Do Rental Car Prices Get Cheaper Closer to the Date?

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Whenever I book a rental car, it always seems like the rates get cheaper right after I book. So I finally decided to do some research to answer the question, when is the best time to book a rental car?

The best time to book a rental car is one week before the intended pick up date. On average rental cars booked one week before the reservation date are 15-20% cheaper than cars booked three weeks before the reservation date.

After spending weeks comparing quotes from over 15 different rental car companies, I was able to determine the cheapest time to book a car. In this post, I’ll let you know exactly when to book your car to save the most money. I’ll also cover whether or not you should prepay for you rental or wait and pay on arrival.

How Much Do Rental Car Prices Change

Anyone who has booked a rental car online knows that the rates change over time. It’s often the case that prices get cheaper the closer you get to the reservation date. But how much cheaper?

To find the answer, I tracked rental car prices from over a dozen major companies over the course of 3 weeks. I kept the dates the same and checked back every week to see how much the price changed. These quotes are for a 3-day car rental in Las Vegas, however you can apply this to any major city.

Pay on Arrival Price Changes

Most rental companies offer two prices: prepay (pay now) and pay on arrival (pay later). I put these prices into separate charts so that we can get an apples to apples comparison. This first table has the pay on arrival prices.

CompanyPrice (3 weeks out)Price (2 weeks out)Price (1 week out)
ACE$173.36$196.95Sold Out
NU Car Rentals$201.76$205.55$152.24

On average, rental car prices 1 week out from the reservation date where 17% cheaper than the prices 3 weeks out. The biggest change came in the last week, which was 13% cheaper than the week prior.

However, not all companies were cheaper. I found that SIXT got more expensive the closer I got to the reservation date. Also, National’s prices didn’t change at all.

It’s also important to note that ACE didn’t have quotes available because they sold out of cars the final week.

Prepay Price Changes

Some companies also offer prepay (or pay now) rates that are cheaper than the pay on arrival rates. I found these prices behave very similarly to the pay on arrival rates. They get cheaper the closer you get to the reservation date.

CompanyPrice (3 weeks out)Price (2 weeks out)Price (1 week out)
NU Car Rentals$193.02$196.63$146

On average, the prepay rates 1 week out from the reservation date were 15% cheaper than they were 3 weeks out. Again, the biggest changes came in the last week (10% lower than prior week).

Cars rented through SIXT got more expensive every week. Dollar’s rates actually got cheaper initially, but went up in the final week.

3rd Party Travel Website Price Changes

I also tracked rental car prices on a few major 3rd party booking websites. You can check out the price changes in the table below.

ComapnyPrice (3 weeks out)Price (2 weeks out)Price (1 week out)
Orbitz $205.23 $194.72 $155.20

Priceline and Hotwire were cheaper if you booked further out. The prices fluctuated as the reservation dated got closer, but were overall more expensive.

Expedia and Orbitz followed the same trend as the direct rentals. They got cheaper the closer you got to the date.

Cheapest Time to Book a Rental Car

After running these tests, I found that the cheapest time to book a car is 1 week out from your reservation date. However, this is only true if you plan on prepaying for your rental ahead of time.

Without the prepay discount, it’s actually cheaper to book a bit earlier through a 3rd party website. I found 3 weeks out to be the sweet spot for early reservations. Anything 4 or more weeks out was typically more expensive across the board.

Best Time to Book a Rental Car

The cheapest time to book is generally 1 week out, but that’s not necessarily the best time to book. The longer you wait to make a reservation, the more likely it is that the vehicle you want won’t be available.

This is especially important if you have a big family and need a larger vehicle, like a van or SUV. Most companies have lower inventory for larger vehicles.

Since mishandling a rental car reservation has the potential to completely ruin your entire vacation, I recommend booking earlier. Both Priceline and Hotwire offer extremely competitive rates for early reservations.

Should You Pay for Your Car Rental in Advance?

It’s clear you’ll get the best rates by prepaying for your rental car upfront, but should you pay now? Isn’t it better to just pay later when you actually pick up the car?

When you choose to pay later instead of prepaying for your rental, your rates are slightly more expensive, but it gives you the option to cancel. For some, the flexibility to cancel may be worth the price increase.

However, most people will get the best deal by selecting the prepay option. If you already have your flight and hotel booked, you’re probably pretty serious about your vacation. It’s not very likely that you’ll cancel, so take advantage of the lower rate even if you have to pay upfront. It will be cheaper in the long run.

Is it Cheaper to Rent a Car for a Week?

Sometimes it’s cheaper to rent a car for a full week instead 5 or 6 days. This isn’t always the case, however you can occasionally get a good deal. Just keep in mind that some companies also charge fees for rental cars that are returned early.