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A couple weeks ago I took our middle child on a father-son trip to Atlanta. Flights and hotels were on the cheap, including catching a great fare sale (SEE: My first win with “The Flight Deal”) that was 97% covered by a voucher.

Upon arrival back into California, we faced the logistical challenge of picking up our youngest and then heading to some out-of-area doctor’s appointments. This would necessitate driving hundreds of miles on a one-way rental. Then I was headed back south for work again just a day and a half later.

The best way to book all of this ended up being three one-way rentals plus my rental upon arrival in Virginia, all in the span of four days. This experience brought to mind four takeaways that I wanted to share.

Always think outside the box

This can be applied to so many areas of travel, but in the case of car rental, it’s especially important. I’ve found a number of creative solutions over the years that have saved us a significant amount of money on a car rental. Whether it is shifting the time of rental by a couple hours (yes, this can have an effect), changing locations, or figuring out other transportation options entirely, getting creative can save you money.

I like to think that I have a good handle on thinking outside the box. I once flew a double-open-jaw ticket that reduced my work travel costs by $400 in car rental and airfare. It took me maybe 20 extra minutes of searching to piece everything together. This was another of those instances where I found a major rental car win, picking up a one-way rental to drive home from the Bay Area for a mere $65.

Don’t overlook off-airport locations

While there is nothing more convenient than renting a car from a rental center located an easy walk or tram ride from the terminal itself, sometimes you end up paying a premium for this. Often, this is only $10-20, which may be a wash if you’d have to call an Uber or Lyft to get to another location.

But I’ve often found that this can actually save hundreds of dollars (in reality, renting a car remains the preferred option rather than another solution). When I was trying to find a rental to get us to my sons’ appointment and then home (2 days total), I was faced with this bleak option from SJC:

No way. An astronomical daily rate and some huge drop fee for a 2-day one-way rental. This brought me to my first point: think outside the box. There had to be a better way, I just needed to find it. There is *so* much room for improvement here.

Well, less than an hour later, I’d found the solution. Instead of renting directly from SJC airport, I’d rent from downtown San Jose. Sure, this meant some lost time and a $10-15 Uber ride, but I could swallow that easily if it meant saving $100s off the rental rate.

Additionally, I would *not* make a simple one-way reservation for 2 days. The cheapest option required making two separate reservations. I’d rent one-way between San Jose and Roseville for $93, and then a second one-way from Roseville back home. My kids’ medical appointment was northeast of Sacramento, so this worked perfectly.

The Roseville agent was puzzled when I stated I was both dropping off and picking up a one-way rental. After explaining the situation, she was completely amenable to us even keeping the same car. Saved them the trouble of washing and cleaning it. I even used Enterprise points for the second rental, bringing the cost to just $28 in taxes plus the drop fee.

Our total out of pocket cost was $121. Contrast this with the $559 above. It’s a long story, but I hope it illustrates my first two points.

Keep an eye on rental rates

Rental cars aren’t something you should simply book and forget. Even if you think you are getting a good rate, it may be worth a few minutes every several days to check back again. Sometimes rental rates will drop, and the fact that most don’t charge you until you pick up the car makes canceling and rebooking a cinch.

You can automate this whole process by utilizing Autoslash. Their service is great, and I often check rates first by submitting a request through them. However, I find that even with their stellar service available, doing some searches on my own can pay off. I’ve found great rates at times booking through united.com, among other options. I don’t often find something cheaper than Autoslash, but it happens.

I re-booked my rental car for Virginia (my 4th rental in 4 days) just a few days out by re-checking rates. Work typically allows us to rent up to either a mid-size SUV or pickup. I’d reserved the latter for what I consider a reasonable price with Enterprise. Cars were $100+ cheaper for the week.

However, in a quick search with Hertz, I found a great last-minute deal at Dulles for less than the pickup. The fact it was with my favorite rental car company was a bonus. And I’m “stuck” driving this sporty thing:

Amazingly, it cost nearly the same as a standard size car and less than either a pickup or an SUV. #win. 🙂

Consider points, promotions and cash back

While I rarely rent simple to maximize a promotion, I make sure I always factor this into my decision. I rented a car for my last work trip with Budget through the American Airlines portal. This would allow me to maximize an American Airlines promotion that requires you to complete 5 different earns with them (SEE: Earn up to 5,000 bonus AA miles with this new promo).

If there is no promotion I want to use, I book all my paid Enterprise rentals with Ebates, as well as my Hertz rentals where I choose to earn Hertz points. My third rental cost a bit more at $120 for another one way back to Sacramento, but work was covering this. I can stack our company discount, plus use the Ebates portal, plus earn Enterprise points. None is a huge by itself, but it’s cool to be triple-dipping. Best score: Enterprise gave me a pickup instead of a Corolla (SEE: Why you’re foolish to rent a “standard” car).

Conclusion

Hopefully this takes some of the pain out of renting a car. After upwards of 50 rentals under my belt within the past 4-5 years, I’m not at all intimidated by renting a car. I’ve only had one truly bad experience, and I’ve learned several tricks along the way that allow us to save a good amount of money.

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