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A road trip to a cheap (luxury) rental car

When we got married we were strapped for time and money. So instead of going somewhere far, we decided on a road trip close to home. After all, paying an exorbitant amount to live in California should have some perks. :) We decided to take the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to Redwood National Park, north of San Francisco. It truly was a trip of a lifetime.


As there were no flight tickets to buy we decided to splurge on the hotels and take a convertible to drive the coast. Driving along the Pacific coast and the dense Redwoods in any type of car is heavenly, but driving in a convertible, top-down, now that’s something else entirely!  Of course, you can question the wisdom of driving in the peak of winter with the top down, but we had the solution.  Turn up the heat and wear a thick jacket, of course!


We checked the price of a convertible expecting it to be ~20% higher than the normal rate. Ha! It was 400% higher! I thought for the value we could just take our car and not have the rental car expenses. But my husband wanted to make it special, so I knew he was going to pay the extra money and get the rental car.


So I took over the task of trying to get it for cheap. The Ford Mustang convertible that we got costs us $200 + gas (which I think was more than $200) for the week.


Below I share some of the highlights of our trip with tips for getting cheap rentals interspersed in between.  As with all the bargain shopping, getting the cheapest rental car deal takes some time. I have separate sections for busy people who don’t have too much time but just don’t want to pay the highest price and for others who don’t mind spending some more time getting the best deal. For the sake of length, I am not going to elaborate on the obvious tips for getting a cheap rental car. I have, however, included links to detailed help on tips if you need them.


The road winds among the redwoods in California

One of the things I remember most from the trip were scenes like the picture above, a long winding road through 50 foot tall trees. It was like the trees were my own personal guard of giants while I charged forth into the great unknown that beckoned in the distance. It definitely put me in a philosophical state of mind and got me thinking about possibilities; the clamor of everyday life and how that prevents us from enjoying walks through woods and the like. When I told my husband this, he turned up the volume on the Pink Floyd CD he was listening to and told me to leave him in peace :).

Cheap rental car : If you have only 15 mins

  • Check Autoslash.com. The advantage of booking with them is they will automatically re-price your rental every day as the price changes and rebook you at the lower rate. (5 mins)
  • A week before your actual pick up date, check priceline.com and hotwire.com. Check the “latest” price of your booking with autoslash.com, start your bid at 50% of the rate you have with autoslash, up your bid up to may be 90% (including the fees) of the rental car price. (10 mins)

This allows you to get a very reasonably priced, cheap rental car without spending too much time. Is this the cheapest rate? No. But this is the optimal route for the cheaper rate if you have less than 15 mins. to spare.


If you do have some time and want to get the cheapest possible rental car deal, read on.


Best possible deal for rental car : If you have the time and want the best deal possible


Before booking

1. : Shop around and use coupons. This is a classic tip for finding a cheap rental car. Here is a post that might help – understand how the coupon code, contract ids and discounts work for rental cars and also where to look for coupon codes. Mix and match the rate code + contract ids to find the deepest discount.


This will take some time to figure out but once you figure out this combination it can be used for future travel, just change the coupon code. For example, I know my American Express Platinum rate code gives me the best possible base rate. I use that every time and add in a current coupon, I can get a really great deal.


Things to keep in mind when you are looking for a coupon code –

  • If you are under 25, some of the contract IDs waive the underage fee. This could be huge savings even if the base rate is a little high. Same goes for the additional driver fee.
  • If you don’t have good insurance coverage, some corporate IDs (as long as you are eligible to use them) will include the collision damage waiver. Again, this could be a huge chunk of change.

So get a combination that will be cheap for your situation.


2. Re-think your rental period : Sometimes it is cheaper to book the car for Saturday night or get a weekly rate than for a 6 day period. Call the rental car company to check if they charge an early return fee (they most probably won’t give you a prorated refund, but if the weekly price is $200 and the 6 day rental is $40 per day, you will still come out ahead).



Yurting in the night

One of the stopping points along our road trip was at the Treebones resort near Big Sur. We wanted to get there to catch the sunset over the Pacific, which looks like this picture from a particular spot in the resort. We were running late though, and I was glad to have stocked up on Dramamine because the PCH winds around a lot in this part of the coast. After a lovely dinner that night, we spent a few hours on the porch of our yurt just staring up at the stars and watching the reflection of the moon over the vast ocean. I never knew there were this many stars! Definitely one of the most romantic nights I've had!!

Booking process

3. Price the rental with different agencies based on the time of the week you are renting. Enterprise frequently has the 50% off their weekend rate, whereas, I have found Hertz to generally be cheaper for weekdays. The difference between the agencies for the same date is huge. I always book via the agency directly first, because I can always cancel it later without any cancellation fee.


4. If you have a frequent renter membership always use this. There are several ways to get the elite status without actually having to spend a lot of money, so go for it. For example, if you are a mousesavers.com reader you can sign up for National’s Emerald club for free. I am a Gold member with Hertz (just sign up for Delta Skymiles and the Gold Club fee will be waived). I always receive better service and frequent upgrades using the VIP memberships.



Pfeiffer Beach (Big Sur) - corrected

With places like this picture to see on the way, how can you not feel like you're in paradise. The region between Big Sur and San Francisco had quite a few gorgeous places like this. We were stopping every fifteen minutes or so just to take in the scenery and a few pictures. The sound of the waves crashing on rocks, sea gulls and other birds flapping their wings, the gently swaying trees up on the cliffs, it was marvelous. The thing that stuck me was that in spite of all these sounds I felt entirely calm and serene.

After booking

5. Usually after this I will re-price my booking every few weeks until it gets close to the pick up time. Recently, I came across Autoslash.com (no, I am not paid to write this, I just find this service useful). When you book through them they automatically reprice your reservation based on the current coupons and re-book for the cheaper price. Having this step on auto pilot is a huge huge time saver.


6. Check the opaque booking sites closer to your pick up time. I usually bid up to 75% of my cheapest rate via Priceline (including all the fees). If I get it for cheaper than my so-far-cheapest reservation, I will cancel them all and go with the Priceline. If not, I still have a cheap rental car.



Redwood national park



At the rental counter

7. Check your insurance before you hit the rental counter : Please, please do this. A lot of people assume that they are covered either via their own insurance or credit card. But several insurance companies (depending on the policy) won’t cover loss of use or require a lot of documentation from the rental agency. Do yourself a favor and CHECK before you leave. I have a handy questionnaire in the car rental insurance post to verify coverage.


8. Know your fees : We recently went to Walt Disney world. We paid all the tolls in cash, but we still got a charge in our credit card for tolls, after 3-4 calls for $5 worth of tolls (yes, I am anal that way), we figured the car had an EZ-pass that was activated by default unless we opted out before we left the rental counter. Umm… we never knew it was there.


9. Document the damages : Before you leave the rental compound, document and get the signature of the person checking your papers while you leave. If you have a smart phone, take a picture with the date before you leave.


Returning the car

10. Pre-fill the gas.


Bixby Bridge from Above - Highway 1, Big Sur, CA

As we got to Mendo, the forest quickly gave way to a cliff over looking the Pacific. So we suddenly emerged from deep darkness into a moonlit night, looking down at the Pacific from a vantage point of a few hundred feet It was like the ocean was this huge animal that was gently snoring in its sleep. The snores would send little ripples along its skin that we were seeing in the liight of the moon. It gave me a sense of the power inherent in the water because I could imagine this "animal" waking up and charging towards the shore in a rage to devour everything in its path! (The above picture is not Mendocino, it;s Big Sur, but all the cliffs were pretty)

Other things to consider


Can you break up your one way rental ? If you are flying into San Francisco, staying there for a few days and planning to drive down to Los Angeles, you might be tempted to just take one car for the entire duration. But can you spare 1 hour of your time to split the trip like this? Take the car in SFO returning to the same location, on the last day return the car and take another car with the one way rate to do the drive down. This way you pay the one way rate only for a day or two.


Can you break up your rental period? This is similar to the scenario above. If your vacation allows some time for this and you have the rental for a whole week, can you rent from Hertz during the week and return the car to take one from Enterprise for the weekend? This way you are taking advantage of both promotions. It might not be worth it for a lot of people, but if you have time, definitely worth a check.


Can you book two economy cars instead of a minivan? Minivans are costly.


Everyone probably knows this, but I will put it out just as a reminder – avoid renting at an airport location if you can. Ignore the upgrades if you they are not necessary. Sometimes it might be cheaper to book a bigger car from the beginning because of the gas prices in the recent years. Economy cars are getting more expensive than full size, so it is really not an upgrade.


If you want to print all the tips without the pictures, download this pdf file – car rental tips.


For people who don’t like to read, I have put all the information in this infographic as well.

Rental Car Infographics


To give you a sense of the amount of time required, I spent about 3 hours to whittle down the price of our convertible rental by about 80%.  I would say it was definitely worth it.  We had one of the most memorable times of our lives on this trip.  In fact the next road trip, I’m targetting this car :)


The only thing that is stopping me is the gas mileage :)

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