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What’s the Real Cost of Your Rental Car?

Last month, I dissected the real cost of airplane tickets by totaling the fare, taxes, and additional fees incurred for checking luggage and other services. This month, I’ll be taking a look at another aspect of travel that often leads to sticker shock: rental cars.

It’s not uncommon to show up at a rental car agency, having reserved a car at one price, only to leave with a much higher bill once taxes, surcharges, fuel costs, and insurance fees are factored in. Let’s compare a few trips to see how these extras can affect your final price.

The Strategy{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}I compared three different rental car agencies (Alamo, Avis, and Hertz), as well as an opaque travel provider (Hotwire), for reservations in August:

  • A weeklong economy car rental, picking up and dropping off at Los Angeles International Airport
  • A weekend intermediate car rental, picking up and dropping off at San Francisco International Airport
  • A weeklong full-size car rental, picking up and dropping off at Miami International Airport

All rentals include unlimited mileage. I then added in the following services for each rental:

  • A GPS device
  • Collision-damage waiver insurance (CDW)
  • Fuel service drop-off (pay a flat rate to drop off your car without a full tank of gas)

The caveats: Fuel prices change daily, so all final prices discussed here are estimates. Opaque sites like Hotwire typically show you the base price, with all taxes and fees included, and must be prepaid in advance. Extras such as GPS, insurance, and the like can be added on later, in person. As such, I wasn’t able to include those items in my opaque price quotes.

Weeklong Economy Car Rental in Los Angeles

  • Avis: $846 total (Base price with taxes: $681)
  • Alamo: $849 total (Base price with taxes: $679)
  • Hertz: $873 total (Base price with taxes: $705)

For this comparison, Alamo and Avis came in neck and neck for total prices. When I checked prices on Hotwire, however, I was quoted a base rate of $490, with all taxes included. This option saves approximately $200 over the competitors’ base prices.

Weekend Intermediate Car Rental in San Francisco

  • Avis: $262 total (Base price with taxes: $161)
  • Alamo: $351 total (Base price with taxes: $248)
  • Hertz: $266 total (Base price with taxes: $171)

For this scenario, Avis and Hertz were roughly equal in total costs, with Alamo’s price coming in at about $80 more. Hotwire quoted a base price of $79 with all taxes—a discount of at least $82 when compared to the cheapest base price (Avis) and up to $169 when compared to Alamo’s most-expensive base rate. Again, the opaque site offered substantial savings for travelers willing to pre-pay.

Weeklong Full-Size Car Rental in Miami

  • Avis: $959 total (Base price with taxes: $652)
  • Alamo: $945 total (Base price with taxes: $667)
  • Hertz: $973 total (Base price with taxes: $660)

Unlike my previous test comparisons, this time Alamo beat the competition for total prices. Hotwire’s base prices with taxes came in at $350, undercutting the standard rental companies’ base rates by about $300.

Your Upcoming Trip

For your next trip, be prepared to get out your calculator when starting your comparison shopping. Tally the daily rates, all potential surcharges and fees, and the costs of extra services (such as a GPS) that you’ll need. Additionally, look to see if any rental car companies are having sales, offer discounts for AAA memberships and the like, or provide prepayment savings. Compare apples to apples across companies to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

As demonstrated here, prepaying through an opaque site such as Hotwire will often yield big savings. With the opaque sites’ low base fares, you’ll then be able to add on the extra features and services and still save, because your first transaction has such a significantly low starting price. Always be sure to test the opaque sites against the competition to determine if they offer the best value for your trip, of course.

Do you have a strategy for comparing true costs across rental car companies when booking a trip? Have you found one company to offer consistently decent prices for your travel, fees or no fees? Share your tips and travel advice by submitting a comment below!

(Editor’s Note: is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Hotwire.)

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