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Travel Hack: Car Rental Strategy for Maximum Efficiency

Osman Dadi
Oscape divulges our strategies to maximize the value of car rentals: Planning rentals in reverse, booking rentals in 24 hour periods, understanding the airport return layout, setting up payment preferences in advance, and understanding return policies!

I was talking to a friend in New York about his recent car rental booking experience in Florida.

He rented a car in West Palm Beach for three days – 72 hours in total. He had to return it by 2pm on Sunday in advance of a 6pm flight, since he scheduled the start of his reservation at 2pm on Thursday.

The Polestar 2 Electric Vehicle
The Polestar 2 Electric Vehicle

This meant he had four hours to do nothing at PBI Airport waiting for his flight, instead of an additional two hours in South Florida enjoying the beach.

Adding in the three extra hours of car rental extension would have netted an additional $300 daily charge. This is because extensions are usually billed for the full 24 hour period, for over an hour extension.

I explained he should have booked for a later return to time with his returning flight, and allowed the 72 hour period of booking to start later on Pick-Up.

This is the smart way to book car rentals, and one that he didn’t think of.

I thought it’s a great time to share a few strategies how I maximize the value of my car rentals in North America and the United States.

Plan Your Rentals in Reverse: Work Backwards from When You Want To Return

Your start time for a rental should be determined by when you want to return the car for your return flight, instead of by when you’ll be intending to pick up.

Because bookings work in 24 hour billable windows, you’ll do better to maximize the tail end of your booking in most cases.

For example, if you’re arriving at 10am on Saturday and departing at 12pm on Monday, the maximum efficiency booking is 11am Saturday to 11am Monday, a full 48 hours that aligns with the return flight.

This also accommodates extra time to get to the car rental facility, as well as Check Out the vehicle (which determines the actual start time of the reservation). Additionally, you’ll never get penalized for picking up the car early – but you might get penalized severely for returning it late.

Following this advice, my friend would have not spent two hours wasted at the airport – he would have gone to the beach.

Another strategy is if you want lounge time at the airport. Then, you’d work your way backwards from when you want to enter the lounge, and how long you’d like to spend there!

Understand The Airport Car Return Layout & Process

You’ll want to know well in advance how long it will actually take to get from the car rental terminal to Airport Check-In and Security. You’ll also want to estimate approximately how long it will take to pick up the vehicle, and time your pick up accordingly.

The main questions to ask are:

  • Is the car rental facility on site at the airport, or off site at either a Car Rental facility or a private lot?
  • If it’s onsite, is it in the same terminal? How far is the walk?
  • If it’s offsite, is it connected by shuttle bus, or by people mover or rail transport? How long does this take and how often do the buses run?

Some airports have particularly poorly located car rental facilities – such as Las Vegas LAS, Phoenix Skyharbor PHX, Seattle SEA, Los Angeles LAX and Houston IAH Intercontinental.

These airports have facilities connected by slow shuttle bus rides (this was only recently improved in Phoenix). Such airports could potentially involve 20-30 minute transits to the airport terminal from car rental.

Often the buses may be slow to arrive, or even stuck in airport traffic themselves.

I usually budget 30-45 minutes for such transfers.

Book Your Rentals in 24 hour Periods

Rarely are rentals charged hourly by the hour.

If you are booking at least a 24 hour rental or longer, your charge will almost always be daily or weekly.

So in the end it makes sense to just research and book in 24 hour periods.

In other words, let’s say your flight arrives on Saturday at 3pm, and you’re departing on Monday at 10am. In this case, you’ll be better served booking a 3pm Saturday to 3pm Monday car rental. The extra five hours will not be an additional charge.

Another benefit is in case your return flight departure is delayed – then, you won’t be stuck waiting aimlessly at the airport!

Stick to One or Two Rental Car Companies, Set Up Accounts, Auto-Pay and Pick Up Preferences

Having your accounts set up in advance is crucial for speedy pick ups and speedy returns.

I am routinely amazed by the amount of people I see waiting in line to pick up a car rental. It doesn’t need to be so painful with some care.

The secret is to choose one or a few car rental providers to use regularly, then create and set up online accounts, with automatic payments and credit card links already set in place. It also helps to have the apps for each provider handy on your phone, for alerts.

I am a huge fan of National Car Rental (although I unfortunately lost my Executive Elite status in 2024, for Executive status instead).

Have Your Account Set Up in Advance

When you have accounts set up in advance, you’ll either dramatically expedite, or even completely bypass, a line to pick up or return your vehicle.

When using National, I routinely can expect to be in and out of the car rental facility with a new vehicle in under ten minutes, and often less!

Sometimes it is literally as easy as grabbing a vehicle from the lot – and going! I really value my time, so this is a core and most valuable benefit to being loyal to a great car rental brand.

Surprise Upgrades

One of the best parts of booking with your regular car rental provider, especially if you attain elite status – receiving surprise upgrades!

I cannot tell you how many times this has happened, and simply because the vendor has vehicles available. It’s a reward I look forward to when using a provider often.

But rest assured, loyalty with a reputable company does wonders!

You May Have a 30 Minute Return Grace Window

Your rental usually includes a 30 minute return grace window from the designated return time.

That means you don’t need to rush back if you’re a little late.

The better method is to calmly return the vehicle if you’re a little late.

If you do happen to run over thirty minutes late, I recommend extending the reservation by one hour. Usually you’ll be automatically billed for an extra hour anyway when you’re late past thirty minutes.

Be forewarned, returns beyond one hour late will usually incur a full day extra charge!

Final Thoughts

With these strategies, you can dramatically maximize the value of your car rental bookings without wasting time or money. I’ll also note that this is mainly directed to car rental in North America, but it is similarly applicable abroad in most cases.

I’ve honed in on the strategies after many, many years of making mistakes by not following my own advice. Car rentals can honestly be quite easy with the right process – and also fun! I always look forward to the different vehicles to select and try.

So I hope that this is useful to you, dear reader, and thanks for following us!

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