Car rentals are an odd business. And for the rental companies, it can be a nightmare. After all, if you want to maximize efficiency, you want every car in the fleet running all the time, not sitting in a parking lot. Managing which cars to put where, must be difficult - even with computer models. So you want people to rent, and oftentimes deals can be struck, even with the "big rental car companies." But in many cases, most folks engage is faux financial acumen when renting a car.
For example, renting a car through Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, carrentals.com, or whatever, is not necessarily likely to get you a great price. Yes, I know you saw a lumbering William Shatner do a funny ad for an online company that will get you "Great deals" on airfare, hotels, or car rentals. But there are two things wrong with these scenarios.
First, these companies use saturation advertising, and saturation advertising isn't cheap - as the folks from the ill-fated Pets.com found out in a hurry. So the companies that are hyped on TeeVee are not going to be your best bargains as they have high overheads.
Second, to offset these high overheads, these companies have to collect fees from the Hotels, Car Rental Companies, or Airlines. And these fees are not insubstantial. So right off the bat, by going through a 3rd party, you are not getting the "best deal possible!!!" (which it must be, because they used three exclamation points!!!) but are rather just comparing mediocre deals and taking the least mediocre of them.
I recently searched a number of these sites for rentals from Jacksonville, Florida, for July 6-8. They all claim a "Best deal of $16!" but the deals listed are nowhere to be found, when you enter actual reservation dates. The actual prices, as it turns out, are the same from site to site, as all these sites do is aggregate information from the car rental agencies using the same (or similar) engines. In fact, I can bet that several of these "bargain" sites are really just the same site.
And most of the prices were no big savings over Hertz or Enterprise rentals directly from their respective sites. Within a few dollars, all of the listed compact cars for a little under $50 a day, which pretty much matched what Hertz and Enterprise had listed on their own sites. The only exception was AVIS, which showed outrageous prices on its own sites (the lowest price being over $100 a day for a compact crap-mobile) but had the same cars listed on the aggregator sites for less than half price.
So there are often no "huge savings" to be had at these data farming sites, from what I can see.
Oftentimes, you can do better directly at the car company's website. Sometimes you can even do better just by walking up and asking - depending on what their car inventory is. For example, I once rented a car at SFO using CheapCarRentals.com and when I got there, the agent said they had "lost my reservation". I showed her the confirmation and she said, "No problem, we can honor that price" - you see, by "losing the reservation", but booking me a car at the same price, they make more money, as they do not have to pay the referral fees to the 3rd party.
So such referral places can be useful. But ask if you can get a better rate (or an upgrade) by not using the referral. It might work.
Also, many competing agencies want your business - and will offer to rent a car for the same price or less. It never hurts to check, even if their advertised price is higher. Again, this depends on availability. If they are "sold out" of cars, your options are far more limited. Sometimes, you can just walk down the line, if they aren't busy, and ask each place, "what is your best price on a car?" - but if the airport is busy, that obviously isn't feasible.
And increasingly, the rental car companies get "sold out" of cars - they rent everything they have in inventory. Just as airlines are overbooking to generate more income, and flying planes that are nearly always full, car rental places are often booked solid when it comes to rentals, particularly at popular locations on busy, holiday weekends (time-shifting away from popular events is one way to get great bargains on EVERYTHING, but more about that, in another posting).
Free upgrades are common in the business. Usually, if you book the cheapest economy car, and they are out of that car, they will "upgrade" you for free, to a larger vehicle. I usually book the smallest car there is, and usually get the upgrade. Of course, you can't count on this, so if you need a larger car, book it. But I've booked a Geo and ended up with an Excursion, on more than on occasion.
Some folks have reported, online, as being charged for the larger vehicle. Usually, if you have a reservation for a smaller car, and it is not available, they have to give you the upgrade for the same price. Anything less is bait-and-switch.
Frequent traveling clubs and miles and crap are fine and all - if you are a frequent traveler. But like airline miles, chasing these rebates is often a false economy, as the savings are pitiful compared to other options, as we shall see below. If you are a busy traveler and rent often, they can be a good deal, but mostly in terms of convenience, not cost.
Back in the day, when I was a young hot-shot and had a standing reservation on United from IAD to SFO, I used the Hertz #1Club Gold. It saved a lot of time and paperwork, and when you got to the car, it was there with the trunk open, under cover, with your name above it in lights. Pretty slick - but you pay for slick.
And of course, Hertz is famous for offering coupons or membership in their #1 Gold club to members of affiliate groups, like the American Bar Association. While this is better than paying their retail price, the resulting price is still higher than some other rental car agencies.
Of course, part of the cost of renting a car is not just the daily rental rate, but the collision damage waiver (CDW) and liability insurance offered by the rental companies. These are real cash-cows for the car rental companies. You may be able to save nearly half the cost of a car rental if you can avoid these, however, there are some big caveats.
First, check your car insurance to see if it covers collision and/or liability for your rental car. With GEICO, you may have collision coverage - if you have collision coverage on your car. For me, this may make it worthwhile to add collision to my car, if even for a week, if I am renting a car. Also check to see if your car insurance covers liability - this can save you the hassle of buying additional liability coverage from the rental company.
Some credit card companies, such as Simmons First have rental car collision coverage, if you rent using their card. Read the fine print, though - they require you to make the reservation in that card and complete the transaction with the card.
Some folks report that resolving damage issues without a CDW can be time-consuming. As you might imagine, the car rental company isn't going to let you drop off a wrecked Mustang and then go traipsing off to the airplane without signing a few documents. And oftentimes, they require a deposit on your credit card or other means of securing payment. Reimbursement from your insurance company or credit card can take time. With the CDW, you can walk away, in most cases.
So, if you damage the car, leave lots of time at the airport to do the paperwork. Again, wrecking a car should not be like an all-expenses-paid spa vacation, should it?
Recently, some folks have reported being nicked for nicks and scratches to returned cars. They get home and are sent a bill to have a fender repainted or some other minor damage. For this reason, it is very important to get the receiving person to sign off on the car when you return it, as undamaged, and avoid using "drop boxes" to drop off cars un-inspected.
But even if you avoid CDW and other add-on insurance coverages, get a great daily rate and a free upgrade from Geo to Cadillac, there are better bargains to be found. And usually, these are off the airport.
The availability of off-airport car rentals varies from airport to airport. I found one such place, Able Rent-A-Car, near SFO (sadly, they appear to have gone out of business since then). There is a like-named company in Ft. Lauderdale, with very low rates, however. They would pick me up at the airport, drive me to their office, in the back of a nearby motel, and rent me a car - usually a used Escort or Taurus (this was back in the day) for about half what Hertz wanted.
(If I was flying into Ft. Lauderdale, I would check out the Able place there - their rates appear to be 1/3 of the competition, particularly if you can drive a stick).
Local authorities, wanting to raise tax revenues, often look to airport car rentals as a cash cow, and tack on huge taxes and surcharges. Why not? People renting cars don't vote in that jurisdiction! So an off-airport car rental place can offer the same car for less, as they don't have to pay the airport tax.
However, many of these places don't advertise a lot or have websites. Or they don't have interactive websites or slick-looking websites. They don't want to raise the ire of the airport authorities, who get sticky about people picking up passengers and taking them off-site to rent them cars. Finding off-airport rental companies is harder to do - and you may have to look beyond the first three pages of Google hits. It may require scouring the phone book, or other resources. Note that many places claim to be "Discount Car Rental" companies, but have rates no better than the majors.
At the Able place at SFO, the cars were generally older and not in as good condition (higher mileage) but were serviceable. And the rental rates were consistent and predictable. They even had a "frequent renter" club which provided a free rental after so many uses. Their paperwork took longer, and as such outfits often cater to people with marginal credit, you want to make sure you aren't in line behind such a person.
Finding good off-airport car rentals isn't as easy, of course, and it may take more time to get to their location and also to do the paperwork. If you fly to the same destination a lot (as I did) it may make sense to seek out such places. On a one-time trip, where you are stressed for time, such options might not be as worthwhile.
Some of the major chains have off-airport sites - downtown or in other locations. And these can be cheaper than airport sites. The Enterprise site shows cars for as little as $32 off the airport, which is a lot less than $50 at the airport. but you would have to take a Taxi there and they do note that "other fees and surcharges may apply" - ask in advance. And the cost of cab fare could equal one day's rental cost! On the other hand, a $20 cab ride could save you $20 a day on the rental. Or, if you have time, a bus ride. Most airports have fairly inexpensive bus or rail service to downtown areas. It is worth exploring, if you plan on going downtown anyway, and then later driving. You could save hundreds of dollars in rental car costs - at the expense of your time, of course.