How to Save Money on Rental Cars (And Photos from The Australian Outback)

Road between Alice Springs and Ayers Rock

The Number One Best Way to Save Money Is…

By not renting a car at all.

There are cheaper options than using corporate rental car companies:

  • British Airways Avios – Flights under 650 miles for only 4,500 Avios
  • Transfer Car – Free one-ways by delivering cars to agencies
  • RelayRides – Borrow vehicles at discounted rates, best for long-term rentals
  • BlaBlaCar – Ridesharing network, popular between European cities
  • ZipCar – Convenient hourly car rentals, large presence in US
  • Uber – Taxi app with constant referral bonuses for free rides
  • Free hotel shuttle from airport to downtown – No reservation? You prefer to see the room first;)

Roadtripping The Australian Outback

Ayers Rock Sujin Trevor

My friend Sujin and I both had always dreamed of seeing The Outback up close.

When her vacation aligned with my visit to Australia we decided to rent a car to drive from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock, which for those not familiar with Australian geography is the middle of nowhere to slightly south of the middle of nowhere, near the big rock that aliens dropped to mess with our perception of reality.

The Outback is a vast red desert that changes little until nearing Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (or the lesser-known Watarrka National Park, which we also visited). Kangaroos daydream under the cool shade of trees while snakes burrow below the hot surface. It’s sweltry, dusty, full of flies, home to the oldest human race on the planet. Being inside it, or on it, or swallowed by it, somehow reconnects you to a time before science explained away magic. I started to wonder if Aboriginals once really could communicate telepathically….

Anyway, it’s a wild place. And you need a car to get around….

Tips to Save Money Every Time You Rent a Car

$5 Per Day Rental Cars

$5 Per Day Last Minute Rental Car Deals on Priceline.com

Rental car loyalty programs are less gameable than their airline and hotel counterparts. They have no co-branded credit cards. No sign-up bonuses. You must, gasp, spend money with a rental company in order to accumulate any meaningful point balance. Even then, the points aren’t very valuable. In short, rental car loyalty doesn’t pay. Better to find cheap deals. It doesn’t get much cheaper than Priceline’s five dollar deals.

$9 per day rental cars

$9.99 Per Day Weekend Special Rates on Enterprise.com

This is another reliable deal when renting cars on weekends. In most cases, it’s cheaper than a taxi to rent a car at the airport then return it at a downtown Enterprise location. Plus, you get 24 hours.

Roger Biceps

Avoid Different Drop-Off Fees with TransferCarUs.com

Sujin and I paid a US$273 drop-off fee for returning our Hertz rental at the Ayers Rock Airport, instead of driving it the five hours back to Alice Springs where we picked it up. Even though we could have flown for free with British Airways Avios, we decided this fee was worth the we’ll-never-be-here-again experience of driving across The Outback. (And it was).

In the United States you might get this fee waived by being extremely charming or big boobed, but you’ll have better odds using Transfer Car for a free one-way. The site doesn’t seem to have a large network of cars yet, but you might get lucky. Did I mention it’s completely free?

Linda Guide

Book Lowest Price Without Credit Card on CarRentals.com

Commitment-phobes rejoice! You can lock in the lowest price on CarRentals.com without entering your credit card information. Worse case scenario, this is the price you’ll pay, but with the following techniques I can almost guarantee you’ll find a lower price, sometimes automatically. This base price is a hedge, so to speak. If you find a better price, cancel at no cost.

Kata Tjuta in distanc

Search Both Airport and City Rental Offices

Airport rental locations are generally more expensive than city locations. Because of airport taxes? I don’t know why but this is the game they play. If the hassle of taking a bus/taxi to a city rental location is minimal, or if a free hotel shuttle will drop you nearby, then this option could save you serious money, sometimes up to half the rental cost. Simply check prices by searching both locations on carrentals.com

Drive on Left Sign

Book Smallest Car, Get Automatic Upgrade (Most Times)

Once I read that agencies include compact cars in listings as a way to sell upgraded cars, the economies and mid-sizes. Contrasting the ‘best’ option against poor and premium features is a common marketing technique. A crappy compact without cruise control or air-conditioning suddenly makes the economy death trap with automatic windows look luxurious. Oh, the jet-black mid-size is only a few bucks more? Only one left!? Click. Buy. Now. Here’s the truth: most times there is no compact car on the lot. They don’t exist. If you book it online, you’ll likely get the economy car for the same price. In my experience as a business traveler for over two years I was upgraded to the mid-size about 50% of the time when I reserved the compact.

Silouhette Ayers Rock

Automatically Rebook Lower Prices with AutoSlash.com

Autoslash is an app for the people. Stealing from the rich, giving to the poor, while embodying free market ideals. A truly ‘Merican app. Once you’ve booked the lowest price on carrentals.com, add the reservation details into Autoslash to be automatically rebooked when the price drops with the same rental agency or a competitor. Our Hertz Outback reservation was originally booked at US$537 and ended up being automatically discounted to US$504. Not huge savings, but Alice Springs is an in-demand destination. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars on other reservations throughout the United States.

Tree near Alice Springs

Search Rental Prices Again on Day of Pick-up

While boarding a flight to Denver I once rebooked from $40 per day to $13 per day on the carrentals.com mobile app. I have a theory that once Autoslash rebooks you a few times it gets lazy and stops searching because it received its commission and you received your savings. Double check the night before, or immediately before picking up your car. Since a credit card isn’t on file you can rebook or cancel anytime.

Moon silouhette

Check Airport Tourist Brochures for Promotional Coupons

In Alice Springs Airport I noticed—after we drove off the lot—that we could have had 200 kilometers per day instead of 100 by flashing a tourist brochure coupon at the counter. In our case, that would have translated into almost US$100 in savings since we went way over our kilometer limit while exploring backroads. These coupons won’t exist everywhere, but I’ve also noticed them in popular places like Miami and San Francisco.

Kangaroo Dundee

Decline Pre-Paid Gas Option, Fill Up Tank Before Returning

Before our Outback experience I’d have confidently said it’s always cheaper to DIY fill up the tank than pre-pay for gas. But Australia is full of surprises. The pre-paid gas was cheaper than the monopolized gas at the Ayers Rock Resort, the only gas within a missle launch radius. Here’s a new general rule: if you’re not anywhere that looks like Mars, then decline the pre-paid gas upsell and top it off before returning the car.

Hiking Shadows

Primary Coverage with Sapphire Preferred or United Cards

Also decline the insurance upsell by paying for the rental with a Chase Sapphire Preferred or United MileagePlus credit card. Yet another benefit of having good credit and knowing how to leverage it.

IMG_7452

Inspect Vehicle Before Leaving Lot, Keep Damage Sheet

My former employer taught us to conduct a careful vehicle walk-around in order to identify knicks/scratches/dents before driving off the lot. Rentals agencies are notoriously shady, and a few did try to blame me for minor scratches. Luckily, I kept the paperwork on which the agent and I had previously noted the damage. Instead of charging me hundreds of dollars they shrugged while I walked away to catch a flight.

Sun glare on hike

Don’t Lose Car Keys

“That’ll be US$1,000,” said the Hertz agent after I had emptied my bag and searched the seat cushions a third time. My heart skipped a beat. I was shocked to hear a lost rental car key could cost 1/4 of the total vehicle value. Apparently, they’d have to drive the car five hours back to Alice Springs to refit a key to the ignition. In the end, after emails to all the possible places in which I could have lost the key, it was found in the hotel parking lot and returned to Hertz, though I’m still waiting for the money to be refunded. Don’t be dumb (like me). Store the spare key somewhere safe.


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