The cost to rent a car depends on a lot of factors, including your age, the type of car you want to rent, your pickup location, the day of the week you pick up the car, and the number of days you'll have the car.
Because of the many variables, it's a good idea to take the time to comparison shop among several different car rental companies. Keep in mind that renting a car is a lot like shopping for an airline ticket in many respects. Prices are constantly changing, even from minute to minute, so if you happen to catch an extra low price, don't hesitate to book the offer because you probably won't see it again even an hour later.
When You Book
Generally speaking, the earlier you start looking, the better the car rental deal you are going to get. Three to six months in advance is the best time frame. If you need to book a car for the next day, you are going to pay a lot more money than if you allow more time to shop around before you need to drive.
When You Drive
Car rental companies make most of their money on weekdays, serving business travelers who need a vehicle to get around an unfamiliar city. As such, you are likely to get a better rate if you are renting a car for weekend travel than if you need it for weekday travel.
Another great opportunity for rental car companies to make money is around the holidays. If you want to rent a car right around Christmas or Thanksgiving, you’ll need to be prepared to spend more money.
Where You Pick Up
Renting a car at the airport is incredibly convenient—and significantly more expensive. If you are flying into a large city that has easily accessible public transportation options, ride share services, or taxis, consider looking for rental car deals outside the airport. You might save much more than the taxi fare.
Part of the greater expense of an in-airport car rental is a concession fee that some companies charge to cover the amount they must pay to the airport for having a rental counter there. For example, Thrifty may charge you that concession fee, and Budget may charge both concession and facility fees at airports.
Where You Drop Off
Dropping off your car at a different rental location than the one where you picked it up will probably cost you extra. That's true whether you're doing a cross-country trip or staying within the same town.
National Car Rental refers to this situation as a one-way car rental and the extra charge as an inter-city fee or drop charge.
National typically doesn't charge an inter-city fee for a one-way rental between airport locations.
How Long You Drive
Generally, the longer you book a car for, the lower your per-day rate will be. And if you're planning a long trip, you may be better off renting for an entire week.
Every car rental service has a different way of classifying the vehicles they rent, but you can be sure that the fancier and larger the vehicle, the more you will pay. An economy vehicle—a rather small car that is typically very fuel-efficient—is almost always your cheapest option. A fancy sports car may cost 50% more to rent, and an SUV can cost nearly double the amount.
Whether or Not You Refuel
It always pays to drop off your rental car with the same amount of gas it had when you picked it up. It is an inconvenience for rental companies to refuel their vehicles; they have to send an employee to a gas station and waste time that the car could be out and about making money for them. Because of this, if you don't return the car refueled to the agreed-upon level, the rental car company will charge you for refueling, inflating the cost you pay for the gas by several dollars a gallon.
How Old the Driver Is
If you’re under 25 years of age, rental companies will charge you an added fee—perhaps $20 a day. Even if there’s another driver who is 25+, you will still have to pay if any of the drivers is under 25. In addition, drivers who are under 25 may not be able to rent certain classes of vehicles, such as sports cars.
Any Extras You Purchase
No matter where you rent, the company will try to sell you on extras to increase their profits. One of the most common is extra insurance.
Many major credit cards will cover you for a rental car you pay for with their card. Between this perk and your standard insurance, it’s unlikely that you actually need to purchase additional coverage. However, it’s a good idea to check with both your credit card company and insurance agent beforehand.
Other possible add-ons include GPS or satellite radio. The former may come in handy; the latter may not be worth the extra charge.
Car rental companies might also want to charge you for use of a toll transponder. If you already have one, ask whether you can use yours instead.