Tip #1: Book early.
It's not just a cliché; the early bird really does get the worm, and he usually gets it much cheaper than everyone else. Rates depend on how many vehicles the company has on the lot at the time the rental is made, so sooner is better. Reserve your car at least a week in advance.
Tip #2: Go weekend.
Rates are typically cheaper on weekends. At one of our car provider we surveyed, you could rent a subcompact on a weekday for $64.99. When we opted for a weekend rental, the figure plummeted to a far more reasonable $22.99. If you've got some flexibility with your rental arrangements, opt for weekend rental. Your pocketbook will be eternally grateful.
Tip #3: Weekly does it.
Weekend rates are great, but weekly rates are usually the best of all. At one of our car provider we surveyed, a subcompact went for a weekday rate of $56.99. That same car could be rented on a weekly basis for just $252.99, a savings of more than 30 percent if you used the vehicle for all seven days, and more than 10 percent if you returned it after five days. If you plan on using the vehicle for five days or more, choose the weekly rate.
Tip #4: Be careful of upgrades to larger vehicles.
Sometimes, rental car companies will offer you free upgrades to larger vehicles once you arrive to your destination. They do this mainly because compacts tend to be in high demand. This sort of upgrade may seem like a great deal for you, the renter. If having a larger vehicle will genuinely enhance your rental experience, then take the upgrade. But if you have no real need for the extra space, it's cheaper to decline. Larger vehicles burn more gas, so that "free" upgrade isn't really free — you'll wind up paying for it at the pump.
Tip #5: Steer clear of airport pickups.
Picking up a rental car at the airport can be more expensive due to taxes and fees. Try looking at nearby neighborhood locations to save money. A recent study showed that renting at an airport costs more than 11.5 percent more on average than renting at a neighborhood location.
Tip #6: Got kids? Seat them yourself.
If you're traveling with a little one, you can save yourself some coin by bringing your own child safety seat. One of our car provider we surveyed charged almost $10 per day for child safety seat rental. Obviously, this can tack a significant amount onto your car rental expenses, so if you're able to, bring your own child safety seat. If you're renting a minivan, though, know that some rental minivans include integrated child safety seats at no extra cost.
Tip #7: Selecting a car.
Think carefully about what kind of car you'll need. If you're traveling with children or with a lot of gear, you may want a large sedan or SUV. If you're simply looking to save money on rental rates and gas, you'll want to reserve the smallest available model.
Tip #8: Inspect the car.
Before you drive away from the pickup station, inspect the car carefully for body damage. Be sure the lights and turn signals are working properly, and check the mileage odometer. Report any defects at once.
Tip #9: Know your car.
Familiarize yourself with the workings of the car before you leave the lot. Check which side your gas tank is on, and learn how to use the headlights, windshield wipers and turn signal. It may seem obvious, but you'll also want to memorize the make, model and color of your car -- that way you won't lose it the first time you park in a busy lot!
Tip #10: Returning your car.
Be wary of prepaid gasoline plans. Always fill the tank yourself before returning the car so that you're only paying for the amount of gas you actually used. Try to avoid the gas stations right near the airport where you're dropping off your car -- the prices tend to be highest there. Instead, fill up a few miles away.
Before leaving the vehicle, check to be sure you haven't left any personal belongings. Don't forget to check the trunk! The most common lost articles include cell phones, sunglasses and umbrellas.
Be sure that the check-in attendant inspects the car's body in your presence and that you agree about any damage. Examine your rental agreement carefully for all charges and make sure they credit any deposit to your account while you wait.