The Best Car Rental Sites
- February 28, 2018 - Since this review was published, multiple travel sites have been acquired by giants Expedia and Priceline. To ensure our recommendations are up-to-date, we tested 45 travel websites to find the ones most capable of finding you the right car for the right price. Despite the added competition, our top picks CheapTickets and Priceline are still our favorite go-to travel websites for car rentals, with user-friendly search features, and competitive prices.
The Best Car Rental Travel Site
Renting through an online car rental site should be quick, painless, and cost-effective. We tested the search functions of a slew of popular sites, and found two that should be saved in your bookmarks for when you’re getting ready to roam: Cheap Tickets and Priceline.
CheapTickets, part of the Expedia family, is a sure bet. With phenomenal customizability, insightful rental company ratings, and intuitive iconography, Cheap Tickets should be your go-to car rental site. If you aren’t comfortably buying until you’ve surveyed the landscape, any of the other sites in Expedia’s lineup — Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity — offer great functionality. We didn’t find any better bargains when we comparison shopped between them and Cheap Tickets, but we preferred Cheap Tickets’ presentation.
If you’re willing to put in a little extra time to get a better deal, Priceline will appeal to true bargain hunters. The famous Name Your Price tool lets you bid for how much you’re willing to pay, and see if a rental car agency scoops up your offer. Not the most streamlined if you’re looking for one-click shopping, but potentially lucrative if you’re planning ahead.
We also experimented with Kayak and Skyscanner. Both were perfectly usable, but not quite as user-friendly as the Expedia group or Priceline. We got a little frustrated with the necessity of manually entering a lot of search restrictions.
How We Found the Best Car Rental Site
We started with 29 websites, all of which are aimed at English-speaking customers, and can search for hotel rooms and plane tickets in addition to car rentals.
AirTkt, Booking.com, Bookit.com, Cheap Air, Cheap Flights, CheapFlightNow, CheapTickets, CheapOAir,Expedia, FareBuzz, FlightHub, Hipmunk, Hotwire, JustFly, Kayak, LastMinuteTravel, Liligo, Momondo, OneTravel.com, Orbitz, Travelocity, Priceline, ShareTrips, SkyScanner, Smart Fares, StayDriveFly, TravelOPod, Travomint, WhichBudget.com
Finding a rental car is a fairly simple process, especially compared to searching for the right plane ticket or hotel room: There are fewer modifiers that help narrow down the list of all car rentals available to the one rental perfect for you. And there are typically fewer car rental options available in a given city than there are hotels and plane tickets.
This means that the majority of car rental sites are almost identical. So, to help us narrow things down, we asked people they wanted in their search: We conducted a survey, questioning more than 500 travelers about the features that are most important to them when booking a plane ticket, hotel room, or car rental. (Read more about this survey here.) The overwhelming result? Price. Preferences varied from there, and we used the most popular results to filter down from 29 sites to our two top picks.
We started by cutting any car rental site that wasn’t intuitive to use or didn’t load results.
The search process starts the same on most car rental sites — entering in dates, times, and pickup and dropoff locations — and the modifiers are the same — selecting your car type, preferred car rental agency, and your preferences on features. As a result, we were less forgiving on websites that were even slightly harder to use than their competitors. There are enough good car rental travel sites out there that you shouldn’t have to put up with even the mildly annoying ones.
We cut several websites for having an immediately off-putting design. A few sites inundated us with popups and banners to “call for better deals,” like StayDriveFly and CheapFlightNow. Others struggled to load pages in general, or couldn’t let us update our search while looking at results — we had to go back to the main page and start over again.
We cut an additional four sites for not being able to find or load results for car rental searches. As much as we loved Booking.com for finding us inexpensive airfares, repeated attempts to find a car in the entire Seattle area resulted in “No results found.” This was particularly odd given that fourteen other travel sites had found cars for the dates and location we requested. Cheapair similarly told us no cars were available, while FareBuzz and OneTravel failed to load a results page at all — no matter how long we kept our browser running.
AirTkt, Booking.com, Bookit.com, Cheapair, Cheap Flights, CheapFlightNow, FareBuzz, Hotwire, OneTravel ShareTrips, Smart Fares, StayDriveFly, TravelOPod, Travomint, WhichBudget.com
We looked for maps that made it easy to compare prices at a glance, and see how far the rental location is.
We also wanted the best car rental sites to give us a map of possible locations, and we wanted the map to be useful. We liked having a map when we looked for rental agencies within a city (and could visually see whether a company was on the north or south side of Seattle) and when we looked specifically at rental agencies near the airport.
We loved Kayak’s map feature because we could see at a glance where the cheapest rentals were – prices were available even when we looked at the entire Seattle area, and not just when we zoomed in on a particular block. We could also filter results on a side-by-side basis — so we could choose to only look at economy cars or SUVs, or filter for manual steering and see immediate changes on the map.
By contrast, we weren’t thrilled with maps that only displayed information about the rental agency located at each point, or forced us to zoom in before showing any information at all. Instead of prices, Last Minute Travel displays the name of each rental agency on its map, and clicking on a flag only results in seeing the agency’s address — nothing about the price or cars available.
CheapoAir, Flighthub, Hipmunk, JustFly, Lastminutetravel, Liligo, Momondo
The best car rental sites had to make it easy to fine-tune our searches.
This left us with seven travel websites, including four websites from the Expedia Group: Cheap Tickets, Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity; two sister websites Priceline and Kayak; and lone wolf Skyscanner. For these remaining sites, we wanted to find out how easy it was to find not just any car, but the right car. Almost all offered sorting options, allowing you to organize your entire search results by price, distance, or “recommended” — where the travel website has constructed an algorithm to calculate what they think your best rental options are.
We still investigated websites owned by the same company.Even though Expedia’s search process is the same, when we tested for the Best Airfare Travel Site, their prices varied. Priceline is the other giant, and their sister companies vary in style, search experience, and price.
Skyscanner was the only exception, defaulting to sorting by lowest price. If you’re searching for an airport-based rental, not having a “sort by distance” option isn’t too much of a hinderance. But if you’re searching for the closest rental agency to your hotel, you’ll need to make use of the site’s map feature.
Travel websites make it easy to fine-tune your results by providing filters, so you can prioritize which features are must-haves for your rental. While some features seem out of touch with modern society — almost all new cars have air conditioning, so sorting for it doesn’t cut down your choices — many were useful.
Our survey results indicated that people value the details: choosing unlimited mileage, finding the right type of car, or making sure to rent from a particular agency. Again, most of our websites hit the mark here — though selecting for “car type” can give you anywhere from 9 options (Kayak) to 13 (Orbitz). On every website that made it to this round, you can specify both car type and rental agency.
What is unlimited mileage?Unlimited mileage is pretty much how it sounds: you can drive as far as you want, in exchange for paying a little more money. Limited mileage rentals restrict how far you can drive (the number might change if it’s a weekday versus a weekend). If you go over, you’ll be charged a fine.
However, if you want to search for unlimited mileage, you’ll need to choose from one of the Expedia cluster, or Skyscanner. Priceline lists in each car description whether the price includes unlimited mileage, but it’s not a feature you can search for. Kayak also lacks the option to search for unlimited mileage, and doesn’t list it in the rental description — you’ll need to click through to the actual booking site to learn whether unlimited mileage is something you’ll have to pay extra for, or if it’s included in the price.
Of the seven sites, we preferred Expedia’s filtering and sorting options. While it doesn’t get points for originality — all of its sister websites have exactly the same search tool, just with different URLs and color schemes – it had the most filter options, which helped make it easy to navigate. In addition to filtering cars by car type, rental car company, and unlimited mileage, we could also specify daily price restrictions (less than $50, or $50 to $74, for example), and distance.
And then we made sure our top picks offered the best prices.
Finding the best price for a car rental is a combination of combing through enough car rental agency websites and other search sites to make sure you’ve tracked down every option available, and offering that price at a markup comparable to or cheaper than your competitors.
All seven websites had passed the initial hurdle of finding any available cars to rent. To make sure that they were tracking down prices from the right websites, we took it a step further and verified that all the top rental car companies with high customer satisfaction ratings were represented. While we wanted to see low rates, we also wanted to be getting them from reputable agencies. All seven passed with flying colors.
Once we knew we were getting quality results — cars that we would feel safe renting — we set to tracking prices to see which one served us the lowest offer. All seven found the same economy-class car available from Fox Rent a Car for the location and dates we chose, and six of them for the exact same price ($133 for our four-day trip). Again, we weren’t exactly surprised, since four of the identical sixtuplets were all from the Expedia group. The other two — Priceline and Skyscanner — also came back with the same price ($133).
You can request special equipment when booking your rental, but you’ll pay on pickup.All of our websites let us request a navigation system, toddler seat, or ski rack to be included with our rental. We liked this convenience, but booking engines cannot guarantee that your requests will be fulfilled, and you won’t be able to prepay for the add-ons.
The only exception was Kayak, who offered the same car rental for $123. However, this $10 “savings” ended up costing us a bunch more. Booking through any of the Expedia websites or through Priceline guaranteed us a free cancellation — something not included when we went through Kayak directly to the Fox Rent a Car page. Additionally, we weren’t thrilled that Fox Rent a Car places an extra $150 charge on our credit card “just in case” we incur additional damages, and refunded only after they’ve assessed the car after return.
Even though Kayak found the cheapest price, we ended up cutting them because they were the only website to make it difficult to compare prices. You won’t know if you’re getting the lowest price until you click through to make your booking and see what amenities are involved. Sometimes, a more expensive car will have a free cancellation policy automatically included, justifying spending a little extra to choose that booking than deal with extra fees upon checkout.
Even though all of our travel sites searched the most popular car rental agencies for cars, we found cheaper prices when we searched directly on Avis’, Budget’s, and Thrifty’s home webpages. If you’re looking to earn points with a particular company, double-check prices before committing to a booking.
Our Picks for the Best Car Rental Travel Websites
You can’t go wrong with any of the sites of the Expedia group (CheapTickets, Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity) — we were impressed with the whole suite, and aside from some color changes, they’re all identical. We recommend starting either with Cheap Tickets or Expedia. The only major difference between them is that Expedia automatically sorts your results by “Recommended” (with the option to switch over to Total Price or Distance) and Cheap Tickets only offers sorting by Total Price or Distance.
We were particularly impressed with CheapTickets for giving us the most options when it came to choosing a rental car. If you know exactly the type of car you want, CheapTickets is your guiding beacon in finding it. In addition to choosing where and when you pick up and drop off your rental car, you can choose to only search for cars rented by a specific company, and request special equipment — right off the bat, without having to sort through results first.
Once you have your results, you’ll also be able to specify whether you prefer a manual or automatic transmission, how important air-conditioning is to you, and whether you need to have an unlimited or limited mileage policy. We particularly liked how, in addition to specifying the car type you’d like, you can look at cars within a given daily price range, whether it’s less than $25, $25 to $49, $50 to $74, and beyond. If you have a specific neighborhood you’re trying to rent a car in, or return a car to, Cheap Tickets can search for that too.
We also loved that Cheap Tickets includes customer reviews of particular rental agencies, with a spectrum of easy-to-spot smiley and frowny faces plus a five star system. (These aren’t fully fleshed out with customer feedback, but the system is in place and we expect it will only get more helpful.)
We were a little disappointed with the map feature, however. It shows location, but doesn’t bring along with it the list of cars or any filtering options. To make changes to the map, Cheap Tickets required us to leave the map view, add a filter, and then go back and look at the map to see how our preferences affected our options.
We also found that Cheap Tickets doesn’t allow you to search using a discount code — unlike Orbitz, Expedia, or Travelocity. You’ll need to jump over to one of those sites if you have one to use. However, with its flexible customization options, upfront details and clear, colorful iconography, Cheap Tickets is easy to understand and easy to use.
Priceline earns this spot thanks to its famous Name Your Own Price Tool. Select your dates, your location, and the basic type of car you want (from economy to convertible), and enter the price you’re willing to pay, per day, for that car. If your bid wins, you’ll be connected through to the purchase page, to finalize your details. If not, you can wait 24 hours to try again with the same bid — the same dates, location, car type, and price — or go back and try adjusting your price or car type.
You won’t know the exact details of the car you’re renting, or where you’re renting it from until you’ve completed the purchase. On the purchase page, it will let you know how many people your car can fit, the approximate size of the luggage compartment, its transmission type, and whether it has air conditioning. But all other details are hidden.
The trade-off for not knowing the specifics of your rental car can be some serious savings. Our bid for a luxury car at $10 per day for three days was accepted, even though the tool briefly warned us that our price was “too low.” Depending on how busy your destination is during your planned trip, and the popularity of the car you’re requesting for, you might be able to score a great deal.
If you want a surer bet, you can also use Priceline’s regular search tool. Search by all the normal factors — price, car type, company, etc. — in a straightforward layout. While not as elegantly organized as the search functions of the Expedia clan, the presentation is decent. Plus, it aces the map tool, which allows for filters and lets you hit “see more results.”
Book Your Next Car Like a Pro
A booking engine saves money, but not necessarily time.
When you opt to book through a travel site rather than an individual car rental company, you’re likely surfacing much better deals, while avoiding sketchy sites that might charge you more. You also are more likely to have recourse if you interact with a rental agency that treats you poorly, since you’re doubling up on customer-facing responsibility.
You’re getting a better price and better service, but you’ll also need to keep track of double the policies and double the fine print. Read through both the booking engine’s and the agency’s policies on cancellation, fees, age limits (especially if the driver is under 25 or over 70), and add-on items like infant/toddler seats, navigational systems, snow chains, ski racks, etc. (You also won’t be guaranteed to receive those items when going through a booking site.)
Booking engine and fare aggregator sites can help you find the cheapest price quickly, and can give you a good idea of what cars are available. But you’ll still have to go through the legalese of the actual agency’s site to know what fees might be applied.
For collision protection, rates between sites are about equal.
Purchasing collision protection from any of our picks will cost you $10 per day on average. Expedia group offers $35,000 in coverage for exactly that — $10 a day. Kayak plumps up the coverage total to $40,000 for a dollar less ($9) and Priceline provides $50,000 in coverage for a dollar more ($11).
We found that their collision protection policies were better than what’s offered by actual car rental agencies. While it’s always important to fully understand your policy, this is especially true when you’re going through a third-party site.