How I get deals on rental cars

People often ask me if I use City CarShare or Zipcar, those hourly car rental services that are supposed to make car-free life easier. My answer is, No, usually not, because I have found that renting a car for the whole day from a traditional rental company is usually a better deal.

This weekend, I’m attending the Travel Writers & Photographers Conference in Corte Madera, in Marin county, a very tough place to reach via public transit. On occasions like this, I throw my car-rental bargain strategy into action.

First, I browse prices on Priceline and Hotwire. Sometimes I also check Kayak.com and individual car rental sites, but I rarely find anything on those that beats Priceline and Hotwire.

Second, I make my “backup reservation.” Since car rental reservations are generally non-binding, I just make one for the cheapest car in my preferred class that I can find. This time around, my backup reservation was with Budget, booked through Priceline, for a full-sized car at $21 a day, $89.19 full price for three days. (The full price is more than $21×3 because of all the taxes and fees they tack on.)

Third, I start bidding for a better deal on Priceline. Priceline usually allows you to bid once or twice on the same car class each day. I started low — like $8 a day — and submitted a bid a day on full, standard, midsize and compact cars. I even tried a few bids on bigger cars just for the heck of it. When Priceline warned me that my bid was unlikely to be accepted, I increased it by $1 and then bid.

For the first few days, I was not successful. I tried up to about $14 a day. I did get one counter-offer from Priceline for a full-size car at $18 a day, but the price difference between that and my reservation was small enough that I didn’t take it.

This morning, I tried again, bidding $13 on a few car sizes. No dice. Then I tried $14, and successfully landed a mid-size car, “Chevy Cruze or similar,” from Avis. Price after taxes and fees for three days: $68.68. (Unfortunately, since I don’t have car insurance, I will have to pay an extra daily fee for liability insurance when I pick up the car, maybe as much as $14 a day. My credit card customer service has told me that they provide collission coverage for rental cars, but not liability. If you know of a credit card that provides better coverage for rental cars, I’d love to hear about it.)

I’m now locked into this rental, so my shopping is done. However, my bargain hunting is not. When I arrive (via bus) to pick up the car tomorrow, I may ask the agent for a free upgrade. Not that I need a bigger car to drive myself to Corte Madera and back, but since I might want to take my three kids somewhere when I’m not at the conference, a bigger vehicle would be nice. Actually, I might just stay quiet and see if the agent offers me a free upgrade, in the name of research.

So, if I end up having to pay $14 for the liability insurance, my cost will be about $37 per day to drive to the conference and back for three days, plus gas. When I used City CarShare in the past, it cost me around $60 to keep the car for about four hours. So this is a much better deal than car sharing.

It’s also a better deal than owning a car, for the amount of driving we do. Say we end up renting vehicles (at home, not on vacation) for 20 days a year. I think that estimate is probably higher than we have ever actually done in our two years of car-free living. Imagine it always cost us $37/day (sometimes I have actually gotten deals as low as $20/day, but sometimes we have paid a bit more for 8-passenger vehicles.) In that scenario, rentals would cost us $740 a year. I just did an online insurance quote at CompareNow.com, and it said that I would probably pay about that for insurance alone every six months if I owned my own vehicle.