When looking for a cheap car rental, the budget-minded will settle for a regular economy car with few frills while others won't go for anything less than a flashy Hummer with a souped-up stereo. If you belong to that first group, you can find a rental car for as low as $14.99 a day; if you belong to the big spenders category, figure on shelling out close to $200 a day. The car rental companies on our list feature rates that hover around $25-$40 a day for an economy car, which is the cheapest type of car you can rent.
Cheap Car Rentals Buying Guide
Cost isn't the only factor when considering which of the major cheap car rental companies to go with. A car rental company with many locations may be important to you, or you may prefer a company that guarantees a selection of minivans so you can cart the family to Disney World. If you're a business traveler, you might need a rental company that offers cars with GPS. Or, you might want to do business with an independent or regional rental car company. Some advantages to taking this route, according to the experts, include even lower car rental rates and better customer service. For example, Mayfair Rent-A-Car, which only serves Wisconsin, charges $36.99 for a one-day, compact car rental. With these companies, there's no corporate giant to deal with so problems or questions are more likely to be addressed by the owners themselves. However, because these regional and independent companies are not big players, the selection of cars is more limited and they may be lacking in fancy features.
Daily Rental Rate.The size of car you rent obviously affects your pocketbook, but so does the location in which you rent it. A study by Travelocity, which was published on Edmunds, shows that renting at an airport costs 11.5 percent more on average than renting at a neighborhood location. The Travelocity report lists Texas airports as the costliest rental spots, with Arizona, Ohio, Maryland, Missouri, and New Mexico costing renters more in taxes and fees.If you know you're going to need a car rental in a certain place, booking ahead saves time and money at cheap rental car companies like Alamo, which offers a 10 percent discount if you prepay. Also, some companies offer special deals if you book on weekends; Enterprise, for example, in May 2010 was offering a weekend special of $9.99 a day with 100 miles a day.
But make sure you read every detail of the quoted price. An About.com guide to budget travel reports that many companies seem as though they offer cheap car rental at first until they tack on extra fees at check-out. Without citing the company, the About.com guide says that renting a compact for a week at San Antonio International Airport came out to $50 more than the original price due to an extra 10 percent sales tax, a $19 vehicle license fee, and an "arena fee" of $7.19. Also note that certain locations and certain types of cars may have mileage restrictions or require that you remain in a particular geographic region.
Rental Car Packages.As anyone who has booked a trip on Expedia can confirm, adding in a rental car with your flight and hotel reservations can save dollars. Other companies, such as Hertz, offer discounts if you book at certain hotels or if you're a frequent flyer with certain airlines, such as Southwest. There are also club memberships, which assess a yearly fee in exchange for perks and privileges . These memberships might only produce savings if you rent frequently, however, so business travelers might benefit more than leisure travelers who only rent during the annual family vacation.
Gas Mileage.Most rental car companies require you to return the car with as much gas in the tank as was there when you drove off the lot. If you don't, car rental companies charge for the fuel you didn't replace, usually at a price far higher than the local gas station; one consumer review of rental car companies on Flyertalk.com notes that a Budget location has been known to charge the exorbitant rate of $10 a gallon. Many companies, such as Enterprise, let you prepay for gas when you pick up the car, but this option might be more expensive, depending on where you're renting and how far you'll be driving. For instance, if you rent a car in Pennsylvania and prepay, you'll be charged the average gas price in the state. However, if you're driving to New Jersey from a nearby rental location in Pennsylvania, you might be better off refilling the tank yourself because gas is cheaper in the Garden State.
Insurance Policies.Adding car insurance to your cheap rental car can add an extra $40 a day, according to industry experts. A lot of consumer reviews we looked at include complaints about not being told of certain fees, such as insurance. Customers renting from Advantage, for example, consistently report being subjected to heavy sales tactics when the insurance issue comes up. One consumer notes on Edmunds.com that car rental companies typically offer a collision damage waiver (CDW) and a loss damage waiver (LDW), but many people already have this covered in their own auto insurance policy, so you're wasting money on double coverage if you buy it from the rental company. Call your insurance carrier to check before you elect the optional insurance, and always read the fine print before signing your rental agreement.
Roadside Services.What if you need help with your car rental and you're far from the pick-up location? Many cheap rental car companies, including all those we researched for this guide, offer some kind of roadside assistance. Budget, for instance, has a 24-hour hotline you can call if you get stranded -- the company will send police or a tow truck to help -- but it charges for things that other rental car companies we recommend don't, like when you lock the keys in your car or run out of gas.
What about getting to and from the rental site? Hertz and Avis are not cheap car rental companies but they have hundreds of locations, so it's probably not too difficult to manage the pick-up and drop-off. Advantage sets up shop mostly at airports which may pose a challenge if you're not planning to start and end your trip near a an airport. Enterprise conveniently resolves the dilemma by providing customers with free pick-up from, and drop-off at, your car-less location of choice.
Rental car companies generally charge significantly higher rates for one-way rentals and assess a fee if you suddenly decide to return a car to a location other than the one you rented from. Some, such as Hertz, have locations every few miles in some major cities, so it's not a big deal if you're in one of these urban areas. With Advantage, on the other hand, its airport locations mean a change in plans can be costly.
Take note of the rental car company's hours of operation. Hours vary by company and location; there are no company-wide rules. Many locations close early on the weekends or aren't open on Sundays, and holiday hours may differ, as well. If you need a car to travel for Thanksgiving, you'll probably get stuck having to rent the car the day before and keep it until Friday.
Car Availability.While the standard economy vehicle is the cheapest car to rent, some people prefer a car with more space or a different configuration. In the reviews we read, many consumers complain about reserving a specific type of vehicle only to be told it wasn't available once they arrived to pick it up. This might not be a huge deal if you're traveling solo or on business. But if you're a family of six in need of a mini-van or SUV and all the rental agency has that day is a compact car, you've got a problem. Alamo maintains a wide selection of cars, according to CarRentalScout.com, and a consumer commenting on Viewpoints says she was happy with the choice of SUVs at two Florida locations; another renter, who posted a review on Epinions, likewise appreciated the range of color and size choices at Alamo's Orlando Airport location.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Car Rental Reviews
When assessing the performance of cheap car rental companies, we tried to take an overall view, as there were some car rental reviews by consumer that took umbrage with specific locations, not necessarily with the company itself. On the whole, the loudest applause was given in reviews of 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 unknown costs when the car is returned, or give customers cars other than the type they reserved.
Rental Car Companies End Cost.We use the term "end cost" here because we're taking into account the fees and extras for items like insurance and gas. Sifting through car rental reviews, we found consumers who say they encountered no surprises when they picked up their cars and some who did, and others who claim the final bill was different from the quoted cost per day.Enterprise, which in May 2010 was renting economy cars for $38.94 a day in downtown Philadelphia, PA, is hailed in car rental reviews on Epinions for its low rates and few surprises at drop-off time. Budget also scores well along this dimension, according to several reviews on Epinions, which say the company offers cheap rentals without extra fees or hassles. A look at the company's rental offerings in a Chicago neighborhood location shows a compact car was available for $31.34 a day in May 2010. Customers posting reviews on LonelyPlanet recommend Budget to other travelers owing to its, well, budget rates.
Alamo often boasts some of the cheapest rates around. At the downtown Seattle, WA location, a Chevrolet Aveo cost $38.10 a day in May 2010 compared to $74.69 for a comparable economy car at Thrifty's downtown Portland, OR location; and remember, the cost-saving bonus with Alamo is a 10 percent discount if you pay upfront. Consumers posting car rental reviews on Yellowpages.com like the company's bargain rates, with one pointing out they're far lower than the competition. A traveler who rented a car from Alamo for a 10-day excursion between Salt Lake City, UT, and Green River, WY writes on Epinions that the end cost totaled $280, including unlimited miles, taxes and all other fees, which was cheaper than Thrifty, Dollar, and Budget.
Customers who rent from Advantage, which in May 2010 listed an economy car for $24.19 a day at Salt Lake City International Airport, report in car rental reviews on Rateitall.com that they saved as much as $100 over seven days compared to the cost at other car rental agencies. But other consumers posting comments on the same site complain about being charged more than the stated fee for everything from insurance they didn't realize they were buying to gas costs that were tacked on at the end.
Rental Car Companies Customer Service.Overall, Enterprise wins the customer service category. In 2009, this car rental company ranked highest (for the sixth year in a row) for customer satisfaction in a survey by J.D. Power and Associates. But reviews by consumers on Epinions are split, with some consumers reporting pushy sales tactics, poorly trained staff, and dirty facilities, while others comment appreciatively on the pick-up service, low rates, and courteous agents. Starreviews.com reports in a rental car review that its researchers had trouble getting a response to a query via e-mail, but a good experience with customer service over the phone, noting that the representative took time to answer questions and made sure the caller was satisfied with the response before hanging up. By the way, a Rateitall.com review by a consumer notes that Enterprise has a policy of walking customers around the car so the agent and renter can jointly note any damage (like dents or scratches) before the car leaves the lot, which goes a long way toward avoiding hassles over damage when you return the car.Alamo likewise revs the motor for customer service. Rental car reviews on Starreviews.com report that Alamo agents are friendly over the phone and suggest money-saving rental options. Alamo reviews on Epinions are generally favorable, save for a few reviewers who carp about speaking with representatives over the phone whose English was poor.
Budget tanks in this category, with heaps of reviews on Epinions complaining about awful customer service at various locations, citing irritants such as added fees with no notice, non-responsive staff, and long lines. Car rental reviews of Budget on Rateitall air similar critiques, in addition to not having the right car available. On the other hand, if you're a preferred Budget customer, the process seems to be much smoother. Renters posting reviews on Viewpoints who are part of the company's Fastbreak VIP program say service is speedy and problem-free.
Advantage likewise gets dinged by consumers for service. One customer comments in a car rental review on Epinions that her husband waited half an hour to get to the Advantage lot near Denver International Airport and then spent another hour in line. Advantage reviews on Rateitall are also filled with gripes; travelers grouse about getting inaccurate information from agents, rude and pushy staff, reserved cars that aren't available, and billing mistakes.
Even paying top dollar doesn't guarantee better service. Agents at Thrifty, whose daily rate for an economy car in major cities such as Los Angeles hovers between $65 and $80, are not immune from attitude issues. One customer review on Viewpoints reports difficulty when trying to pick up and return a car early to one of the company's New Hampshire locations.
Rental Car Companies Convenience.Waiting in line or being otherwise delayed while trying to pick up a car is a big deal for consumers, according to reviews. Alamo and Enterprise score big with consumers on the convenience yardstick. On the J.D. Power survey, Enterprise scored five stars, the highest rank given, for its reservation, pick-up, and return processes, while Alamo scored an above-average three stars in each of those categories. Users with experience in various locations posting car rental reviews in a forum on TripAdvisor like the convenience of Enterprise's free pick up/drop off and its many locations. Alamo customers who have experience with airport and off-site locations in major cities, such as Orlando, note on TripAdvisor that the company is often situated inside the airport terminal so you don't have to take a shuttle to pick up your car. Other Alamo reviews on TripAdvisor and Epinions report a hassle-free pick-up process at select locations. In fact, about the only convenience-related critique of Alamo is having fewer locations than the competition.
Rental Car Companies Car Performance/Availability.Most grievances about the rental cars themselves concern cleanliness or lack of availability. For the most part, consumers report on Rateitall and Epinions that the cars at Enterprise are in good condition, although an occasional reviewer cites the lingering smell of cigarette smoke or a dirty exterior. Alamo also rents out cars that are clean and otherwise in good shape, according to car rental reviews on Yellowbook.Again, Budget and Advantage stop short of consumers' expectations. Reviews on Epinions indicate that many Budget customers did not get the car they requested, and on Rateitall travelers gripe about cars that broke down and the limitations of the advertised roadside assistance; one driver says a truck he rented had a blowout in 100-degree heat, and he waited several hours before a repair man showed up to fix it.
The biggest complaint against Advantage is arriving at the check-in counter with prior reservations only to find out that the vehicle isn't available. One woman posting a review on Rateitall writes of arriving in Orlando with three small children and being told she'd have to use a compact car instead of the minivan she'd reserved three months earlier.
Even Hertz, despite being known for renting attractive, high-end cars, according to Starreviews, fails to impress customers. Reviews on Epinions and Rateitall complain about dirty cars and/or small malfunctions. One Epinions review says the interior and exterior were dirty, and a consumer review on Rateitall says the car she rented at the Port Charlotte, FL location had bald front tires and the maintenance light was constantly on.
Rental Car Companies Website User Interface.Making a reservation online can save you time at pick-up. But if the website is difficult to navigate or uninformative, the aggravation can outweigh the time it saves you on the other end.Enterprise has an easy-to-use site that takes you through the reservation process step-by-step and provides clickable links if you need to change a detail in your reservation. A reviewer on Epinions lauds the ease-of-use and clear explanation of different car classes. At Star Reviews, however, the experts report they couldn't initially find resources for renters, such as trip planners or tools, but eventually noticed many of the links at the bottom of the page. The Alamo website features a navigation bar at the top that has specific tabs for rates, locations, and deals, and a box in the upper left where you can type in your reservation details. An expert reviewer on Star Reviews approves of the site's "no nonsense" design, and says filling out the reservation form takes just a few minutes. On the other hand, massive blocks of text farther down on the homepage are harsh on the eyes, and the site lacks a search tab.
Advantage earns miles with consumers for its simply-designed website, which has obvious tabs for rates, locations, and customer support, in addition to a box at the right that lets you set up your reservation. The Budget site is also easy to navigate, with all sections well marked in a top navigation bar, a search field in the top right corner, and a place to make your reservation on the left. Star Reviews pokes fun at its lackluster design, and says not to expect "fireworks."
Final Note: Always make sure you print out all reservation information before heading to the counter to pick up your rental car, and read the fine print on your contract to avoid surprise fees or problems upon return.