Since my car's been in the shop for a while, I've been forced to rent. And I've learned about the rental car system.
If any system is sufficiently messed up, and you can find a way to take advantage of it, you can save a ton of money.
In this case, the rental car system is pretty messed up. Dave Barry once joked that the world would not truly be fair until two people sitting next to each other on the same airplane had paid the same price for their tickets.
Same way with rental cars.
My first rental car was actually paid for by my company. A Chrysler 300 from Dollar. Last year's Motor Trend Car of the Year. Wow. It was pretty darn cool, and I didn't have to pay for it.
For my second car, I got a Pontiac Grand Am from Alamo. Using coupons in the Entertainment Book, and a discount they give to anybody who uses the coupon book, I was able to get it for about $115 for five days.
So when the day came to return it, I knew I wouldn't have my car back yet. So I called up Alamo the night before and asked what it would be to keep the car another four days. They said it would normally be about $130, but with a $10 a day fee for keeping the car past the contract, it would come out to $170.
"So lemme get this straight," I said, "It would be cheaper to go in and get a new one than keep this one?"
"Probably. Go ahead and call and see."
So I hung up with the local rental center, then called the main distribution center. They rented me a mid-size for the next morning for four days. Using another coupon, it came out to about $80.
So I go the next day, drop off my mid-size, walk inside, pay for the new midsize, go back outside, and pick up a full-size. See, there were no mid-sizes on the lot, so I got a free upgrade. Even though the mid-size I had just returned was sitting maybe 20 feet away with the keys still in it, it hadn't been "cleaned and prepped" yet, or whatever.
So here's some tips for renting cars:
1. Always make your reservation for a small car. You should do this in the hopes of getting upgraded free. If you want a bigger car, and they don't upgrade you free, you can always "change your mind" at the last minute. In my case, I made the reservation for the smallest size the coupon would allow. That did happen to be big enough for me, but I did get upgraded once.
2. Always make your reservation over the phone at the 1-800-number. Since the phone center folks know less about what's on the lot than the lot guys, they're more likely to book you something the rental lot won't have. This is a huge help when you're renting moving vans. I once made reservations over the phone for a Ryder center that, unbeknownst to the phone center folks, only had like two trucks. Since the small one was out, they were forced to rent me the big one (and it was huge, probably bigger than my apartment) at the same price.
3. Use Coupons. The Entertainment Book has great coupons, but you can find them in the travel section of the Sunday paper, too.
4. Call around. If it takes you an hour and you save $40, you just made $40 an hour for your time. Not bad, eh? Ask about each company's specials before you tell them what you want--you may be able to fit the special into your plans.
5. Use the web only after you've called. Part of the messed up rental car system is that there are different specials on the web vs. on the phone.
If you have any other tips or ideas, feel free to post them!