Car rentals gone mad – Fighting back!

In a couple of weeks, we have a quick trip to Milwaukee again (yes, just 3 weeks after the last one). I’ve had pretty good luck with rentals there so I didn’t bother checking rates in advance. They were initially $300+ for a Friday night to Monday night rental. I thought they surely would go down. They haven’t. It’s $450 now. Gulp.

This is so very far from what I’m willing to pay and trending the wrong direction in a big way. I’m getting nervous now. This is not an optional trip and the car is a necessity. It’s time to create a back-up plan to lock in something reasonable and preferably cancellable. Since I struggle with how to minimize our many car rental costs, this seemed like a good opportunity for me to dig into my bag of tricks. Here we go.

Establish the Market Price

I use Expedia.com and other tools to just get a sense for what the market is like since most official prices cluster around those. With prices like these though and having watched them go up by 50% over the last 4-6 weeks, I got the message. While digging a bit I discovered that the Milwaukee Air Show is that weekend. At least I know what I’m up against. We’ll use $446 as the market price. After all, this is what a normal person would probably be looking at. I’ve listed the techniques I checked in the order I checked them.

Avoid it Entirely

We aren’t staying in Milwaukee. Flying to Minneapolis is an option or perhaps even connecting on to another small airport. Unfortunately, we’re on a Citi Thank You Companion Ticket and there’s nothing we can do with that. If only this were a changeable ticket, I’d be seriously looking at that. Too bad.

Get Out of the Airport

We can always taxi or shuttle out of the airport to a hotel since we’re staying in the Milwaukee area on Friday night. The starwood hotel we were going to use looked great at 3000 SPG but it’s not near in-city rental locations and is a longer taxi ride than I’d like. There’s an Aloft downtown though at $79+tax, 2800SPG+$45, or 7000 SPG. I won’t turn this into a hotel booking post but this hotel gives us some nice options. Hertz and Budget both have offices nearby that open by 9am Saturday and they don’t appear to penalize us much for returning the car to the airport Monday night. Here’s what I’m seeing in this example (including taxes). I don’t prioritize car size so these tend to be compact which is usually very similar to economy.

$166 – Budget 3 day rental returning to the Airport. Prepaid.

$180 – Budget 3 day rental returning to the Airport, not prepaid. Location doesn’t seem to accept codes to increase points.

$202 – Hertz 3 day rental returning to the Airport, not prepaid. Double Airtran credit.

That’s good. Let’s use the $180 Budget rental as our benchmark.

Savings: $191. ($446 market price – $180 budget price – $75 increased taxi/hotel costs.)

The Delta Option

You can read more here on the Delta option. Usually I’d wait before using this technique but it was time to see how things are looking over there. Using that technique, I can get an economy car for 1000 skymiles + $155.34 or 20,417 skymiles + $0. I prefer the former as my saving 19417 skymiles is worth $155.34 to me. Doing this would save me $300 and be an airport rental with no additional costs. That’s tempting.

The problem here is that the reservation is not able to be cancelled or changed.

Savings: $278. ($446 market price – $155.34 – $12 in skymiles)

Capital One

Rapid Travel Chai dug into this a couple months ago or so and I’ve been meaning to since I first read about it. We also stepped my wife’s Capital One Venture card down to the no-fee VentureOne Rewards card and I’m glad I did! As he noted, using rewards isn’t the point…you can use the same site to get pricing and pay using a credit card, often at very substantial discounts. One catch is that you can’t refund the reservation back to your card but it sounds like you can refund back to points which, for us, is almost as good as cash. There may be some deduction for change fees. Nonetheless, a restricted change/cancellation policy is a lot better than no change/cancellation. Without further ado, a compact car from Budget was just $136.77 at the airport for the 3 days. A compact was ~$10 less.

Savings: $309.23 ($446 market price – $136.77 Cap One price).

Alamo Daily Getaway Certs

Last year I picked up 9 $50 off Alamo Daily getaway certificates at a cost of $22.50 each. They’re stackable and I’ve got 3 left. They even earn points. At best, they can be 60% off but Alamo/National have no cars available! And even if they matched the cheapest rate of $446, 60% off is still $178.40. I mention this option as it’s served me well. I didn’t buy any more this year but I wish I had! Oh well… something to watch for next year.

Savings: NOT APPLICABLE

Hertz Points

The Milwaukee Air Show is a black out date for Hertz awards so prices double to 1000 on weekends and 1200 on weekdays. That’s 3,200 points required. My wife and I have some of these but I’d have to check with a couple of friends if they could help us scrape together this many (Awardwallet is great for this). I’ve never done it but I’ve read previously that these are transferable between accounts. These also aren’t something I generally build up so I tend to value them a bit higher. Nonetheless, this is just the sort of moment to use them.

I don’t really have a value established for these generally. The best I’ve used is that 500 may be used for a weekend rental. I tend to find other ways (like those above) to get those rentals done, usually with a daily cost of $30 or less. Given that, I’d say 500 points is worth at least $30, perhaps $50. If I set 500 points at $40, then a point is worth $.08 which makes 3200 points worth $256. One interesting thing though is that I can get a larger car for no/little extra cost. There’s some value to getting out of economy/compact territory but not one I’ll generally pay much for so I won’t increase the value here.

Savings: $190 ($446 – $256 in Hertz point value).

Priceline / Hotwire

This is definitely worth a mention but it’s a technique I’ve not really used before. Bidding might well be worth taking a shot at in this case. With my current leader of Capital One, it was time to throw a lowball bid out there. I pushed up to $26/day ($112 total) and didn’t get it accepted.

Savings: No idea but not enough to get me away from Capital One where I’d have at least some restricted cancellation/change capability.

Conclusion

We went ahead with Capital One. And, I find this funny, we paid with a Bank of America issued Virgin Atlantic card which is on the Amex network. It’s a new one and we’ve got a spending goal to hit. 🙂

Big thanks to Rapid Travel Chai, a reader known as Jb, and Capital One for this.

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4 comments

  1. your welcome.

    1. Thanks JB! Well and truly thanks!

  2. […] the last couple weeks, I posted a series of approaches to booking cars inexpensively and separately a post about the sort of decisions that point values help with. Today […]

  3. […] can reliably find free or nearly free airfare and hotels but cars are a different matter and so I shop cars aggressively to keep costs […]

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