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Car rentals in the USA – Tips, prices and surprises

Friday, August 6, 2010 by

Very cheap car rental price

You didn't expect that..

Thinking about a road trip around the US national parks? California coast maybe? And how about something über-cool such as renting an open-top Ford Mustang for a ride around Las Vegas? Or perhaps a Jeep Cherokee for exploring the Rockies? Poor student? No money? No worries! Car rentals in the USA are cheaper than you think, especially after the season! And because a few of you already asked us for car-rental tips, here they are!

We already mentioned car rentals, along with Driveaway and RV-rentals in a previous article. But now, let’s expand considerably on cars.

MAGIC TRIP
Imagine renting a car in Billings, Montana and returning in Las Vegas 7 days later. That way you could see (click on the links :-) YellowstoneGrand Teton, the Salt Lake and the CityMonument ValleyAntelope CanyonBryce CanyonZion NPGrand CanyonLake PowellHoover Dam and Las Vegas. Don’t think you can do this by bus..

WHAT YOU NEED
Your home driving licence, the International Driving License, a credit card and in some cases to be over 25. You may also need some friends to fill the car with to share the cost, Leona is an example. We will share with you a few trip ideas in future posts.

RETURNING WHERE YOU RENTED
You fly to Las Vegas, rent a car, explore the area, return the car in Las Vegas and take a plane to wherever your flight home leaves from.  This is the cheapest option.

RETURNING ELSEWHERE
Returning elsewhere may cost you extra, depending on how far away you will return the car from the point where you rented it. It’s called “drop off charge” and it can easily be a few hundred dollars if you return the car half-way across the country away! Why? Because the company will eventually have to get the car back, which costs money.

RETURNING ELSEWHERE – SHOP AROUND
If you want to rent in San Francisco an drive to New York, you should shop around. Partly the drop-off charges vary as any price and partly the rental company may just have a car from another location at the place where you are renting it. Maybe a New York car in Buffalo, and you actually want to return the car in New York. Some companies may waive the drop off charge in such case, so it’s a good idea to ask about this. Call several rental companies, ask what the drop off charge will be and make your decision.

LOCAL RENTAL COMPANIES
Occasionally you may be able to rent from a small local company, rather than from a big national chain. The local companies are almost always much cheaper and may also be less restrictive towards drivers under 25. But they are hard to find unless you ask somebody who knows the place, or unless you rent where you work, i.e. you know the place yourself. Keep in mind that since these companies are local, you have to return the car back to them, you can’t return it elsewhere.

THEY ALWAYS GET YOU
You see an ad for a car “from $20 per day” and think “omg, that’s just what I need”. Well, be prepared to always pay more than the cheap price you’ve seen in the ad. You’ll end up paying for the loss-damage waiver (so that if you scratch the car, you won’t pay for the damage), for passenger insurance (you travel with others, right?), for an extra driver (you want to take turns driving, don’t you?), for being under 25 (if they rent to you at all), for not returning the car with completely full tank (they easily charge $7 a gallon for that!!), for late return (you said you’d return it at 11:00 and you arrive at 12:34), etc.

SHOPPING AROUND
It’s tedious. Generally, you have to go through the entire booking process and just before you make the final purchase, you see the final price. Well, almost final, you won’t see the late charges, not-full-tank charges, etc. Doing this perhaps six times to check out all the rental companies available can take the whole afternoon. But.. If you make $8 per hour, spending three hours to save $200 can be well worth it. Alternatively, you just can shop around at airports, because the rental companies are all there, so you can simply walk around and ask.

BIG/SMALL AIRPORTS
If you rent a car at the JFK airport in New York, it will cost you much more than the same car rented in Syracuse, NY. So if you for example wish to explore the state of New York, you may want to start in Syracuse and end in New York City, rather than the other way around. Try what would your planned trip cost in the opposite direction; it may cost the same; it may be quite different.

RENT A VAN
A van will always cost more than any other kind of vehicle, but it seats more people. So if seven of you rent a van, it may come out cheaper than a car.

HAVE FUN!
Finally the main point, eh? You might find it unbelievable, but in the US, a car is pretty much just a car. Students always search for the cheapest car available and lose out because they don’t even look at what a cool big one may cost. Don’t make that mistake, try! You will find out that Jeep Cherokee doesn’t cost much more to rent than Ford Fiesta! So as worktravelers who sleep in cheapest hostels and actually work to be able to travel, you can loosen up for once. Rent that white Ford Mustang convertible and have a time of your life in Las Vegas, San Francisco or Honolulu :-) How about a Porsche for one day in life ;-) If four people share the price..

WHERE TO RENT
We listed a few of the biggest US national rental chains in the previous article, but renting directly from those companies may or may not be your best bet. See SHOPPING AROUND above. Type into Google something like car rentals billings if you wish to explore Montana, or car rentals las vegas if that catches your fancy, and see what comes out. It will often be booking websites, rather than the actual rental companies. But big booking sites often command such huge discounts from the rental companies, that you may get the car cheaper from a booking website than directly from the rental company itself. Again, you will have to spend a few hours trying all possible combinations. And regardless what Google shows you, some of the biggest booking sites are www.expedia.com,  www.travelocity.com and www.hotwire.com.

EXAMPLES
Have a look at the settings.  We tried for you Economy Car Rentals, Expedia. com and HotWire.com. Hot Wire generally finds the cheapest stuff, costing half as much as anywhere else, but the rates change every minute, so you have to be ready to buy now if you like something.

[Note: The prices in tens of dollars are for one day, those in hundreds of dollars are for one week.]

Car rental data we tried

The rental we tried

Car rental results example Expedia

Big cheaper than small

Car rental results example cars

Example: cars

Car rental results example SUV and convertible

SUVs and Convertible

Car rental results example van

Van for 7 passengers

Car rental HotWire results example cars

HotWire is hot!

Car rental HotWire results example SUV and convertible

Cheap SUV & Convertible

Exchange student in Ford Mustang

About $80, for a day

Mount Rushmore

By bus? Hardly..

Questions? Ask below :-) In English, please.

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