It doesn’t matter what kind of traveler you are. No one likes to pay more for a car rental of any type than is absolutely necessary.

Having rented more cars than I can count over the last few decades of expat life and travel, I share my best tips for finding car rental deals and avoiding pitfalls during the process.

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Book the Smallest Rental Car

Allegedly, car rental companies keep mostly mid-sized cars on the lot since most drivers prefer larger cars. This means, in theory, you may be likely for an upgrade (at your own risk) if you book the smallest car on the lot. This could be the reason why compact and standard-sized cars are often only a few dollars per day higher than economy cars (the lowest class).

But, logic states that the smallest (cheapest) car you can handle will ultimately save money whether you score the upgrade or not. I usually pay the few extra dollars for a higher class of car if it makes sense but many people chance the upgrade and succeed.

Decline the Insurance

That is, decline it if you don’t have car rental insurance coverage elsewhere. Check your credit card and travel insurance policies to verify whether you do or don’t have rental car insurance to avoid being upsold insurance at the time of pick-up.

Don’t Get Upsold at the Counter

I booked a rental car in Maui for a great price online. When I arrived to the airport car rental desk, I thought the gentleman said that he was upgrading us to a BMW and assumed that meant at no cost to me. After a very long wait and computer glitches, I discovered the taxes and fees on the car were higher. Insurance is one of the most common upsells at the counter.

Avoid Airport Fees

Airport tax is often added to airport car rental fees. It may be cheaper to take a free hotel shuttle to a nearby hotel and rent a car there (many San Diego hotels have car rental desks in the lobby, for example). Depending on the length of your stay, it might be worthwhile paying the cost of a taxi if a hotel shuttle isn’t available.

To give you an idea, when we lived in Hong Kong and I needed to rent cars in San Diego, it would cost about 20% more for a San Diego airport car rental than it would to rent from the same car rental company in downtown La Jolla. But, it all depends on the season, inventory and if you value the convenience of an airport car rental.

Don’t Forget to Fill up the Tank

In the rush of catching a flight, it’s easy to forget to fill up the rental car gas tank. Don’t forget. You’ll be charged twice as much by the car rental company, if not more.

Read the Fine Print

Look for hidden charges… always. And, if they are trying to sell you an upgrade at the counter taxes on the “free” upgrade is not always exactly free. Be sure to check to see what damage has been noted on the car already in the paperwork, if you are not responsible for noting it personally.

Join a Free Frequent Car Rental Program

A good way to avoid being upsold is to join a program like Avis Preferred where often times your keys are ready at a kiosk for you to grab and go. This avoids the face-to-face interaction at the car rental check-in desk. Also, you’ll skip long lines because of preferred check-in counters and earn points per rental.

Book Early

Car rental prices tend to rise closer to the date of travel. Lock in a cancellable rate as soon as your travel dates are confirmed. Then, check prices every so often to see if you can snag a better price.

Research Car Rentals Online

Knowledge is power so it pays to compare rates online. However, be sure that taxes and booking fees are added to final pricing.

To find car rental deals in San Diego and virtually anywhere else in the world, I have chosen to be one of our few and very carefully-selected affiliate site partners.

They are the largest car rentals company in the world and compares costs between all major carriers (Avis, Budget, Hertz and more) so you don’t have to do the legwork. Free cancellation is usually an option and if you find a better price on the same car rental anywhere else, they’ll beat it. Give them a try!

How do you save money on car rentals?

Learn how to save money on car rentals and find the best prices here.

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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  1. I agree that you should book your vehicle hire early on to avoid higher rental prices. Not only does that help to save you money, but it can help guarantee you the vehicle you need for your trip, whether it’s a small car or a 4WD vehicle. You should be sure to get the right vehicle for the trip, whatever that may entail for you.

  2. Thank you so much for mentioning how you should pay attention to any damage that the car you want to rent has to make sure you are not blamed for something you didn’t do. It makes sense to think that doing this can help you save a ton of money and make sure you have a positive rental experience. We are planning on taking a trip and want to make sure we find the best rental top help us move around in the city, so I’m glad I found your post.

  3. These are some great tips for renting a car. We are hoping to rent one on our next trip to Florida, and I’d love to save some money! We’ll have to book one as early as we can this time, instead of waiting until the last week.

  4. My husband and I are planning on going on a long trip and we were thinking of renting a car. That’s a good idea to find a car early so we can get the best price on it. We wouldn’t want to have to worry about the price or how we are going to get the rental car when it’s too late. Thanks for the tips!

  5. My family and I are thinking about all going in on a van rental for an upcoming trip that we’re planning and we’re trying to figure out the logistics of things. I really appreciated that you had mentioned that when returning the van that it can be important to fill up the gas tank prior to avoid any extra fees after the return. Once we can find a company that handles van rentals, we’ll be making sure that we fill up the tank before returning it.