The beauty of car rentals is that you do not have to pay in advance. This means that you can reserve cars and reserve more cars until you find the best deal possible! It's so easy but the key to finding the best deal is searching often and early. There is no real secret on getting the cheapest rates, or I just haven't figured it out yet, but this is what I do:
- Step 1: Start early. I usually start searching for our rental car 8-10 months in advance of a trip. Some people think I'm crazy for planning our trips a year in advance but there is a valid reason for it, it really does save you money. I hate spending money that doesn't need to be spent or paying full price when you don't have to, and theoretically that just gives you more vacation spending money to enjoy!
- Step 2: Make reservations often. There is no limit to number of car rental reservation you can have so I usually make a few. You can cancel reservations easily online and with no fees, so there is no reason not to. When I start my search I make a reservation, if I find a better deal I reserve it and then cancel the original reservation I had. I sometimes even will hold reservations for several different car types for the same trip. I usually do this and wait until a few weeks before the trip to decide which type of car I want. For Hawaii, specifically, I am looking for great deals on SUV's or Jeep Wranglers (specialty cars). Sometimes you really need a specific vehicle for the locations you want to visit and, especially on the Big Island, often it requires 4WD. (Tip: in Hawaii the only rental cars that guarantee you 4WD are Jeep Wranglers, either the 2-door or 4-door versions. If you rent an "SUV" it is likely a model with only 2WD.) Although, to get the best deal you cannot be too picky on the type of car you rent, but sometimes you get lucky and get exactly what you are looking for.
- Step 3: Keep Searching. Yes, you already have a car or two reserved but how do you know that you have the best deal? Start over and search again. If you find a better deal, reserve it! I generally start searching weekly, then increase to daily (or, at least, every other day) searches about 8 weeks prior to the trip. Once you have it down like I do, it will only take you a minute or two to complete a search. Once your trip is within a week or two you will notice that prices have shot up and your search is over.
- Step 4: Make your Final Selection. Now that you have all of these reservations piled up, select the price and the vehicle that is best for your trip and budget. I keep a paper copy of all of my reservations in a file, compare them, choose the best one, and then cancel the rest. Viola!
Where to search?
- The first place I always search is Priceline. It gives you an idea of car rental prices for several rental companies in once place. Once I find the best deal from the Priceline site I go directly to that car rental company's website and repeat the search. Often times I find that the rates directly through the car rental companies are even better than through Priceline.
- Another good place to check for deals is Hotwire. Hotwire has "hot rates" that hide the name of the car rental company but give you the type of car and cost. I always compare these rates to Priceline to see if they really are a good deal. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't. However if you book a "hot rate" through Hotwire you are required to pay for it in advance, so I wouldn't even consider this until a few weeks before the trip and you find a way better deal than your current reservation. This generally doesn't work for me, but once or twice I've been lucky and found a great "hot rate".
- The pick-up and drop-off times you enter into your car rental search will affect the price. Once you go over 24 hours there are additional charges per hour. So keep this in mind when completing your search and try to keep your pick-up time as close to your drop-off time as possible and it will give you the best rate.
- Pay attention to the fees and taxes. Many websites will show you these amazing too good to be true prices, they just don't tell you that it doesn't include all of the taxes and fees until you start making the reservation. Car rentals tend to have many fees so when you are comparing rates be sure to check if you are comparing apples to apples.