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Getting the Best Rental-Car Prices

If you plan on renting a car this summer, a bit of forethought can help you knock quite a bit off a potential rental bill. Here are some suggestions:

Check alternate airports. If you’re heading for a city with more than one airport, check rates at each field. You often find differences, such as what I found from Hertz for a one-week compact car rental from June 5 to 12, and those differences aren’t always what you think they might be:

  • In New York City, the $411 rate at JFK was about $40 less than the rates at La Guardia or Newark.
  • In the Boston area, the rate at Logan was $95 less than the rate at “Manchester-Boston.”
  • In the San Francisco Bay area, the rate at San Francisco International ($423) was $80 less than the rate at Oakland and $160 less than the rate at San Jose.
  • For Montreal, rates were about the same at Dorval Airport and Burlington, Vermont, just across the border, at a tad over $250.
  • But for Vancouver, the rate at Vancouver International ($C145) was almost $100 less than the rate at Bellingham.

You can often book your air ticket into any of several adjacent airports, so your best deal may be to fly to/from the airport with the lowest car-rental rates.

Check an opaque website. For the same test car and dates, at JFK Airport, the “opaque” rate on Hotwire was $263, compared with $411 from Hertz. And an even lower bid at Priceline might have worked.

Check an off-airport rental. Airports pile lots of charges on rental companies with in-terminal desks and on-site lots—charges that the rental companies fob off on you, either through higher base rates or as mandatory extras:

  • In my New York test, you could knock almost $100 off the rental rate by heading to Hicksville ($360). Better yet, consider Yonkers or Princeton (both $189).
  • But in San Francisco, the downtown rate was only $10 less than the airport rate.

Unless you really want to be downtown, you have to weigh any rate difference against the extra costs and hassles of getting downtown.

In Europe, avoid stiff premium-station fees. Some European rentals carry surcharges for pickups at “premium stations,” which typically means airports and sometimes railroad stations, as well.

  • Germany and Switzerland add 20 percent to the entire bill, Austria adds 17 percent, Italy adds 15 percent to 17 percent, the Netherlands adds 16 percent with an $80 minimum, and the Czech Republic adds 12 percent.
  • Denmark adds a flat fee of $76, Belgium adds $70, France adds $52, Portugal adds $49, Ireland adds $41, Spain adds $38, the UK adds $36, and Finland adds $19.

You can avoid those charges by renting from a downtown office, but plan carefully: Although airport offices are typically open 24/7, downtown offices often keep “business hours” only. These surcharges apply only to the renting office; in most cases, you can return the car to an airport location without extra cost. I’m indebted to the good folks at Gemutlichkeit for their excellent data on European rentals; their free downloadable report is a great resource for anyone planning to drive in Europe.

Avoid stiff international drop-off rates in Europe. Although you can often pick up and return a rented car at different offices within the same country without a drop-off fee, cross-border one-way rentals almost always entail stiff drop-off charges. On some trips, you can avoid this charge by arranging two separate one-country rentals. A friend is planning a two-week trip, flying into Paris, driving through France into Italy, and returning from Naples. He found he could knock several hundred dollars off the cost by arranging no-charge one-way rentals from Paris to Menton, taking a quick train hop across the border to Ventimiglia or San Remo, and starting a new one-country rental. You can do this at many border crossings.

Caution: My data cover a one-time, one-company test. Although the figures may change for each trip, however, the conclusions do not: Check out the options before you commit.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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