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How to save money on car rentals this holiday season—and all year long

For many folks, the holidays mean it’s time to travel. Maybe you’re heading to Grandma’s for her famous Thanksgiving turkey or your cabin at the lake for a Christmas celebration. If you’re renting a car as part of your travel plans, take a few steps to avoid paying too much.

First, shop around. Rates among major rental companies can vary by as much as $95 a day. Let’s say you need a compact car for three days at Christmas time, and you want to pick it up at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Reserve a vehicle with Thrifty Car Rental, and you can expect to pay $120.42 (including tax and fees). Get the same size of car at Alamo, and you’ll spend $194.11 if you prepay for the vehicle at the time of booking. Wait to pay until you pick it up, and you’ll pay more. The same holds true at Hertz, which has a “pay now” rate of $215.59. A comparison of these companies’ rates reveals a $95 difference between the highest and lowest prices—money you could use for fuel and food during your trip.

Before making a reservation, call or email your insurance agent to find out whether the coverage on your personal vehicle extends to your rental car. Ask your agent if you need to purchase any of the insurance coverage offered by the rental company. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars on car rentals over the years because I’ve been able to confidently decline the rental company’s insurance offerings.

Finally, take advantages of any “extras” you can to get the most bang for your buck. Once you’ve selected a company, go to your frequent flyer program’s website to see if you can earn miles for using a special link to complete the reservation. As an example, Delta SkyMiles members can earn 50 miles per day from Alamo, Avis, Budget and National. If you know you’ll be renting a car soon, keep an eye out for special coupons enclosed with your credit card statement. They offer discount codes you can enter when getting a quote.

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