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Road Testing Four Car Rental Options

How to Save on Car RentalsRenting a car shouldn't drive you to the poorhouse or leave you spinning your wheels.

Save a bundle on your temporary ride by knowing your rental options, avoiding costly traps and hunting down discount offers.

We've demystified the process by laying out the costs for booking with:

  • a national car rental company
  • the car-sharing firm Zipcar
  • a bargain-minded car rental aggregator
  • an online travel site


National Rental Agencies

If you book with a national car rental company, being savvy about hidden costs is the best way to save.

These companies operate service counters at downtown offices as well as airports--opt to pick up your car at the downtown office if you can, which is far less expensive.

Make sure to fill up the gas tank before returning the car--failure to do so can cost you twice the amount you'd pay at your local pump, says Greg Daugherty, executive editor of Consumer Reports. "It's like buying wine in a restaurant."

When you pick up your rental, the agent will try to sell you insurance. Do your homework, as you might not need it. Car owners have coverage through their auto insurance plans, and many credit cards offer insurance on car rentals as well.

Find out what coverage is extended to rental cars, says Mario Morales, manager of corporate underwriting at MetLife. "As a general rule, drivers should have both physical damage and liability coverage." But don't pay for what you don't need. This overlap in coverage costs renters from $9 to $19 per day, he says.

Agents will also likely try to up sell you a fancier, larger, more expensive car. Unless you need a bigger car to seat people or store luggage, don't take the bait.

Estimate how many miles you'll be putting on the car. A package with a mileage cap costs less than one with unlimited mileage.

Return the car on time: Rental companies love to slap on hefty late fees.

Trim your rental costs with discounts offered by The Automobile Association of America (better known as "Triple A" or the Auto Club) and professional associations, such as the Society of Professional Journalists (if you're a reporter, for example). Also hunt down savings on PromotionalCodes.com, and peruse Facebook and Twitter for special company offers.

If you rent cars regularly, sign up for the rewards membership programs offered by most of the national rental firms. Hertz, for one, rewards renters a point for every rental dollar spent. If you rack up 500 points, or $500 worth of rentals, you'll earn a free weekend day rental.

Rental companies also run regular promotions, such as 25 percent off a daily rental to $50 off monthly rentals.

Test Run: At the nation's biggest car rental company, Hertz, the cost for a one-day, weekday rental in New York City turned up an offer for $79.70 for a Toyota Yaris, to be picked up at a local office. The price excluded gas and insurance.

Zipcar

This membership-based car-sharing company charges by the day but also by the hour--a great option for people who only need a set of wheels for a short time. With Zipcar, you pay a one-time $25 application fee and an annual $60 fee. Zipcar is geared toward urban dwellers and operates in 14 major U.S. cities.

Here's the savings sweet spot: Gas and insurance are included in the rate. Cars come with a gas card that works as a credit card. Indeed, Zipcar offers up to 180 free miles worth of gas.

The company also secures parking spots in lots and on streets, which can eliminate a big expense and hassle. And as an added perk, Zipcar offers members local discounts on hotels, bike rentals and even coffee shops.

Want to compare how much you'll save by using Zipcar? Use Zipcar's savings calculator to get an estimate for your area: http://www.zipcar.com/nyc/rates/savings-compare-rental.

Test Run: For a one-day weekday rental in New York City, prices ranged from $11 an hour, or $77 a day, for a Honda Insight to $15 an hour, or $109 a day, for a BMW 328 XI, including gas and insurance.

Aggregators

Edgar Dworsky, consumer advocate and founder of ConsumerWorld.com, recommends rental car aggregator sites such as BreezeNet.com and Autoslash.com, which are carving a niche in the discount rental market.

AutoSlash.com re-prices your rental several times per day, as rates change. It monitors as many as a dozen car rental companies, and as rates drop, Autoslash notifies you via email so that you can re-book your car at the lower rate.

Savings will vary, but some customers are able to cut their rates in half, while others might shave off $5, according to an AutoSlash spokesperson.

AutoSlash also boasts technology that allows it to apply coupons and discounts to your rental -- so you don't have to scour the web for deals -- with the promise of delivering a rental at the lowest price possible.

Test run: A booking on Autoslash.com for a one-day rental in Manhattan turned up a Ford Fusion from Dollar for $53.52, including taxes and fees. Within a few hours of booking, I received an email from AutoSlash letting me know that they'd dropped their rate to $47.64, a 10 percent savings.

Online Travel Sites

Compare rates on off-price travel sites such as Priceline.com, and sign up to receive exclusive coupons and discounts. Don't be afraid to haggle, Daugherty says.

Take the three best deals you find on websites such as Priceline, Expedia and Travelocity, then call the local offices of the rental companies with the lowest rates and see if their agents will beat the online deals.

"Rental cars are like hotel rooms and airplane seats," Daugherty says. "If they didn't sell it that day, they didn't make any money off that car."

Test run: For a one-day weekday rental in New York City, Priceline turned up 94 available cars: from a $44 Chevy Aveo to a $70 Nissan Sentra, including taxes and fees.

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