Friday, June 3, 2011

Save money by exploring rental car options

I messed up on our vacation planning this year, but perhaps others can learn from my mistake. The key lesson: Check rental car costs early. They can vary widely, and they may offer more opportunity to save (or waste) money then air fares.

I put together what I thought was a clever three-leg vacation trip for my family this year. First, we will fly from Long Beach to Seattle to visit family for four days. Then we will fly to Bozeman, Montana, rent a car, and visit Yellowstone for four days. After that, we'll head to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills. Rather than making a long drive back to Bozeman to fly out, or taking an expensive flight from nearby Rapid City, South Dakota, I booked a cheaper flight home from Denver. Yes, that will require a six-hour drive from the Black Hills, but saving money on air fares seemed to make it worth it.

For each flight, I carefully shopped for low fares. But I failed to figure the rental car into the equation.

While I knew that a nine-day car rental, starting in Bozeman and ending in Denver, wasn't going to be cheap, I was shocked when I checked and found the least expensive intermediate-class car available for our trip to be $1,089!  That's over $100 a day and about twice what I had expected.

Of course, veteran travelers know that one-way car rentals are more expensive than roundtrip rentals. Had I been returning the car to Bozeman, the price (on the day I checked) would have been only $664. But then I discovered a surprise: If we were to return the car to Billings, Montana, it would be just $472.  That's right in at least one case, a one-way rental was cheaper than a roundtrip rental.

I started checking the prices for different dropoff cities (always picking up the car in Bozeman) and found a huge variation in rates:

Billings: $472
Bozeman: $664
Casper, Wyoming: $1,088
Denver: $1,089
Rapid City: $1,201
Cheyenne, Wyoming: $1,277
Bismarck, N.D.: $2,300

Clearly, smart choices can save you many hundreds of dollars.

In our case, flying out of Billings would cost more than flying from Denver, but the rental car savings would more than compensate and we'd save $400 in the end. One problem: I'd already booked our flights from Denver and the tickets were nonrefundable. 

Another point: There's little reason to hesitate to make car rental reservations because they usually don't require a payment upfront, and can easily be cancelled.

Learn from my mistakes.


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