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I think rental cars are the last great “black hole” of rewards programs. While it is possible (maybe not EASY, but possible) to get free hotel nights and airline flights using miles and points, especially with lucrative credit card signup bonuses and spending, unless you’re renting cars a LOT (i.e. for business), you’re not likely to get much in the way of free car rental days. I find, even if you ARE renting a lot, the car rental loyalty programs leave a little something to be desired (in comparison to hotel and airline loyalty programs)
(SEE ALSO: Getting top rental car status (for free!))
What I do when I rent a car
When I rent a car, I am usually renting it for myself. This could be for a county trip, or sometimes for a conference I’m at
(SEE ALSO: Trying to visit all 3,143 counties in the US)
I will often see something like this
The Economy (or subcompact at other sites) is the cheapest, and then it goes up by a few dollars for each successive bigger size. Clearly, they are trying to upsell you (just like a Dairy Queen Blizzard!). I ALWAYS RENT THE CHEAPEST SIZE THERE IS!
Now, after that I will use Autoslash, which ranked at #2 on my list of the Top 10 miles and points tools out there. Autoslash is great because you just plug in your existing reservation, and over the course of the next few days / weeks, they’ll constantly check to find if there’s a lower price out there.
Why you’re foolish if you rent a “standard” car
Why I’m saying you’re foolish if you rent a “standard” size car, or anything besides the absolute cheapest car available (usually subcompact) is because rental car companies don’t care what you book. They have a set amount of cars at a given time, and you “get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit” (as we always tell our kids!)
(SEE ALSO: Why does renting a car feel like such a scam?)
It has also been my experience that if you rent an economy or subcompact, they never carry any of those, and so you’re going to get a standard car anyways, or at the very least a compact or intermediate. So you get what you want, and, in our example above, you save $20.
I often use Avis, and at many of their airport locations, if you have Avis First (which you can get for free), you bypass the line, and take whatever car you want anyways. So in that case, if you book anything but the cheapest category, you’re DEFINITELY just throwing away money. Several of the other rental car chains have similar programs.
Of course there are exceptions – if you’re carrying ski equipment to Lake Tahoe, you’ll probably want a SUV for all your gear. Or if you’re traveling with a large family, you might want a minivan. Though if you have a REALLY large family (like my family of 8), you may be better off in TWO rental cars than trying to book a van. Read about our experiences trying to book rental transportation for our family of 8 in Why we’re a 2 (rental) car family.
Or if you’re in a situation where the DOWNSIDE of NOT getting what you want is big, like in the Tahoe ski trip example. If you NEED an SUV, then you better BOOK one and not just hope to get one on an upgrade. It’s why we ended up renting 2 cars for our recent trip – because the downside of booking a large van and them NOT having one was too high.
What about you? When you’re booking a rental car, what size do you book?