Regardless of whether you drive a minivan at home, having a van is very nice when driving around on vacation. It allows plenty of space for luggage, and everyone can easily keep climbing in and out. However, renting a minivan is usually a lot more expensive than renting a regular car. Fortunately, there are ways to get a really good deal on a minivan by taking advantage of the major car rental companies’ loyalty programs and upgrade possibilities. National’s Emerald Club program makes this the easiest. Here’s how.
If you aren’t already a member of National’s Emerald Club, join here. It’s free and will save you a ton of time. Make a reservation for a mid-sized car. If having a minivan is a necessity, make a separate reservation for a minivan, guaranteeing you will get one. Be sure to use as many coupon codes as you can find, they are typically stackable. You can find coupon codes in places like Autoslash.com, Rentalcarmomma.com, and various airline/hotel websites. Some partners provide specials, for instance Hilton HHonors may have a triple points promotion, etc. Also, be sure to take advantage of any memberships you may have, such as AAA, USAA, AARP, etc. and find out if your workplace has corporate rates that can be used for personal travel.
Play around with the length of your rental. Sometimes it is cheaper to rent for a longer period of time, because it may change the rental from weekday to weekend rates. There is usually no penalty for returning the car a little “early,” but I would call the company to confirm this ahead of time. Also play around with the times of return. If you plan to return the car at 1:00, but the rate is the same for returning it at 5:00, select the later time to give yourself a grace period if something goes wrong. If your find out your return flight is delayed, do you really want to have to head to the airport early because your rental car is due to be returned?
Also consider renting at a non-airport location. If there is one near your hotel, and your hotel offers a free shuttle, it may be worth it to rent at the non-airport location. The cost is usually a lot less, and you won’t pay airport taxes and surcharges. This can really be a nice benefit if you are starting your trip in a city for a few days before heading out. If you aren’t planning to drive in the city, and parking is very expensive, you can wait and get the car when you actually need it.
Decide whether you want to earn reward credits with the car rental company or airline/hotel points or miles. In nearly every case, you can’t have both. I prefer the airline/hotel points and miles option, as I know I will use them. Unless you rent cars fairly frequently, it will take you a long time to ever earn a free rental. Plus, you can generally redeem points and miles from airline/hotel programs for free rentals. Keep in mind, however, that car rental companies charge a fee for earning points and miles, typically $.75/day up to a maximum of about $5.25 per rental. In some cases, such as American Airlines, the charge is much less because it is based on a federal excise tax, and only comes out to about $.06 per day!
Consider whether you need any extras, such as GPS. If you have a portable device, you can simply bring this along and avoid having to pay for built-in GPS.
Child safety seats may also be necessary. Think about whether it makes sense to bring your along from home to save these fees. Typically these fees are $9.95 PER DAY per seat, so they can really add up. However, if you use National’s discount code XVC1092, you can get 2 free seats for your rental!
After you make your reservation(s), register them with Autoslash.com, a free service that tracks your rental and alerts you if you may be able to rebook at a lower price.
Once you get to the rental facility, proceed directly to the Emerald Aisle where you can choose any car that is available. If there is a minivan, it’s yours! Of course, it is very possible that there won’t be a minivan, and you will have to use your other reservation if you’ve made one. National doesn’t penalize you for no-shows, so you can simply cancel whichever reservation you don’t need.
Whatever car you end up with, be sure to thoroughly inspect it, particularly if no agent goes over it with you. I always take photos of any scratches or dents, even if I’m told they are “normal wear and tear.” I have actually had to use one of these photos in a dispute over damage with a rental car company in Europe.
A few final notes. Don’t be fooled into taking the option to pre-pay for gas. The price-per-gallon will be slightly lower than the going rate at the pumps, but it assumes you will bring the car back on empty because you will pay for a full tank of gas. It is very hard to make that work.
Don’t forget to maximize your points earnings by using a credit card that offers bonus points for car rentals, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred (2x points), and pay for your gas with a card that bonuses that spend, such as the Chase Ink Bold (2x points); the Citi ThankYou Premier (5x points); or Chase Freedom when gas is the quarterly spend bonus (5x points; Amex Premier Rewards Gold (2x points); and the Hilton HHonors Surpass (6x points).
Renting a car is not the most fun part of vacation planning, but with a little knowledge, it can be much less painful and even rewarding.