I get a lot of questions about my road trip last summer, in which I flew into San Diego and drove to Seattle solo. Many people would love to try something similar, but there’s one hurdle they simply can’t seem to get over: how to find a cheap one-way car rental. Since we’re entering road trip season here in the U.S., I thought I’d share some of my own tricks and tips for making your own epic road trip dream a reality.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario: you’ve saved up two weeks of vacation time and you want to do a road trip of the U.S. Pacific Coast states. You do a little research online and find out most people recommend doing the drive from north to south. You really want to savor the experience because it’s the vacation of a lifetime and the last thing you want is to rush it, so you plan to fly into the largest northern city (Seattle), drive down to the largest southern city (San Diego) and fly home from there.
It’s a great plan except for the drop fee charged by many car rental companies, the often exorbitant charge rental companies tack on to a one-way rental to recoup the cost of returning the vehicle to its original location. You decide to bite the bullet anyway because driving from Seattle to San Diego back to Seattle in two weeks really isn’t an option for you.
Navigating to your favorite travel aggregator site like Orbitz, you enter the details of your trip to price the cost of a two-week, one-way car rental picked up at the airport in Seattle and returned at the airport in San Diego. Here’s what your aggregator returns: prices ranging from $829 to $2,147 for an economy car.
The cheaper rates are with rental car companies you aren’t that familiar with, so you fix on one of the least expensive national brands you know by name: Avis. $1,680 is way more than you’d planned to pay and you’re considering canceling your trip but the nagging voice in the back of your mind makes you wonder: could you get the same one-way rental for less?
Getting the Best Price on Your One-Way Car Rental
It takes a little bit of work but you really can find an affordable one-way car rental–you simply have to get creative and approach the process from different angles. Spend a little extra time and energy upfront and you’ll spend less money in the long run. Here are my top three tips for saving big on a one-way car rental:
Deal directly with the car rental company
Go straight to the source to slash costs on your one-way rental. Conduct an identical search on Avis.com and you get a two-week rental quote for $1,209** versus the $1,680 you might have paid through Orbitz. Score! With a savings of almost $470, you just might be able to spring for a few nicer meals instead of eating fast food for the whole trip. By doing business directly with the rental car company, you’ve cut your costs by just over 25%, but maybe that’s not enough for you.
Switch your starting and end points
Instead of driving your route from north to south, drive down your one-way car rental expenses by changing your direction. Pick up the car at the airport in San Diego and drop it off at the airport in Seattle instead. Watch as the quote of the rental drops to $1,080. This option is useful when the costs of flying into either airport are roughly equal. You’ll save an additional $130, the cost of a few full tanks of gas. $1,080 is a great price compared to what you’d originally found through Orbitz but you wonder if there’s there anything else you can do to cut your costs even more? You betcha.
Pick up your rental car at an off-airport location
Bypassing the airport can yield some of the biggest deals. By paying a little under $15 to take a cab from San Diego International Airport to Avis’ Kettner Boulevard location a few miles away, you can score your biggest discount yet. Peep the cheap rate you’ll find by choosing this option: $554, a whopping 49% discount over picking up your rental at the airport. With that much extra dough, you can justify spending a few nights in much nicer hotels.
$554 compared to the original $1,680 quote you received through the travel aggregator? Do the math: in total, you’d save $1,126, 67% of the estimated original cost.
A not-so-hypothetical scenario
Technically, this scenario isn’t made-up at all: it’s precisely how I ended up paying roughly $550 for my one-way car rental last summer, driving over 2,100 miles (unlimited, I might add) over two weeks from San Diego to Seattle, with a side trip to Yosemite National Park. Most of the rates I’d initially found on aggregator sites were so beyond my budget, I seriously considered canceling my trip completely but by thinking a little beyond the box, I found a much more affordable one-way car rental rate with no hidden fees and charges after drop-off.
While these tips may not work for every scenario, they demonstrate a little extra work and creative thinking can put that one-way road trip totally within your reach.
Where will your ultimate road trip take you?
*All quotes retrieved on May 21, 2013
**These sample rates used the “Pay Later” rate for maximum flexibility. For even deeper discounts, you might elect the “Pay Now” option.