An affordable rental car can help when you need a vehicle because you’re traveling, or you don’t own or lease one. As you search for a car rental, you’ll discover there are plenty of companies to choose from. Learn the basics about three of the most popular car-rental choices—car-sharing services, travel websites, and car rental companies—plus their benefits and drawbacks.
What Is an Affordable Car Rental Rate?
Rental car prices may vary from city to city, so the only real way to determine affordability is your own budget. However, to help you understand car rental rates and put “affordable” in perspective, we reviewed rental prices for compact and economy, two-day car rentals in New York, both on-airport rentals from John F. Kennedy (JFK) Airport and off-airport locations in New York. We found that the most affordable two-day rental cars came from on-airport rentals via travel sites. The lowest off-airport pricing came from a car-sharing site, but required a New Jersey pick-up. Zipcar, one of the three car-sharing services we researched, provided hourly rentals starting at $13 per hour in New York.
It’s also important to note that New York tends to be a more expensive area, so you may be able to find cheaper car rentals in other states.
A car-sharing service works similarly to a rental car agency, with one big difference: The cars you rent usually belong to an individual who signed up for the rental service rather than a rental company. All you have to do is choose the vehicle you’d like, pick it up from a designated location, and return it.
There a number of car-sharing services on the market today including:
Turo provided the most affordable two-day rental at about $83 for a vehicle, but it was in New Jersey. Zipcar was the only service offering hourly rates, which started at $13.
While Zipcar did have the most affordable hourly rate, it’s important to know that the service requires additional fees that may vary depending on your location and driving situation. These may include an application fee, monthly or annual membership fee, young-driver fee, and mileage fee if you exceed the daily limit. Be sure to look at all the fees associated with renting a car.
Rent cars by the hour
Wide selection of vehicle types
Frequent use can get expensive
Availability not guaranteed
Additional travel may be required
May require other fees
- Rent cars by the hour: If you need a car to run some errands or visit a loved one nearby, a car-sharing service can allow you to do so without paying for a vehicle for days or weeks at a time. With car-sharing, you can rent cars by the hour for as little as $10 before taxes and fees and depending on the location.
- Wide selection of vehicle types: Most car-sharing services offer a good variety of vehicles (sedans, SUVs, trucks, vans, etc.), so you can select the type of car you need for a specific trip.
- Frequent use can get expensive: While this option may be an affordable option by the hour, it can add up if you need a rental car for days at a time. You may also want to forgo this option if you live in a suburban or rural area and need to drive frequently.
- Availability not guaranteed: While you may be able to reserve a vehicle instantly, there’s no guarantee it’ll be available at the exact time you want or need it.
- Additional travel may be required: To participate in a car-sharing program, you’ll need to travel to and from where the vehicle is parked.
- May require other fees: As we found with Zipcar, some car-sharing services may require other fees, like a membership fee or mileage fee. Be sure to look at all the fees associated with signing up for a car-sharing service to determine whether it’s affordable for your budget.
If possible, don’t wait until the last minute to reserve your vehicle. The earlier you do so, the more affordable car rental options you’ll have to choose from.
Who Are Car-sharing Services Best For?
Car-sharing services may be a great option if you’re on a budget and don’t necessarily need a full-time vehicle. They can also be very useful if you don’t need a car for a full day or week and only want to rent one for a few hours. If you live in an urban area or near a college campus and wish to save on transportation costs, they are certainly worth considering.
Travel websites are designed to help you find plenty of car rental options for your upcoming trip, and they often offer discounts if you package your rental with airfare and/or a hotel stay. To get a car rental, enter your travel details and wait for the site or app to provide a list of options and rates. Then, compare the prices and move forward with the right rental car for your budget and needs.
Some examples of travel websites that offer rental cars include:
Orbitz, Expedia, and Priceline offered two-day rentals through car rental providers from JFK Airport for $150 (Travelocity was $161). All four sites provided off-airport rentals between $347 and $348.
Easy price comparison
Allows last-minute bookings
Rental car providers may be hidden
May miss out on customer perks
- Easy price comparison: Travel websites make it a breeze for you to compare various rental car prices. They’ll reveal the available cars and their rates side by side.
- Convenient: A travel website can allow you to conveniently book your car, flight, and hotel all in one place.
- Allow last-minute booking: If you have to book a rental car at the last minute, you’re likely to find one on a travel website—availability is rarely an issue, even during busy times.
- Unlimited mileage: Many available cars have no cap on the number of miles you can drive per day.
- Rental car providers may be hidden: Some travel websites such as Priceline won’t reveal the rental car provider until you make a reservation.
- May miss out on customer perks: If you book through a third-party travel website, you may miss out on some exclusive deals or perks (military discounts, free upgrades, general discounts on bookings) that you might get by booking directly through a car rental agency.
Use a travel website to compare car rental rates side by side. Once you know the types of rates a travel website offers, visit car rental company websites to see if you can find better deals.
Who Are Travel Websites Best For?
Travel websites may be useful if you’re traveling for work or pleasure and would like to book every component of your trip in one place. A travel website may also make sense if you need to book a rental car as soon as possible.
Car Rental Companies
Car rental companies solely focus on renting cars to their customers. You can reserve a car online or over the phone, visit the car rental location to pick it up, and return it to the same location (or another one in a different city or state).
Here are a few of the more popular car rental companies:
Thrifty provided the cheapest two-day on-airport car rental at about $161, and Hertz had the lowest rate for an off-airport rental at about $347.
Customer loyalty programs
May have to return your car during business hours
Deposit may be required
- Customer loyalty programs: Most car rental companies offer customer loyalty programs that can save you money if you rent with them often.
- Newer models: If you look at the vehicle selection on a car rental company’s website or lot, you’ll notice a wide array of newer models with the latest technology and features.
- Various locations: Car rental companies typically have a number of locations throughout the country. This is great news if you’re traveling and would like to pick up your car in one location and drop it off in another.
Sign up for a customer loyalty program as soon as you find a car rental company of which you'd like to take advantage of on deals and perks.
- Pricey add-ons: If you’d like to add on a protection and/or safety package, satellite radio, or other extras, your total price may no longer be affordable.
- May have to return your car during business hours: Some car rental companies require you return your car during regular business hours. Furthermore, if you drop it off when the company is closed, it may hold you liable for any damage the car sustains between the time you drop it off and the rental company opens.
- Deposit may be required: You may have to make a deposit in order to book your car rental reservation.
Who Are Car Rental Companies Best For?
If you’re an avid traveler and find a car rental company you like, remaining loyal to it can save you money in the long run. Car rental companies should also be on your radar if you like the idea of renting newer models.
- An affordable rental car will vary based on your location and situation.
- You may be able to find a cheap rental car through a car-sharing service, travel website, or car rental company.
- A car-sharing service is a wise choice if you live in an urban area or near a college campus and need a car every once in a while, but beware of additional fees.
- If you’d like to bundle your trip and pay for your airfare, hotel, and rental car all at once, a travel website may be the perfect place to get your cheap rental car.
- Renting directly from a car rental company may give you the chance to score great deals through customer loyalty programs while enjoying access to newer models.