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Real Deals on Rental Cars

Christina Talcott

While searching for a rental car for an upcoming trip to New England, I was disappointed to see daily rates of more than $40 for every car rental agency at the Manchester, NH, airport. I realize some towns are just more expensive car rental-wise, and renting at the airport is often a lot pricier than renting downtown. If I had more wiggle room in my travel plans, I could find a better deal somewhere else, I'm sure.

But what if I could find a bargain for the in-airport cars? That's what the Internet is for, right?

I remembered stumbling across a Web site recently that had discount codes for rental cars -- you know, the jumble of numbers and letters that give you, say, 10% off a weekly rental when you reserve online. Maybe all I needed was a code.

I googled "rental car coupon" and came up with a handful of sites purporting to provide codes for discount rentals. I tried a few to see if I could actually get a better deal than I could by going through Hotwire, Priceline, Orbitz or any of the other deal-finding Web sites that had been letting me down by offering only outrageous prices ($93 a day? Are you kidding me?).

The first one I tried sounded so sweet: Rental Car Momma. Momma has links to the big companies: Avis, Alamo, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, National and Thrifty; click on one company's logo, and Momma takes you to a page where you can choose your discount and print out any bonus coupons available. When you're ready to make a reservation, click on the link and Momma fills in the discount code for you. (Isn't she thoughtful?)

Another feature I like on this site is its rental car locator: Momma lists the companies that serve cities all over the world. Click on Europe, select Lisbon under "Portugal Car Hires," and you'll see that Alamo, Avis, Budget and National all have branches there. When you click on the reservations link, Momma fills out the city and the discount code for you, again. I had to experiment.

For my imaginary trip to Lisbon next month, I'd get an adorable Peugeot for three days for only 63 Euros, a significant discount from 114 Euros. That'll help defray my imaginary airline ticket, right?

I was having so much fun trying out Rental Car Momma's features that I almost forgot about my Manchester pickle. Mother, may I get a deal on a rental for my real-life trip?

She was able to scramble up a daily rate of $42.97 for Enterprise... which was what they were showing on their site. It sure beats other car companies' prices, but it didn't seem like an insider's deal.

Next up, I tried out RentalCodes.com, which has links to Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz and National. Click on a company's name and you get a page showing the different types of discounts available, their expiration dates and corresponding codes. Some are for specific kinds of renters (Marines, Beta Gamma Sigma members, American Express cardholders), some have expired, but there are a few available to the general public.

RentalCodes.com indicates where it got the discount code, and I realized that most of the discounts come from the car companies' Web sites to begin with. While there are certainly discounts available, there didn't seem to be any real bargain-basement types of sale prices. Have I spent too much time browsing sales racks at stores, thinking there's always room for a discount?

A Web site I've used to find discounts for non-travel-related goods (sadly, a girl can't live on travel alone!) is Retail Me Not, a clearinghouse of codes and discounts submitted by real consumers. Some of the discounts are official company specials (marked "featured discount"), but the ones submitted by ordinary Joes come with success rate percentages. It's like Trip Advisor for shopping: Rate your coupon, make a comment, submit new coupons.

You can browse the comments, too, to get an idea of when the codes worked and when they didn't. Some people get pretty emotional about their discounts; in a comment about a 10% discount on Enterprise rentals, "anonymous" writes, "This has always been my favorite code..."

Makes me want to have a favorite code, too! So I plugged it in.

Bingo. $38.69 a day.

The only issue? That 10% off is marked "Credit Union Discount." What, exactly, does that mean? Is that a discount for credit union employees, or account holders? I'm not either of those. Technically, would using that discount code be....stealing?

After all that searching for a deal, in the end I went with the plain old, out-in-the-open flat rate at Enterprise. I'd feel funny about using a coupon that wasn't intended for me, sullying my karma just to save $20. Squeamish? Maybe.

What would you have done? Should I have used that coupon?

But back to the bigger picture: Do you know of other online sites with discounts and coupons for rental cars or other travel necessities that I should check out in the future? Please share!

By Christina Talcott |  August 13, 2008; 7:22 AM ET  | Category:  Christina Talcott , Deals , Online Resources
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$38/day? Geez, try again. Are you looking for a van or something? That rate is way too high. I'm going to New England myself and the rates I've been offered are about $19-25/day.

Posted by: acorn | August 13, 2008 8:32 AM

Acorn, Christina doesn't say *when* she's renting that car. I just did a quick search, and the prices are about $20 lower if she's renting over a weekend than if she's renting over weekdays only. This is one of those cases where being flexible is good, but maybe she's locked into her dates and can't be flexible.

That said, Enterprise are the evil masters of the bait-and-switch. They'll tell you the car you reserved won't be ready for 3 more hours, but for only a few dollars more a day you can get a bigger car right now. You, of course, will have to pay taxes on the higher price, and for the extra fuel the bigger car burns, but that's your problem.

Posted by: BxNY | August 13, 2008 9:00 AM

Why not use Hotwire? I was recently looking for cars at Manchester as well and came up with a rate of $37, taxes included.

Posted by: surlychick | August 13, 2008 9:20 AM

You absolutely should have used the coupon code. It probably means that the code is available to the credit union members. But, that doesn't mean that members won't pass it on to others. I would think of it like any coupon/special discount that is given to a specific type of person. My law firm gives out free tickets to Nationals games. Just because they are only available to employees does not mean that I can't give them to a friend. You should lighten up a little. Using the code is in no way stealing.

Posted by: Pebbles | August 13, 2008 9:44 AM

I used Priceline and got a rental Mustang for $20/day last September. I just said what size car I needed and when I needed and it told me which counter to go to when I got to my destination. Could not have been easier.

Posted by: 23112 | August 13, 2008 10:37 AM

Thanks for the reminder on Hotwire. I was just able to get $50 off my week-long reservation at Enterprise through it. I also submitted a "name your own" on Priceline that would knock another $50 off the total - we'll see how that goes.

Posted by: 2 days till vacay! | August 13, 2008 11:47 AM

I'm with surlychick. It's sort of dopey not to use Hotwire, as you guys often suggest. why not take your own advice?

Posted by: Gatlin12 | August 13, 2008 12:11 PM

I found a travel site that I always get great deals on hotels and rental cars -- sidestep.com. I have booked hotels in the Disney are for half of what the chain's rate is. I am going to Disney in a few months and booked a 2 bedroom with full kitchen and washer/dryer for less than $90 a night going to the companies website that villa would have been $235 per night.

Posted by: hfein | August 13, 2008 12:15 PM

Strange, but true, I've gotten some deals (free day, $10% off, etc) by booking through United's website. I have no recollection if it was because of FF status or not, but airlines and hotels often partner with rental car agencies.

Posted by: alex | August 13, 2008 2:34 PM

Aren't these businesses in big trouble now? Why not call and haggle?

Posted by: Bartolo | August 13, 2008 2:35 PM

Sure you shoulda used the code. What would be the difference between that and someone allowing you to use their Costco card so you can get bulk groceries, or if a friend of yours is a credit union member and they say, 'sure, use this code.'

Its there, they want the sale..use the code.

Posted by: Jonjon | August 13, 2008 2:39 PM

Hey everyone, thanks for writing in! One quick note: I didn't want to hog blog space to list all the places I checked for this rental, but I'll list them at the end in the hopes that someone will chime in with one I'd forgotten (like sidestep.com!) or any tips on rental cars specifically. Also, prices were probably so high since I was renting the car last-minute, dragging my feet, hoping for a miraculous deal. But since it was so 11th-hour, I wonder if Bartolo's suggestion would have worked: Asked if they had any cars not yet rented that they'd give me for a lower price. Anyone tried that method?
As promised, here are the twenty sites I remember searching, roughly from first to last: Avis (I had a coupon, but they had no cars free), Southwest, Hotwire, Priceline, Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, Kayak, AAA, Rental Car Momma, Thrifty, Enterprise, National, Dollar, Budget, Hertz, Alamo, Rental Codes, 4 Travel Coupons, Retail Me Not.
BTW I'm writing from New Hampshire now, where after a horribly rainy summer the weather has turned fabulous. The only downside: the mosquitoes are ferocious.

Posted by: Christina Talcott | August 13, 2008 10:27 PM

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