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Which Car Rental Company Is the Cheapest?

In This Article:
Car Rental Price Comparison
Things to Know Before Renting a Car
Car Rental Discounts at a Glance
Rewards Programs at a Glance
The Best Car Rental Companies According to Reviews

Takeaways:

  • Advantage, E-Z Rent A Car, and Ace generally posted the lowest prices, but they have thousands fewer locations than companies like Enterprise and Hertz.
  • Frequent deals and larger discounts offered by big-name car rental companies may offset any savings from going with the "little guy."
  • National and Enterprise were generally the most expensive in our price comparison but also dominate surveys of customer satisfaction.

Car Rental Price Comparison

To get a general yet representative idea of how prices compare across companies and vehicle types, we searched online rates for daily and weekly rentals in three popular destinations — Chicago, Los Angeles, and Orlando — one month in advance of hypothetical trips in mid-May.

Orlando International Airport (MCO)
1-Day / 1-Week Prices

EconomyMidsize / IntermediateFull-Size
Ace$34 / $125$34 / $125$35 / $143
Advantage$41 / $200$42 / $210$47 / $224
Alamo$49 / $294$53 / $295$60 / $314
Avis$47 / $247$50 / $243$54 / $258
Budget$42 / $194$44 / $205$51 / $211
Dollar$48 / $217$53 / $222$59 / $231
Enterprise$57 / $344$62 / $346$70 / $368
E-Z$40 / $200$42 / $210$47 / $224
Fox$47 / $175$50 / $180$47 / $190
Hertz$63 / $292$66 / $311$76 / $329
National$79 / $378$82 / $403$95 / $415
Payless$45 / $213$50 / $216$56 / $229
Sixt$71 / $199$72 / $202$73 / $204
Thrifty$48 / $217$54 / $221$60 / $231

Winner: Ace
Most Expensive: National


Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
1-Day / 1-Week Prices

EconomyMidsize / IntermediateFull-Size
Ace$64 / $360$67 / $367$70 / $368
Advantage$50 / $363$52 / $336$60 / $339
Alamo$106 / $431$102 / $416$106 / $439
Avis$67 / $367$69 / $377$67 / $392
Budget$66 / $347$66 / $358$68 / $352
Dollar$71 / $391$84 / $388$87 / $400
Enterprise$106 / $431$109 / $437$112 / $439
E-Z$50 / $363$52 / $336$60 / $339
Fox$63 / $378$66 / $385$71 / $386
Hertz$85 / $356$87 / $367$89 / $464
National$106 / $431$109 / $447$112 / $583
PaylessN/A / $396N/A / $390N/A / $387
Sixt$93 / $342$94 / $347$96 / $351
Thrifty$71 / $306$84 / $325$87 / $329

Winners: Advantage and E-Z (tied)
Most Expensive: National


Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD)
1-Day / 1-Week Prices

CompactMidsize / IntermediateFull-Size
AceN/AN/AN/A
Advantage$42 / $238$44 / $247$46 / $256
Alamo$114 / $486$135 / $447$112 / $470
Avis$87 / $400$85 / $393$107 / $406
Budget$85 / $324$73 / $329$74 / $334
Dollar$108 / $410$97 / $402$105 / $413
Enterprise$120 / $508$141 / $524$117 / $551
E-Z$42 / $237$44 / $247$47 / $256
Fox$52 / $230$55 / $241$52 / $251
Hertz$85 / $322$96 / $326$88 / $326
National$125 / $628$141 / $694$146 / $750
Payless$38 / $208$39 / $216$40 / $224
Sixt$66 / $248$67 / $251$68 / $254
Thrifty$88 / $358$76 / $335$91 / $343

Winner: Payless
Most Expensive: National

* Prices are for the rental option with the lowest rate (i.e., prepaid when available) and include taxes and fees. Quotes for May 13, 2019 (Wednesday) and May 11-17, 2019 (Saturday through Friday). Prices rounded to the nearest dollar. Prices and availability are subject to change.


How Much Does It Cost to Rent a Car?

The first thing that any consumer should know about renting a car is that rates are notoriously fickle and extremely responsive to supply and demand. They may vacillate from day to day at the same location, and the price in one locale may be significantly higher or lower than the rate elsewhere. Areas with lots of competition (think large cities and major tourist spots) may offer lower rates than smaller towns with fewer companies to choose from. Weekdays may be cheaper than weekends, depending on location, and rates may jump at high-traffic times, such as Thanksgiving or spring break.

Also, while there are more than a dozen car rental companies with a national presence, just a handful of corporations control most of them. Among the 14 companies we researched for this survey, Enterprise, National, and Alamo all have the same parent company, and so do Avis, Budget, and Payless. Hertz, Dollar, and Thrifty are corporate siblings, as are Advantage and E-Z Rent A Car. Ace, Fox, and Sixt are independent.

What Is the Cheapest Car Rental Company?
In our cost comparison, the smaller companies offered the best prices. Rates from Advantage and E-Z were consistently among the lowest for a one-day rental no matter the location. While Ace and Avis-owned Payless gave these sister chains a run for their money in Orlando and Chicago, respectively, their low prices and availability were less reliable.

Best Cheap Car RentalIn Chicago, for example, Payless bested the competition with a $38 daily rate for an economy car, yet E-Z and Advantage charged $42 — still nearly 20% lower than the next closest competitor (independent Fox, at $52). In Los Angeles, E-Z and Advantage were the clear winners. Their shared rate of $50 a day for an economy car was more than 20% lower than any other company. At the other end of the spectrum, National and Enterprise both quoted a whopping $109 — more than twice as much.

For week-long rentals, the winners weren't always so clear-cut but, again, E-Z and Advantage proved extremely competitive, and independent vendors — Ace, Fox, and Sixt — usually offered big savings over the bigger chains. The catch is that the smaller companies have far fewer locations. You won't find Advantage or E-Z at large airports like Philadelphia and Minneapolis, not to mention smaller cities. Ace doesn't even have a Chicago airport location. It has about 50 outlets altogether, and E-Z counts only about 30 locations. Enterprise, the largest chain, has about 5,800 locations in the United States. Runner-up Hertz has just over 3,000.

What Is the Most Expensive Car Rental Company?
National was the most expensive option in our survey each and every time, for both daily and weekly rentals. Rivaled only by partner companies Enterprise and Alamo, this top rental brand quoted prices that were at least twice as high as the cheapest competitor in any given market. In Chicago, National's rates for an economy car ($125 per day or $628 for the week) were more than three times the prices quoted by winner Payless.

Even when compared to National's closest rival, Hertz, the higher prices were fairly pronounced. Renting an economy car in Chicago from Hertz instead of National would save consumers 32% for a one-day rental and 49% when renting for a full week. Dollar and Thrifty generally came in lower than Hertz, their parent company (of the two, Thrifty had the edge). Budget was cheaper than all three Hertz brands in all of our scenarios. Its corporate parent, Avis, was also middle-of-the-pack, while sibling Payless was a bit of a wild card, with no one-day rentals available in Los Angeles and costs that varied quite a bit by location. Sixt offered a fairly reasonable daily rate in Chicago ($66 for an economy car) but quoted relatively high prices for one-day rentals in the other markets ($71 in Orlando and $93 in L.A.).

'Economy' Cars Can Actually Cost More.
Our searches revealed that choosing the smallest car option doesn't guarantee the lowest rate. For example, for our hypothetical trip to Chicago, Alamo quoted a prepaid weekly rental price of $486 for an economy car, but the roomier midsize and full-size options were cheaper: $447 and $470, respectively. We found similar savings on larger vehicles in the other destinations, as well, particularly for full-size cars. It pays to consider all options — you could end up with sizeable savings and extra room to boot.

Things to Know Before Renting a Car

The Quote Is Just the Start.
While the rates in our price comparison include taxes and fees, rental companies generally highlight their "base rate" (the daily or weekly charge for the vehicle) when advertising vehicles. They sometimes do not disclose all the extras you'll pay on top of that initial quote until further along in the booking process. Consumers who aren't aware of certain upcharges (and ways to avoid them) may find themselves hit with a much larger final bill than they expected.

Best Cheap Car RentalNo matter where you rent a car, you have to pay sales tax, and many municipalities tack on travel and tourism taxes. If you rent at the airport, you're subject to multiple facility fees, as well. All told, these charges can add 15 to 25 percent to your total bill, depending on location, and we saw some instances with airport rentals where additional charges totaled nearly as much as the base rate itself. Also, expect a rental deposit of $200 or more to be charged to your credit card and removed after you return the vehicle.

Prepay to Save Money, but Watch Out.
You can sometimes get a cheaper rate by opting to pay up front when reserving a car online rather than at the counter. Not every company offers this option — National and Enterprise, notably, do not — and it's not guaranteed to be available for all rentals, but in our price comparison we found that opting to "pay now" resulted in average savings of about 15 to 20 percent, depending on the vendor and vehicle. Just keep in mind that rental rates fluctuate widely, so if you're booking far in advance, it makes sense to track prices for a bit before hitting that "pay now" button — especially since you'll likely have to pay a fee if you cancel the reservation.

With the larger companies, the penalty ranges from $50 to as much as $150 depending on when the cancellation is made. Smaller companies tend to be even less forgiving. Ace and Advantage offer no refunds within 24 hours of pickup, Payless shortens that window to 48 hours, and Fox offers no refunds whatsoever. Sixt has a particularly tricky policy: Customers who cancel sacrifice three days of the rental rate (which effectively means no refund on a rental of three days or less), and no cancellations can be made within three days of pickup. Companies frequently waive fees if the change is due to a flight cancellation, however, as long as you notify them before the scheduled arrival time.

Some Rental Companies Guarantee Their Rates.
To combat third-party travel sites like Expedia, some car rental companies promise to match or beat any qualifying rate advertised online for one of their vehicles. Avis and Thrifty, for example, say they'll match the competing quote and give you an extra 10 percent off. But in order to claim the deal, you must have already made a car reservation, then manage to track down a lower quoted price for the same class of vehicle within 24 hours, then submit it for verification and approval. (Offers from competing car rental companies are not matched.) Budget, Dollar, and Hertz have similar guarantees.

Extras Can Add Up.
Satellite radio, hands-free navigation, on-board Wi-Fi, toll passes, car seats, roadside assistance, and even carbon offsets are common add-ons that don't come cheap and may not be absolutely essential. For example, adding GPS navigation — already on any smartphone — increased the bill for a sample weeklong rental at Enterprise by $75. The cost of car seats can end up exceeding the daily rate for the car itself when traveling with multiple kids. It's probably best to bring car seats from home, if you can manage it (most airlines don't charge to check them), and certain affiliations — AAA and PTA membership, for example — provide free rental car seats among their perks.

Best Cheap Car RentalAdditional driver fees can add from $3 to more than $13 per day to a rental (although laws in many states prohibit companies from charging for a spouse). And if you're under 25, you'll probably have to pony up an additional "young driver" fee, which varies based on age and location. (In most places, you must be at least 20 or 21 years old to rent a car, depending on what company you're using. In Michigan and New York, you only have to be 18.)

One of the most expensive "extras" is supplemental insurance. Opting to purchase a collision damage waiver, personal injury protection, and liability coverage from the rental car company can add almost $50 per day. And it's often unnecessary: Many car insurance policies and credit card benefits include rental car coverage. Check your existing policies in advance.

Bigger Companies Offer a Bigger Selection.
All the major car rental companies offer a range of vehicles, from economy cars to full-size sedans, and most also offer trucks, vans, SUVs, and even high-end luxury models. However, if you're looking for the greatest variety and the newest models — that Mustang 5.0 or Mercedes SUV you've dreamt about — you're more likely to find them at a flagship car rental company such as National, Hertz, or Avis. Some of the bigger names, such as Enterprise and Alamo, also offer hybrid and electric models. Cheaper car rental companies may have vehicles with more miles on them or hand-me-downs from the big brands.

Take Advantage of Deals and Discounts.
Every rental company offers online deals in one form or another. Often these special discounts show up on the homepage, front and center, and some companies maintain separate pages for the latest offers, which range from last-minute or holiday rates to deals directed at select customers. We saw an offer for Amazon users, for example, that included up to 30% off the base rates at Avis and Budget. Online deal sites can also be a good source for car rental coupons and promo codes.

Aside from deals offered to the general public, we found a host of rental car discounts that benefit everyone from seniors to students, AAA members, trade association members, and even warehouse club members. We also found that, while the big-name companies may advertise costlier base rates, they're also more likely to offer particularly generous discounts to qualifying renters. For example, AARP members are promised up to 30% off at Avis and Budget, while the AARP discount at Payless is just 5%. Bottom line: It's rarely necessary to pay full price.

Car Rental Discounts at a Glance

AAAAARPSeniorsMilitary & VeteransTeachers & StudentsGov’t. WorkersWarehouse Club MembersAirline Frequent FlyersHotel Rewards MembersCredit Card HoldersInsurance Policy HoldersAmazon Customers
Ace
Advantage
AlamoXXNEA membersXCostco, BJ’sXXMastercard, DiscoverGeico
AvisXXXCostco, BJ’sXXAmerican ExpressX
BudgetXXCostco, BJ’sXXX
DollarXXNEA membersXSam’s, BJ’sX
EnterpriseXNEA membersXCosto, Sam’s, BJ’sX
E-ZXXXX
Fox
HertzXXXXNEA membersXSam’s, BJ’sXXVisa, MastercardAllstate
NationalXNEA membersXSam’s, BJ’sXXGeico
PaylessXBJ’sX
SixtXXXXXXVisa
ThriftyXXXXX

* May not be comprehensive. Some discounts may be limited-time offers.

Rewards Programs Offer Additional Perks.
Most rental companies offer some kind of rewards program, although not all of them are equally rewarding. Enterprise and Avis, for instance, both offer one point per dollar spent, but Enterprise offers a free rental day with 400 points, while Avis requires 700 points. Ace's program gives loyal customers the option of redeeming credits for future car rental discounts or other merchandise, including video game consoles, headphones, and streaming media players. Put in perspective, however, it takes as many as 1,500 points — i.e., $1,500 spent — simply to earn a $25 Starbucks or iTunes gift card. Other benefits of reward program membership may include free upgrades, special one-time deals, skip-the-line arrangements, and no additional driver fees.

Rewards Programs at a Glance

Rewards ProgramBenefits
Ace Rental Genius1 point per dollar spent; redeemable for rewards such as Sony PlayStation, Visa gift cards, and carbon offsets (starting at 300 points).
Advantage ExpresswayPerks such as upgrades, accessories, and free rental days based on number of rentals and reward level (Base, Silver, Gold, Platinum).
Alamo Insiders5% discount
Avis Preferred1 point per dollar spent; free rental day with 700 points (also Preferred Plus).
Budget FastbreakBudget Bucks can be used for discounted rentals; expedited checkout and dropoff.
Dollar Express Rewards1 point per dollar spent; free rental day with 500 points.
Enterprise Plus1 point per dollar spent; free rental day with 400 points (also Silver, Gold, and Platinum).
E-Z MoneyPoints toward future rental car discounts, accessories, and digital currency credits.
Fox Rewards4 points per dollar spent; redeemable for FoxBucks rental discounts ($20 reward at 1,600 points), or merchandise gift certificates ($25 reward at 2,500 points).
Hertz Gold Plus1 point per dollar spent; free rental day with 675 points (also Five Star and President’s Circle).
National Emerald Club1 credit per rental; free rental day with 7 credits.
Payless PerksInstant savings and special deals.
SixtVaried benefits with Express, Gold, Platinum, and Corporate membership cards.
Thrifty Blue Chip Rewards1 point per dollar spent; free rental day with 500 points.


The Best Car Rental Companies According to Reviews

Even a cursory reading of online reviews shows that consumers love to hate car rental agencies. Yelp, in particular, proved a fertile source of comments about travelers' experiences renting cars at airports around the country. But these tend to come from unhappy customers, making it difficult to objectively assess what the average traveler can expect. That said, the loudest applause was given to franchises that abide by the original quoted rate, have friendly agents at the counter, and help customers with problems or requests. The companies that receive poor ratings use aggressive sales tactics to peddle extras like insurance, charge customers for unforeseen extras when the car is returned, or give customers cars other than the type they reserved. All the car rental companies on our list have their share of both types of consumer reviews, although National and Enterprise fared much better than the others (partner company Alamo's showing was also above average).

Professional reviews of car rental companies are few and far between. J.D. Power and Travel & Leisure magazine both conduct annual consumer surveys, while Top Ten Reviews is the only prominent review site that rigorously researches and analyzes car rental prices. Although many of the smaller companies are not even considered in these expert roundups, when pitted against the other top brands, National and Enterprise again dominate lists for customer satisfaction. Enterprise has earned a top spot in the J.D. Power survey for five years running, while National has dominated the Travel & Leisure poll for a similar period, with Hertz close behind the two front-runners. In these surveys, business travelers and vacationers say all three companies offer excellent customer service, relatively generous perks, and a wide range of clean, low-mileage vehicles that other rental firms can't match. Top Ten Reviews' analysis largely confirms this. (Top Ten Reviews dings National for its particularly high prices, something our price survey bears out. On the other hand, the site names Thrifty the "Best Value" choice for offering the cheapest one-day rentals, while our research revealed better rates at several of the smaller outlets.)

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