I must confess, my own vehicles are quite old.  The newest one has 111,00 miles on it, and has already killed off one transmission.  We’ve decided, though, because we’re a military family, to wait until we know our next duty station before buying another car.  Meanwhile, we have aging cars with many, many miles on their engines.

Our solution is to rent cars for long distance trips, especially when I’m driving solo.  My husband is a talented mechanic – he once fixed our 1973 BMW with a length of plastic tubing, a few basic tools and strength of will, and he’s also repaired cars with only a Swiss Army knife – but I am not so talented.  Hence the rental cars.

My talent is comparison shopping.  It’s all about Time vs. Money, and I’m more than ready to invest time to save money.  I’m also a planner.  My father tells me this is part of my genetic legacy; I’m the daughter and granddaughter of engineers, so planning and research are my inheritance.

When I’m looking for a good deal on a rental car, I start early.  I know, for example, that I will travel to Indiana once or twice a year, at the same time each year.  I start checking rental car rates a couple of months ahead of time.  I visit all the websites, multiple times.  I plug in my AAA discount number.  I check for military rates.  I check out different pickup locations and times.

This year, the results have been surprising.  I often have to pick up or return rental cars at odd hours, so I can’t go to our local military base and use their contract rental car company.  I’ve found that SUV’s are a great bargain where I live, but in Los Angeles they’re still quite expensive to rent (must be a status thing; gas costs more there, my parents tell me).  The cheapest vehicle to rent at LAX for a tall person is a pickup truck.  (Cheaper than a compact…???)  Here, compacts and small SUV’s cost about the same.

Another thing I do is check the rates again as my departure date nears.  Many rental car firms offer “last minute” specials.  Even if I’ve reserved a car, I check again.  There’s no penalty for early cancellation.

It’s important to read the fine print.  One of the problems I have with renting for my Indiana trip is that our cheapest rental car firm only offers unlimited mileage if you rent at the airport and stay east of the Mississippi River.  The airport, unfortunately, tacks on a bunch of taxes and fees aimed at the out-of-state traveler.  I live here, but I still have to pay.  (This isn’t true in some other places, such as Las Vegas, where you can show proof of local residency and have the taxes deducted from your bill.)  I have to spend quite a bit of time comparing rates, extra mileage charges and other fees.

Research is key, I’ve discovered, when you’re looking to spend your road trip dollars wisely.  The last time I picked up a rental car at my local airport, the desk clerk complimented me on the great rate I’d found.