Summer Car Rental Savings: Avoid Sticker Shock

"We always recommend that customers reserve as far in advance as their travel plans allow to receive our best rates," says Ned Maniscalco, spokesperson, Enterprise Rent-A-Car. "Booking early [also] ensures availability of the kind of vehicle that best meets your needs."

"Reserve early, then shop opaque [sites] aggressively," says Bason. "With a delicate balancing act happening right now between fleet sizes and demand, car prices could easily fluctuate this summer depending on which one increases faster. If you find a nice retail rate far in advance, reserve it now. You won't have to pay until you pick it up. Then keep searching opaque sites to see if better deals become available as you get closer to your date. There's a really good chance you'll score a great price that way."

Sample Prices

Here's a snapshot of what you can expect to pay across the country for a week-long intermediate car rental in July. I selected cities where day-trip options abound, a car is needed, or a combination of both makes the most sense for a vacation. All prices reflect an airport pick-up/drop-off and include estimated taxes and fees.

Washington, D.C.$648$752$755
Los Angeles$559$633$633

In many cases, a budget of around $100 per day for a rental car comes out as the norm, especially in high-demand cities where space is at a premium (e.g., Boston, Seattle). Keep looking for deals, though, and test out a variety of car classes to find the best price. Depending on supply and demand, you may find an intermediate car cheaper than an economy rental, or an SUV to be well within your budget. It all depends on the location, supply, and customer requests.

Ways to Save

Move away from major cities, and you may find some deals. "There are bargains available throughout the country," notes Maniscalco. "A full-size car for the last weekend in June would cost only about $17.50 per day at the San Antonio airport. In Branson, Missouri, you can rent a full-size car at our neighborhood branch for just over $25 a day. And in Denver, the price is about $28 a day for a full-size car at a neighborhood branch. "If you're able to rent off-airport, neighborhood branches tend to offer cheaper per-day prices than the brand's airport equivalents. You'll also avoid additional fees and taxes that tend to get tacked on to airport rentals (e.g., airport concession fees, transit tax, and the like).

Start working your memberships, too. AAA, AARP, military memberships, and professional associations may shave a few dollars off your rental price. If you're not seeing such offers listed on your car rental company's website, call the rental branch office and inquire if any discounts (or other promotions) are available.

If you're still having trouble finding a good deal, ask about any extras that might make the cost worth your while. If prices aren't particularly decent, the agency may have some other promotions in the works, perhaps for GPS units, fuel refills, and more. "Companies will continue to look for ways to add value to enhance the rental experience," says Pereira. She cites loyalty programs, guaranteed smoke-free vehicles, speedier check-out processes, and the ability to make and amend reservations through smartphones as incentives customers can request.

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