Money

Looking for a deal on some rental wheels?

With the busy summer travel season upon us, many drivers are wondering how to find the best rental car deals in a very crowded market. Are there really deals out there? What extras do you need to sign up for? And what about all the hidden charges? Travel editor Peter Greenberg was invited to appear on “Today” to answer these questions and more. Here’s his advice:

Give us a status report on the state of the car rental industry today. We’re talking about a multi-billion dollar business that seems to be getting more competitive by the day.
In the United States, the car rental industry is a highly competitive $19 billion per year market. And yet prices are still relatively reasonable. Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Rental, Hertz, National, and Thrifty are all familiar names, and many (especially Hertz and Avis) are aggressively marketing their cars as they begin to see their market share eroded by independents.

Interestingly, the battle is not only being fought at the nation’s airports. Where is all this being played out?The real battleground for rental car deals isn’t at the airports. It’s in local communities. The bulk of car rentals is the insurance replacement vehicle business. It might surprise you to know how many cars are not rented for business travelers or leisure travelers, but because someone’s car was in an accident.

With all the competition out there, one would think that it would mean cheaper rates for drivers, but a lot of people don’t know how to find the best deals, right? So how do people navigate through the many rental agencies and get the best rate?

Check the Internet:
The first thing to do is check the Internet. Use the Web as a reference. Don’t finish the deal at this point. This is the shopping around part. And which sites are good? Try these three:

  • Priceline.com
  • Sidestep.com
  • Carrentalexpress.com

One of the big online surprises is Priceline. While I am not generally a big fan of Priceline for airline tickets, the Web site continues to occasionally surprise me when it comes to rental car deals. Another surprise: Sidestep.com.

Priceline claims to have the best prices online with savings up to 25 percent over leading online sites; so I did some comparisons for three different cities and compared Sidestep.com to Priceline. New York and Florida showed savings on Priceline, but San Francisco did not. I like Sidestep a little better because it gave me the company name when I asked, and Priceline does not.

Now representing over 300 independent car rental agencies that operate out of over 1,500 locations worldwide, Carrentalexpress.com is a very good tool available to anyone looking to rent a car online. Most people consider the big name nationals as the only car rental options. These agencies only account for about 63 percent (12,000 locations) of the car rental market. The remaining 37 percent (7,000 locations) is filled by independent car rental agencies. The independents generally offer daily car rental rates 25-30 percent less and weekly rates 15 percent less than the national agencies. Because of lower operating costs and smaller overhead, these agencies can and do pass on their savings to consumers.

Use the telephone:
Now that travelers have done some comparison shopping, they know the names of some car rental agencies that are offering lower rates. The next step is to use the phone and call the local businesses. Note: You’re calling the local rental agencies, not the national 800 numbers.

In addition to the list you’ve compiled from the Internet, it’s a good idea to throw in one additional national company for a comparison. Travelers should simply choose a company they’re familiar with. 

Call local rental agencies:
I’m a big fan of a two-word concept: human being. Yes, you can and should use the Internet as an effective shopping and comparison tool, but in many cases, it can’t beat the concept of actually talking to a living, breathing human, who can think creatively, not just linearly.

Most rental car companies will tell you to book ahead, that it will cost more if you are a walk-up without a reservation. I disagree. No one knows their inventory better than local managers. Talk to a human being who may have more cars on hand than the Web site reflects and may be in a better position to discount. Sometimes drivers find additional savings of up to 50 percent when they call the local rental agencies.

Ask about local/regional specials:
It’s not always what the rental car companies offer — it’s what you ask for. And many are not heavily promoted deals. You have to ask. One example of these deals is something called “drive away deals.” Large rental car companies look at their fleets like migrating birds. At certain times of the year they find themselves stuck with an oversupply of cars. Such is the case now in Florida, so Hertz is offering rental rates as low as $9.95 a day if you promise to literally drive their cars out of Florida and return them to any one of about 20 northeastern cities. Currently Avis is offering one-way rates from Arizona to California or Las Vegas. 

Know the total cost:
Drivers should only confirm a reservation when the total price has been disclosed. At this point in the process, the traveler has followed all of our recommended steps and has gotten a great rate. They’ve locked in the price, but they’re not done.

Ask for additional perks:
It’s up to the consumers to ask for these things.

From Avis: AARP members receive a free tank of gas in addition to a discount of up to 25 percent. This is a great value when you consider the price of gas at over $2 a gallon on average nationally. From June 1 through July 15, when you rent one child safety seat, you get the second one free. That’s a savings of $8 a day or maximum of $50 per rental.

And these may not come free, but here are some helpful new features that are available: Hertz pioneered their Never-Lost global positioning system. And now Avis has their own system — a phone that also provides directions on the display.

What about collision and liability insurance. What do we need to know?
Confirm that the collision and liability insurance meets your needs. Translation: You may not need it at all if your own automobile insurance already covers you. Also, be aware of some credit card deals that promise rental car insurance. Yes, it is insurance, but in many cases, it’s not primary insurance, but secondary insurance and only kicks in when your primary insurance limits are exhausted. This will take two calls: one to the credit card company and one to the insurance company.

What do travelers who are renting overseas need to know?
When it comes to renting overseas, for those who book in this country and get a conformation, one of the biggest sources of complaints is local rental companies overseas that honor the reservation, but not the rate. So, even if you have a confirmation from the main company, you need to confirm both the reservation and the rate with the local franchise directly. Make a phone call! And yes. Size matters. In both the U.S. and overseas, you need to arrive at a mutually agreeable definition of terms. Economy cars in the U.S. might mean the equivalent of a Yugo overseas. Compact in the U.S. might mean an even smaller car overseas, with only a manual transmission.

Peter Greenberg is the "Today" show travel editor.

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