How to Save Money When Renting a Car for a Large Family

Aug 16, 2018

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With a family of eight, we often find that we need to rent a car for our trips, as transportation options such as Uber and taxis are rarely feasible.

Additionally, the economics of flying compared to driving lean pretty heavily in favor of driving when you can fit eight people in a single vehicle. On a recent trip from our home in Cincinnati to Nauvoo, Illinois (on the western side of Illinois), our out-of-pocket transportation expenses were only about $100 (the cost of gas for the 900-mile trip).

(Photo by Getty Images)
(Photo by Getty Images)

Depending on where we’re going, we will often just drive our own car, which is an eight-passenger minivan. But there are also times that we end up renting a car. If you’re traveling with a large family — or a big group — and need to rent a vehicle, consider these tips for scoring serious savings before your next trip.

Know exactly what size car you need

Think carefully about the size of the car that you actually need. Here’s an example of rates for different rental car types on a randomly selected week.

Rates vary by location and destination, of course, but in my experience, this is a pretty typical price breakdown. If I am renting a car for myself or just a few members of my family, I will always rent the absolute cheapest and smallest car. I’ve found that rental car places rarely keep subcompact cars, and it’s not unusual to get “upgraded” into a larger car the majority of the time. That said, don’t book something smaller than would be workable for your trip, in the event you actually receive that car type.

For groups of five, you can try your luck with a mid-sized SUV, which sometimes costs less than a minivan. For example, National lists their standard SUV as a “Hyundai Santa Fe or similar,” but only guarantees seating for seven if you reserve a full-sized SUV. The Santa Fe does in fact seat seven, but other cars in its class, like the current Jeep Grand Cherokee, only seat five. To improve your odds of receiving a seven-passenger mid-sized SUV, try calling the rental car location and speaking to a supervisor before arrival.

Consider renting two cars

You may also want to consider renting two smaller cars instead of a larger SUV or van. My family of eight is often split between two cars for three main reasons.

  1. Although we own an eight-person minivan at home, most minivans available for rent are seven-passenger minivans. I’ve tried to convince my wife to let me strap one of the kids to the luggage rack or let them ride in the trunk, but so far she’s refused.
  2. It’s rare for rental car locations to actually have eight-person minivans available.
  3. Two rental cars often end up being less expensive than one SUV or minivan.

While it does vary, the gas used by two smaller cars is often comparable to the gas consumed by a larger vehicle. That said, you’ll want to check on fees for parking, tolls and other per-car charges along your route, as those could quickly double with the two-car approach. (I remember being annoyed by having to pay $10 per car parking (twice) at Mount Rushmore, especially since we had the Every Kid in a Park pass which gave “free” admission to families with a fourth grader.)

Our family at Mt. Rushmore after paying for parking. Twice. (Photo by Dan Miller)

One downside our family has discovered when renting two cars is that both my wife and I have to drive all the time, instead of being able to switch off. On the flip side, it can be helpful to split up kids that can’t seem to get along into entirely different cars.

Use points to rent your vehicle

Another option for renting cars for a larger family is to use miles and points instead of cash. Watch out for fairly lucrative promotions, (think: buying Hertz points during the annual Daily Getaways sale) though admittedly, it’s one with very limited quantity.

There are other strategies and tips families can use to maximize their rental car bookings.

Many travel credit cards offer members premium rental car status, which can be quite helpful. National Car Rental’s Emerald program, for example, allows executive-level members to pick their vehicle from the “Emerald Aisle.” Rumor has it that business travelers rarely select minivans, leaving them reliably available for those who actually want one.

(Photo by Becker Bredel/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
(Photo by Becker Bredel/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Travelers can also use Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book rental cars at a value of up to 1.5 cents each (depending on which card you have), by booking via the Chase Travel Site. There are often minivans and full-size SUV options in that portal, but again: always double-check that the car selected can actually hold your family or group.

Another option? Charge the car rental to the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard and then use points to offset the travel charge.

Use AutoSlash

I am a big fan of AutoSlash — a website that offers coupons and discounts for major car rental companies — and I’ve used them several times to save money on my reservations. Simply enter your existing car rental reservation information into AutoSlash, and the site will continually monitor your reservation and email you if it finds a lower rate. Just cross your fingers and wait for the magic to happen. Here’s an example from a trip where I rented a car in Brussels, Belgium.

Usually, I’ll end up getting two or three emails over the course of a few days or even weeks, resulting in a  significantly lower price than the original rate I booked.

Needless to say, even if a car rental company offers incentives to “pay now” rather than at the counter, I rarely recommend option for the former. The rental rates can decrease between the time you book and the time of your reservation, and AutoSlash can help you capture those savings.

What are your best family car rental tips? Leave them in the comments.

Family travel expert Dan Miller runs Points With a Crew. Dan and his wife have used miles and points to travel with their six kids to Puerto Rico, Sweden, Greece and more. 

Featured photo by Getty Images

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