Originally created 04/28/04

How to drive off with rental-car savings this summer



NEW YORK - Waiting until the last minute to book your rental car will cost you more this summer.

Demand for rental cars - and travel in general - is picking up, which means that a tighter supply of cars will drive up prices even further.

Already, daily rates for cars rented at airports, which typically account for 60 percent of all rentals, have been about $4 to $5 more than a year ago for midsize cars, according to Abrams Travel Data Service, a car-rental market research firm based in Long Beach, Calif.

According to a Travelocity.com study last year, the average car renter pays an additional 24.4 percent when they rent a car at a major U.S. airport.

All of this means that it is even more important for consumers to book ahead. You don't lose anything by making a reservation since you typically aren't penalized for canceling at the last minute. Even if prices were to later decline, you could always cancel your existing reservation and make a new booking.

Besides booking early, there are other ways to save money. For one, make sure you understand the full cost of your rental. Depending on which airport you fly into, you may be hit with a slew of additional charges ranging from a visitor tax to pay for a city's new sports stadium or convention center, to the various charges for sales taxes and airport fees.

Many of the online travel-booking sites such as Travelocity, Expedia - a unit of InterActiveCorp. - and Orbitz Inc. now include the total cost of renting the vehicle so you can see how the base rates compare to the total costs. And be sure to check out rates directly on the car-rental companies' Web sites since you may be able to find better rates or learn about other promotions and discounts.

If you have the time and are willing to put up with a bit of inconvenience, you can save even more by getting out of the airport and renting a car in town. Enterprise Rent-A-Car Co., which has about 94 percent of its branches in off-airport locations, is one of the last holdouts that hasn't announced an across-the-board-price increase.

Many of the additional surcharges and fees are strictly airport-rental based, said Neil Abrams, a rental-car consultant in Purchase, N.Y., and president of Abrams Consulting Group Inc.

"A customer would be wise in considering options off-airport," he said. In fact, local rates can be about 10 percent to 20 percent lower than airport rates, according to Abrams Consulting.

Renting a vehicle during the week is likely to be more expensive since you'll be competing with business travelers. Given a greater supply of cars on the weekends, "the weekend is a great time to rent a car," said Sam Fulton, director of car-rental operations for the Orbitz travel Web site.

Be sure to review your insurance policies before showing up at the rental-car counter since most rental-car agencies will try to sell you collision or liability coverage. In many cases, you may already be covered under your own auto-insurance policy or credit card.

Visa USA, for example, recently expanded its car-rental insurance, known as collision damage waiver coverage, to all of its credit-card holders, a benefit previously reserved only for premium cardholders. If you are already covered, declining renters' insurance can save you between $9 to $20 a day, Fulton said.

Amid soaring fuel prices, don't get caught returning a rental with an empty tank. Refueling costs, which include gas and labor costs, can be more than $5 a gallon. You can also prepay for gas at the market rates but make sure that if you buy a full tank's worth of gas ahead of time, you aim to return the car with as close to an empty tank as possible, said Kennewell.

And if you are comfortable with using a smaller rental agency, you will often be able to find cheaper rates. Orbitz, for example, lists up to 23 different car-rental companies, including many of the smaller suppliers.

Finally, make sure you are taking advantage of any discounts for which that you qualify. Members of AAA and AARP can get rate discounts through the groups' rental-car partners. And Upraise members who book through Avis, owned by Cendant Corp. which also owns Budget, can earn 5 percent of the amount they spend with Avis to put into a college savings account.