I decided to get the car from some of the city offices. Tried all kind of search pages, but the best deal was recommended to me by my friend who checked german Expedia among others. I was searching in US Expedia, the rental prices on both look pretty similar but that’s only when you start digging into the details of the deal when you find out the real difference.
    Basically german Expedia booking came with full insurance while on the US Expedia I would have to top up some 100-200 $ more! Couldn’t believe there would be such difference, one would think it’s the same company, it ought to be the same, but not. Same pickup location, same dates, same everything. I had to create a new search several times on both getting the same results before I was finally persuaded it was not a glitch. Needless to say I booked with german Expedia and got the insurance included which I wanted to get anyways.

    • That’s a good point that I missed – I’l add it above. Our search on UK Expedia was also a lot cheaper than on the US Expedia as it included full insurance. Also, search on National UK was somewhat cheaper than National US, but still a lot more than Expedia.

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  • Not a U.S. rental tip but thought I’d share my experience and just goes to show you need to read the fine print!
    Here’s a rental issue (*cough scam cough*) a friend and I had while renting a car in Spain from Avis last summer – they fill the car up with gas when you get it and you pay extra for a full tank (around 70 euro) and then you return it empty! We tried to argue saying it should come full and we will return it full but it’s the new thing apparently. You should have seen us driving to the car rental agency in Valencia watching every tick of the gas gauge and hoping we were going to make it, keeping our speed low and the A/C off! There’s no way we were returning it with any gas if possible and it was sucking fumes when we pulled into the parking lot.
    I wonder how much they make because people return the cars with at least some, if not a lot, of gas in the tank!

    • That may be a US innovation…We were given full tank of gas ‘free’ with the upgrade, but weren’t too worried as fuel is noticeably more expensive in California where we dropped off the car. More importantly, we were dropping it off at 6am to catch a flight, and felt it was worth losing a few dollars not to be driving round at 5am looking for a cheap petrol station!

  • 3 week ago, I rented a convertible for 1 day in San Francisco. I got a great deal on Avis French web site for 46,61 EUR. The commercial upgraded me and told me I will get a Camaro V8.
    When I returned the car I was surprise to be upgraded because I didn’t know and the commercial never tell me clearly [I signed on their F…G tablet then I should have take more care when reading]. And after checking the internet, the Camaro was not a V8 but a only a V6. I’m quite upset with their service.
    Next time I will rent a car in US, the first sentence I will say to the commercial will be: “No upgrade please”

    Also, you should check the car before leaving the rental agency. On an other rental, they accused me of making some scratches on the front bumper when I returned the car. I noticed these scratches on the first day of my rental and never done them.

    Are-they so difficult because I got very good deals for these rentals?

  • I’m convinced the motto of American car rental companies is “make them an offer they can’t understand”.

    You may want to check your credit card benefits, sometimes it covers car rental/car hire insurance, in which case you don’t need to get it from the car hire company.

  • Great tips. American rental car companies are so obsessed with billing renters for scratches that I always inspect the car thoroughly renting, point out any blemish that looks the least bit dodgy to the attendant and take pictures even the tiniest scratch just to be safe.

  • 1) Check your own (at home) auto policy – ours covers us for rental cars in MANY countries (US included) so extra insurance for us is not necessary. Same goes for credit card – SOME Canadian credit cards have some rental car coverage.
    2) Hotwire has worked for us for a good deal for at least half the times we’ve rented
    3) Other half – we got best rates by booking direct with car company
    4) Check for discounts – simple online searching – some credit cards (Amex for example) gets you a discounted rate at some rental companies, Airline (hotel, etc) loyalty cards get you discounts at others, signing up for a free loyalty program with a rental car company can get you perks like unlimited mileage or points or even discounts.
    5) Never pay the rental company for the gas – it is ALWAYS higher. Just keep a full tank as you drive around. Then all you have to do is top off or if you can’t find a station (or forget) you’ll pay the rental company ONLY for the top off at their extreme rates and NOT for a full tank at exorbitant prices.
    6) Check promotions direct from rental companies – Rent in promotional units – eg: week or weekend. Sometimes it costs more to rent for 5-6 days than it does for a week because they run weekly promotions

    Mostly what I’ve found is:

    Research, research research!


    Setup alerts for fare drops like you would for airfares.

    • All good tips. I did find a 35% off code with National that worked on-line, but it was for the AAA so I didn’t think I could get away with it!

  • Photograph the car when you get it, inside and out. If there is a scratch on the left door, some companies would intentionally / unintentionally charge you for that.


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