Save on Your Next Family Rental Car

When it comes to planning a family vacation, renting a car is about as exciting as buying a mattress. You know you need one—and you want it to be comfortable—but it can quickly eat up dollars you’d rather spend on events and activities. Here are six ways your family can save.

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Growing up, my family was cheap, illogically cheap. Asking my mom to take a taxi home from the airport after a three-week jaunt in Portugal was akin to throwing branches and a raw hide in the backyard and telling her to set up camp. We’d buy $80 tickets to a Friday night symphony at the Kennedy Center, but it was the $10 parking my dad would still be fuming about over the Sunday funnies. And I can’t remember a single time when we rented a car. We bussed through Mexico, crammed into friends’ questionable stick shifts in Guatemala, and sprinted across crowded platforms to catch connecting trains in Europe, but rental cars? Who were we, the Gates?

Despite deep personal reflection and years of counseling—from my husband at least—I continue to feel this way when I roll up to a Hertz or Thrifty counter. Still, I find it hard to avoid rental cars when traveling with my kids, even when I’m visiting family. Thanks to the advent of car seats and seatbelt laws, you can’t cram your kids in the back of a friend’s station wagon. Even when they’ve outgrown car seats, rentals allow you a level of vacation autonomy that is essential when traveling with kids on different schedules.

My parents were right about one thing: Car rentals can take a chunk out of a vacation budget. The good news is, they don't have to. Here are six ways to save.

1. Book your car ASAP and select “pay later”
If you’re like me, car rentals fall to the bottom of the trip to-do list. But of all of your reservations, your rental car is probably the least binding. Always choose the “pay later” option—even if “pay now” offers nominal savings—and you don't have to sign a contract or even put down a credit card. That way, you can change, cancel, or continue to bargain hunt, but you don’t run the risk of prices going up. 

2. Use Autoslash
Who has time to bargain hunt, which I so casually mentioned above? I certainly don't. Let Autoslash do the work for you. Like Kayak or Expedia, Autoslash aggregates the least expensive car rental prices available at any given time. On top of that, it tracks your rental rate and alerts you when a better deal comes up. It also takes your various memberships—even little known ones like the PTA, which earns you up to 20% savings and free child seats from Hertz—into account.  

 This car, the Garden Car in Kensington Market, Toronto, was interesting. Unfortunately it wasn't for rent. 

This car, the Garden Car in Kensington Market, Toronto, was interesting. Unfortunately it wasn't for rent. 

3. Look to your purse—for savings
Think of the your wallet as a card catalogue of potential coupons. Are you an AAA member? Not only does the roadside assistance program often offer discounts on car rentals from Hertz, Dollar, and Thrifty, but it also earns you one free car seat, a savings of up to $15 a day. Costco members also get car rental discounts, and while they’re not always the cheapest option for economy rentals, they often beat price points on intermediate and full-sized cars, which—depending on the size of your litter—you might need. Your credit cards can also save you money: Chase Sapphire Preferred cards, for example, include insurance on economy level rental cars.

4. Consider your car seat options
I’m not a big fan of lugging gear through the airport, but there is a strong case to be made—and many parents are more passionate about this subject than presidential elections—for bringing your own car seat with you. At car rental agencies, child seat care is questionable at best, and most major airlines check car seats for free. Assuming your seat survives the flight, you’ll also have the advantage of working with a car seat you know how to install. (Rental car companies will not install car seats for legal reasons.)

And while I highly suggest sticking to the CDC’s comprehensive car seat safety recommendations, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with different state and country car seat laws. As one reader pointed out, California recommends moving children from a car seat to a booster after the child reaches 65 pounds. In Texas, the recommendation is after 40 pounds. Depending on your child and comfort level, this might mean the difference between paying for a car seat and bringing a suitcase-friendly booster

5. Join membership programs, and be strategic about points
Car rental company membership programs are free to join and start accruing points immediately. Furthermore, "programs with companies such as National and Hertz don’t have blackout days or restricted locations in the U.S., so you can redeem your free car rentals during expensive times (like holiday travel) and in notoriously expensive destinations (like New York),” says ThePointsGuy.com’s editor Zach Honig. Even if you’re a brand hopper and collect points slowly, agents are likely to look upon members more favorably than non-members, so a friendly dad or smiling baby might help you get a free car seat, discounted GPS or—though not often—a car model upgrade.

6. Avoid the airport
This is one of the most obvious ways to save money on car rentals, but I included this tip last. Why? When traveling with kids, I preach convenience over money, but there are several scenarios—traveling with older kids who can haul their own gear, for example—where renting a car off of the airport grounds makes a whole lot of cents (yes, pun intended...it's late). 

I’m not talking about chump change here. Exhibit A: My next trip is to Washington, D.C. An Enterprise economy car at the DCA Airport, which itself requires a trip on an airport bus, is $330 for five days. At Enterprise's Crystal City location, 1.6 miles (or a $10 Uber ride) away, a small SUV is $186. We’re getting a much better car, at a less-harried location, for $144 less. And that, my friends, just bought us a babysitter—and a well-deserved date night.

What's your top tip for saving money on rental cars? Let me know below!