Which city has the best rental car deals, and some bargain-hunting tips

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Nothing can torpedo your travel budget as quickly as a crazy expensive rental car.  So what U.S. cities are most likely to deliver a rental car bargain?  And which ones are the most expensive?  The answers, of course, are complicated — maybe even more complicated than finding a good price on airfare.  But here are some suggestions that might help you save some money, along with the latest research on which city has the best rental car deals.

There are some websites that crunch the numbers on rental car deals.  As I’m writing this, the most recent list I can find comes from cheapcarrental.net.  It ranked 50 cities on the average rental car price. Here are the top and bottom ten:

  • 1. Detroit $446
  • 2. Memphis $425
  • 3. Philadelphia $406
  • 4. Kansas City $385
  • 5. Pittsburgh $352
  • 6. Indianapolis $331
  • 7. Sacramento $329
  • 8. New York City $326
  • 9. Anchorage $325
  • 10. Albuquerque $316
  • 41. Oakland$200
  • 42. St Louis$199
  • 43. San Francisco$198
  • 44. San Diego$197
  • 45. Las Vegas$149
  • 46. Columbus$168
  • 47. Miami$163
  • 48. Tampa$157
  • 49. Los Angeles$130
  • 50. Orlando$120

Some of these are spot-on, based on my experience, but some require more explanation.  Take Anchorage, Alaska.  In the busy summer months, you’ll probably never find a rental car for $325.  It’s more likely you’ll pay twice that amount.  But in Fall, Winter, or Spring, you may pay half that price.  Other cities on the top ten list of rental car bargains are much more stable — like Pittsburgh, which I’ve always found to be slightly pricier than most destinations.

At the bottom of the list, it’s obvious that California and Florida dominate with the cheapest rental cars, on average.  I’ll agree that you can usually find a good deal in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

But that was 2020.  This is 2021. Which city has the best deals?

A lot has changed in the world of travel, and now, deals are a lot harder to find.  As I write this, I’m finding some of the most expensive rates in Las Vegas, for a one-week rental in late April, 2021.  I plugged in dozens of cities, and the only real bargain I found was in… wait for it… Bozeman, Montana.  And to be honest, I wouldn’t mind going back there again.  But Bozeman isn’t Vegas.

TakeMyTrip’s tips for rental car deals

If you’re a serious road-tripper, you might care less about where you go, and more about simply going.  And that’s a great approach to take, if you’re on a budget, and willing to make plans based on the best deals.  For example, if I went to Bozeman, I’d have access to the north side of Yellowstone National Park, where the road stays open to vehicles year-round.  I’d probably see some bison and lots of snow.  It’s not exactly what I’ve been hoping for, but it would still be a great trip.

But my original goal was to go to Nevada, Utah, and maybe Arizona.  Here are some tips that could help me, and you, find a really great rental car deal.

Sit down.  Search.  Take Notes.

Grab a pad of paper and keep track of everything you search.  If you don’t, you’ll quickly forget which airport offered which price.  If you’re in the “I’ll go anywhere” state of mind, you may end up searching dozens of airport codes.  Once you’re done, you can rule out the destinations with outrageous prices, and see what’s left.

You might also want to keep track of the prices on different car types.  At certain times, an SUV, pickup truck, or van might be the same price or cheaper than a mid-sized sedan.

Search for rental cars before you search for airfare.

Or, at the very least, search both before you book anything.  These days, you might find a round-trip airline ticket for $100, only to find out that the city you’ve selected only has $500 rental cars.  A different city might have a more expensive ticket, but a much cheaper rental car.  If you’re cool with that, you could save a big chunk of money.

Once you’ve found an airfare AND a rental car rate that works for you, book them both.  Don’t give either of them a chance to go up, before you’ve locked them both in.

Look for airports nearby, and try different days & times.

If you’re determined to fly to a certain area, you may still have options.  A trip to San Francisco could take you to SFO, or Oakland, or San Jose.  Heck, you could even fly into Sacramento if you don’t mind the drive.

If you have some flexibility on which day you fly, you could save a bundle.  Also consider your pickup and drop-off times.  A car rental that lasts 7 days and 1 hour could be $50 more than one that just lasts 7 days.  Arriving back at the airport an hour earlier could be a worthwhile sacrifice.

And consider this, too.  If you’re flying in at night, consider picking up your car the next morning.  All you need is a hotel near the airport that offers a free shuttle service. This also works for your drop-off time.  If you’re flying out early, return your car the night before, then take the hotel shuttle.  Saving 12 hours on your car rental could save you an entire day’s rent.  Not to mention, in the morning, all you have to worry about is getting on the plane.

Search a few different websites.

Starting on a website like Kayak or Hotwire can help you figure out, generally, the kind of prices you’ll be dealing with.  But don’t stop there.  If you see that one brand of rental car is cheaper than the rest, go to that brand’s website, and try your search again.  Some offer prepayment discounts, and they may also have a ‘deals’ page (with coupon codes that may or may not work).

Go back and search again, even after you’ve booked.

Depending on how you book your rental car, you may be able to cancel your reservation and re-book at a cheaper rate.  The prices change constantly, so it’s possible you can snag an even better rental car deal by checking again.  Once you’re sure you can cancel without a penalty, book your new reservation, then cancel the original one.

So what’s your secret for finding rental car deals?

I’d love to hear your suggestions.  Drop a note in the comments section and share your tips.

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