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Cristina Sampaio, New York Times

How to find rental car deals

  • Article by: SUSAN STELLIN
  • New York Times
  • January 18, 2013 - 3:50 PM

 

With airfares and hotel rates rising last year, it’s some consolation that prices for rental cars actually decreased on average and are expected to remain about the same in 2013.

Despite more consolidation in the car rental industry — Hertz purchased Dollar and Thrifty last fall, and the Avis Budget Group is buying Zipcar— consumers may not get hit with the higher prices that often accompany these deals. The trade publication Auto Rental News recently predicted “a ground war on rates” in 2013 as the major car rental companies compete with independent brands like Advantage, especially for airport rentals.

But it still takes some effort to find the best price, partly because Web tools to compare car rental rates aren’t nearly as sophisticated as their counterparts for flights and hotels. Here’s some advice on tracking down a good deal.

 

RECHECK YOUR RATE

“Book early — and often” is a good mantra to follow, particularly if you need a car during a peak travel time. I booked a car on Nov. 9 for an eight-day rental in Detroit around Christmas, and even after repeating my search and trying every coupon that landed in my inbox in the ensuing weeks, I couldn’t beat the original price, $218.

Jonathan Weinberg, co-founder and CEO of the car rental site AutoSlash.com, said holidays can be an exception to the usual pattern of price volatility, which often includes a decline.

“Rental car companies will typically set the price high and those prices will almost always drop,” he said. “The best way to game the system is to book as early as possible and recheck the rate.”

AutoSlash set out to automate that process for consumers, even going so far as to automatically rebook a reservation after finding a lower rate. But after car rental companies protested, Weinberg had to revise his business model; he promises a new version of the service this year. Until then, AutoSlash can still track a reservation you booked elsewhere and will let you know if it finds a better rate; you just have to do the rebooking yourself.

 

USE ONLINE COMPARISON TOOLS

As I was planning my December trip, I was surprised at how little most travel sites are investing in their car rental comparison tools. Weinberg said that’s because the commissions agencies get for car rental bookings are so low: about 2.5 to 5 percent of the rate you book, vs. 10 to 40 percent for a hotel.

Still, there are a few innovations worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for an off-airport rental. Kayak.com recently added a “map view” option to its car rental results, which makes it easy to see the location of various dealers and to decide whether it’s worth traveling farther from your home or hotel to pick up a cheaper car.

“Using the map view, you can zoom in and look for certain neighborhoods,” said Jessica Casano-Antonellis, a Kayak spokeswoman, adding that you can also limit your results to points of interest, for instance, car rental locations within a half-mile of Faneuil Hall in Boston.

A new site, Zalyn.com, promises to show you coupons that apply to your rental dates but asks you to first enter the lowest rate you can find from 10 different car rental companies. You can skip that step (for less thorough results) or check the coupon section at AutoSlash, which lists dozens of car rental deals, such as weekend rates from Enterprise starting at $9.99 a day.

 

LOOK BEYOND PRICE

According to the 2012 J.D. Power and Associates rental car satisfaction study, about four in 10 leisure travelers choose a rental car company based on price, but there are other factors such as customer service and fees that are worth considering.

The study ranked Enterprise highest in terms of overall customer satisfaction with processes like reservation, pickup and return, as well as price, followed by National and Alamo (both brands are owned by Enterprise), then Hertz, Avis and Budget.

“Enterprise has been the top rated for the past few years, with the exception of last year,” said Ramez Faza, senior account manager for global travel at J.D. Power and Associates. In 2011, Ace Rent-A-Car, an independent company, had the highest ranking but fell to eighth place on the list last year.

Faza noted that independent brands like Ace have fewer locations than their better-known competitors, so one or two bad operators can more easily drag down the reputation of the brand. Still, the lower rates independent companies typically offer can mean shortcuts in customer service; review sites like Yelp.com can help you figure out if an unfamiliar brand gets low marks.

Other factors to consider are whether your rental includes unlimited miles, any restrictions on where you can take the car and operating hours. Off-airport locations sometimes close early on weekends, so you may have to pay for an extra day if you’re running late.

If you expect to share the driving on your trip, Weinberg suggested investigating any additional driver fees, which some companies like Avis, Budget and Enterprise waive for a spouse or domestic partner.

“With Dollar and Thrifty, there is really no good way to avoid the additional driver fee,” he said. “With many of the other companies, it’s often included for free.”

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