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By now, you probably know the story. COVID strikes in 2020, travel numbers plummet to near zero and rental car companies are forced to sell off their inventory in attempts to avoid bankruptcy. But when travel resumed, computer chip shortages and other supply chain issues prevented them from replacing their cars fast enough to meet surging demand. And the real bad news is that this so-called rental car apocalypse isn't over yet.
Reserving a rental car used to be an afterthought, but in 2022 finding an affordable car has to be one of the first and most important aspects of your travel planning. This year, I've spent far more time and effort than ever before figuring out ways to find reasonably priced rental cars. But thankfully, I've found numerous ways to make sure that I always have an affordable car when I need one.
How to Find Rental Car Discount Codes
If you wanted a drink in the 1920s, you had to know which door in town to knock on, and what the secret code was to enter a speakeasy. One hundred years later, you kind of need to do the same thing to find an affordable rental car. When you enter the right discount code into the rental car company's website, the rate you receive can be quite reasonable. But without a code, the prices quoted can be downright scary.
So what are these codes, and how do you get one? Rental car companies negotiate discounts with various organizations, including governments, corporations, schools, clubs and other associations. These organizations are then assigned a code to use to obtain the discounted rate when reserving a car online.
Some examples of where you can find rental car discount codes:
- Employer: if you work for a major corporation, or even a relatively small company that has a lot of employee travel, then it's likely that they have a discount code with one or more of the major rental car companies (there are about 10 in the United States). To get the discount code, you can speak to your company's travel department, or just ask a coworker who travels frequently.
- Membership in an Association: You might also have a code associated with a company or group that you're a part of, ranging from AAA, AARP and Costco to any sports or hobby association that you belong to. Also check the alumni association if you attended college.
- Travel Loyalty Programs: Look for codes offered by your favorite airline frequent flyer program or hotel loyalty program, which are essentially available for anyone to use.
- Credit Cards: Finally, look for codes available for Visa Signature and Visa Infinite cardholders, Mastercard World and World Elite cardholders as well as holders of the Platinum Card® from American Express.
I'm also a huge fan of the American Express Platinum Card benefit at Hertz that gives you an extra four hours grace period. It always seems that my departing flight leaves just a few hours later in the day than my arriving flight, which would otherwise require me to pay for an additional day that I hardly used (this code can be used with other Hertz codes). Find as many codes as you can, and try each one of them until you come across one that works best for your travel needs. Also consider using a code that might be available to your spouse, domestic partner or any other companion traveling with you.
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- APRSee Pay Over Time APR
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Cardholders have access to credits for hotels, digital entertainment, Walmart+, airline fees, Uber Cash and more. Those who can use enough credits can offset the hefty annual fee, but otherwise, the value may be out of reach.
The American Express Platinum Card isn’t a standout when it comes to rewards rates, but if you’re looking for a card that will elevate your travel experience and provide you with solid monthly lifestyle benefits, this one should be on your radar.
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- At $695 per year, this premium card has one of the most expensive annual fees
- "Use it or lose it" benefits, as statement credits don't roll over
- Long list of coupon-like perks may be hard to keep track of
A Word of Caution About Rental Car Codes
Search the internet for rental car codes long enough, and you'll come across lists of codes meant for various companies and organizations that you aren't a part of. In most cases, no one will ever ask you to prove that you are part of those organizations, especially if you rent at an airport in the United States and you're part of the rental car company's frequent renter program that allows you to skip the counter.
But if you rent at an in-town location, in a foreign country or in any other place that requires you to visit the counter, then you risk being asked to show proof that you qualify for use of that code. Avis in particular has been cracking down on the use of codes not meant for renters. Use your best judgment and only do what you're comfortable with.
Get Elite Status
Not only is it very easy to get elite status with a rental car company, it's also incredibly valuable. Having elite status allows you to skip the counter at most locations and go directly to your car. Many rental car companies now allow their elites to select their own car, while enjoying discounts, car upgrades and credit towards rental award days.
You could earn elite status the old fashion way, by renting often, or you can just receive it based on the credit cards you have. For example, the American Express Platinum Card offers elite status at National, Avis, and Hertz.
And once you have status with one company, you can easily request a status match at the equivalent level with another company. For example, I was easily able to match my Hertz President's Club status to National's top-tier Executive Elite status, which I prefer.
How to Get Free or Cheap Rental Cars
Other Ways to Minimize Rental Car Costs
Once you've found the best rental car discount codes and obtained the highest levels of elite status, you should book your car as early as possible. However, you might still find your rental car to be a bit expensive. This is when it makes sense to minimize your need for a rental car.
For example, here are ways you can minimize rental car costs:
- Take advantage of free hotel shuttles: Staying at an airport hotel with a free shuttle on your first and/or last nights can easily help you avoid an extra day's worth of charges.
- Use rideshare or public transportation: Using shared ride services or public transit can also help you subtract a day or two. And when you can rent a car at an in-town location, you can often avoid many of the fees added to airport rentals.
- Look for convenient stays: If you can stay downtown, or at a full-service resort for at least part of your trip, then you might find a few Uber or Lyft rides to be much more affordable and convenient than renting a car.
Rental Car Alternatives
If you've tried all of these strategies, and are still unable to find an affordable car rental, then it's time to look beyond typical rental car agencies. One option is to rent a car from a dealer. In particular, many Subaru, Toyota and Nissan dealers offer affordable car rentals, but it can't hurt to ask any dealer. The biggest problem is their limited hours and the need to get a ride to and from the dealer.
There are also car sharing services like Turo to consider. The advantage is that you know exactly which car you'll get, and it can be affordable. But you also have to consider that the service and the car is only as reliable as its owner, who is someone you've never met. I've also found the cost of Turo rentals and insurance (which have never been covered by my credit cards) to be not as attractive as I'd hoped.
I believe that rental car prices will eventually return to normal, but it isn't likely to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, you need to use every available resource to minimize your rental car costs. By taking advantage of these strategies, I've been able to enjoy some pretty nice affordable cars lately, even while so many travelers have been confounded by soaring prices.