Car hire prices can change frequently, so it's worth knowing the savviest time to book. Discover the secrets of when you'll find the best deal on your rental car.
What are your plans?
If you're renting at a major airport or big city
In busy places, such as large airports and popular holiday spots, rental companies change their prices a lot – sometimes several times a day. Often these changes are tiny, but sometimes they can be substantial. If you're going somewhere busy, it's worth booking as soon as you know what you need.
If you're renting at a smaller airport or off the beaten track
When you're renting somewhere that's less busy, prices don't tend to vary that much. So it's worth booking as soon as you know your dates. That way you'll get what you need. In smaller places, cars can sell out, so waiting to see if prices go down can be risky.
If you're after a more unusual car
If you want a particular type of car, such as a seven-seater, luxury car, convertible or four-wheel drive, it's definitely worth booking as early as you can. Rental companies tend to have fewer of these, and once they're gone they're gone. The prices of these more unusual cars don't go up and down so much, so there's little point in watching and waiting. You're less likely to find a last-minute bargain, and there's always the risk they'll sell out.
If you're happy with one of the more common cars – something in the mini, economy or compact car groups – it shouldn't be a problem to book at the last minute, as rental companies have more of these.
When's the ideal time to book your rental car?
Booking three to six months before you travel is usually best for getting a good deal. You're booking early enough to get the car you want from the rental company of your choice, without risking any late price increases. Prices tend to be most competitive during this period.
There isn't much benefit to booking further ahead than around six months. If anything, prices tend to be higher a year ahead.
Why do prices change so much?
Prices change because rental companies don't want too many cars sitting in their depots when they could be rented out. So if fewer people are booking cars than they expect, they will reduce prices to attract more customers. And if they're getting more bookings than they expected, they will raise prices to maximise what each remaining car brings in.
What if prices go down after you book?
Car hire terms and conditions vary, but many offer 'free cancellation'. This means there's a period of time (after you've booked the car, or before you pick it up, depending on the rental company) when you can cancel your booking and get a full refund. So, check your Ts & Cs. If you can cancel for free and you find a lower price, you can simply grab the new deal and cancel your old booking. To find out more, see What does 'free cancellation' mean in car hire?
What if you need to book at the last minute?
We all end up booking late sometimes. Booking within a week of your trip will likely cost you more. Within the final 48 hours, prices almost always go up.
However, car rental in many places is still surprisingly cheap. So if you do need to book at the last minute, don't worry too much.
It's worth booking online even just a few hours before you go. Then you can compare prices and choose the cheapest deal, rather than finding you're stuck with whatever they have left when you arrive.
What about insurance and other charges?
The price of anything you pay for at the counter won't be affected by when you book.
That includes additional drivers and 'extras' (equipment such as baby seats, sat nav/GPS devices, ski racks and more). These kinds of extras and other fees don't fluctuate in the way rental prices do.
Three timing tips for a rental bargain
1) Book a car at a popular destination at a quiet time (for example, a summer-holiday favourite will be quieter in winter so the rental companies will have plenty of cars they want to rent out).
2) Book three to six months ahead if you're going somewhere busy.
3) Check your Ts & Cs for the cancellation policy – you might be able to cancel for free if you spot a better deal later on.
To find out more, see Last-minute magic: how to get a great late car rental deal.