Last updated on May 24, 2020
The Ireland leg of my trip stressed me out for weeks before I arrived. It wasn’t a question of what to do (I had planned an epic route with my dad). It came down to transportation. Ireland is fairly large towns dot the countryside at sporadic, and often long, distances. Add to that my plans to only skate through major cities, instead spending time in rural areas, and I knew I would need to rent a car in Ireland to truly experience the country.
In fact, I knew from the beginning of my world travels that I wanted to rent a car in Ireland. But there was one key problem: I was traveling solo, and online rental car quotes were far outside my strict backpacker budget.
My first solution crashed and burned (not literally). Renting a manual car—a stick shift as we call it in the States—is much cheaper than renting an automatic one. So naturally I would just learn to drive manual while staying with my friend David in Edinburgh for Fringe, who agreed to teach me. That was a horrible idea. I was, essentially, awful at not only learning a new skill on the opposite side of the road, but soothing my friend’s freak-out that I would break his car.
We quickly abandoned the plan after my first lesson. Yet another quick online check with my favorite booking portal revealed that rental cars still cost well over $1,400 US for three weeks. That was not going to happen. Instead, I waited until I landed in Dublin airport, deciding to inquire in person at the various desks. I figured this: If I had my credit card in hand, surely someone was bound to give me a decent deal, right?
6 Ways to Pay Less for a Rental Car
Once landing in Ireland, and with my fingers crossed, I checked rental car prices at the Budget counter. Prices were still out of my range. After my sigh of resignation, and after I had thanked the man and turned around, I heard a slow and steady, “weeeell.” He beckoned me back to the counter promising: “I think we can do better.”
My first thought? Wait . . . rental cars rates are negotiable?!
If my many months backpacking through Asia taught me anything, it was negotiating skills!
I slid back to the desk, and I used these five tricks to drop the price to less than half my original quote—and he gave me a discount on full coverage insurance, too!
1. Travel in the Off-Season
Rental cars are a hot item during the peak tourism season, and sometimes companies sell their complete supply of rental cars—in this case, arriving without a reservation will only guarantee you have no options available at any price point! Off-peak travel is a whole different ball game. Companies are eager to rent as many cars as possible because all those cars they needed in summer will just sit in the lot otherwise—there’s just not a lot of business, so they are motivated to negotiate better rates.
My experience: I traveled in the barely off-season (September), but it was just enough to make the rental car company eager for a sale. The large price flexibility in my car’s rental price was largely because I was traveling in Ireland’s off-season, and the timing was also a major factor—I rented a car for three whole weeks, as opposed to just a few days. Additionally, the rental car area was fairly deserted—if there are huge queues these tactics are less effective, though still can be employed to some success.
2. Negotiate Like a Pro
If you’re standing at the company’s rental desk, and they are that close to renting you a car, they’re probably willing to negotiate. And sometimes they will negotiate a lot. Even if you find haggling embarrassing, just go for it. Start by not openly taking the first price they offer, in fact, don’t even take the second! Like all negotiations, and all good travel budgets, you should know your hard-and-fast limits—once you have ballpark figures, start your side of the negotiations much lower than the maximum price you can afford. If you only have a set amount to spend on a car, negotiate until you are sure you have reached the floor in your negotiations.
My experience: Initially, I didn’t realize that rental car prices were even flexible. But the employees clued me into the situation with their language once I demonstrated that I was prepared to walk away. I looked at it this way, I could always just accept their first offer, but it would be better for my travel budget if could finagle a discount!
3. Stay Polite and Upbeat
This should be a given. If you berate the employees, they could keep the price high just to spite you. Instead, try the exceedingly polite tactic—sugar often works in these situations. And beyond polite, be friendly and conversational, talk about why the trip is important to you, ask about the employee, and generally just converse with them like a fellow humor. You’ll also get bonus points with some people if you throw in some tidbits of well-timed humor to lighten the mood.
My experience: Each time they came back with a new price, I sincerely thanked them for their efforts, and commented: “I so appreciate all you have done to make this more affordable for me, unfortunately it is still out of my budget; thank you so much though.” And every time they would hem and haw and clack at their keyboard until they had come up with a new figure.
4. State Your Bottom-Line
Giving away your hand—the amount you are willing to pay—could be a weakness in your negotiations if you lead with it. But, not long into the conversation, when I was sure that my bottomline was really quite far from their offer, I found sharing my side of the negotiation became a strength. You can decline the offers until they lower the price enough to give you a better idea of how much it should really cost, then name your price as one-third lower than what you guess you’ll end up paying. Only when and if you are not coming to an agreement do you then openly assert that you simply can’t cross a certain price-point.
My experience: Once I declined the initial offer, the car rental guy staid steady around the $850 mark for several more minutes. Even so, I figured that I could get him closer to $700, so I gave him a bit of my background, joked with him about a backpacker’s budget, and told him my transportation budget wouldn’t allow me to go higher than US $600 on the car. He wasn’t swayed though, but at least I had told him where I stood on the situation (with a half-truth, because I had decided I could afford $700). When he wouldn’t budge from $800+, I moved on to the next tactic.
5. Try the Walk Away
I love the walk-away. Truly. This is particularly handy when you’re with another person because you can combine the walk-away with the “good-cop, bad-cop” routine (ie., the person walking away says something along the lines of “let’s go, we just can’t afford this”). If you’re solo, you have to play both roles: thank the person for working with you, state that it is out of your budget, and, quite literally, pick up your bags and walk away. If they let you walk away, move on to a different car rental company—you know the first’s bottomline, and you can come back if needed. More than likely, however, they will call you back to the counter.
My experience: Once the rental car gentleman stuck to his offer of more than $800, I picked up my bags, thanked him, and blatantly told him I was going to see if the other companies would give me a better deal. Still eager to actually close the deal, and not willing to call my bluff, the good man called me back over yet again. He picked up the handy calculator and we passed it back and forth for the final stage of our negotiations.
6. Show Them the Money
If you’re really close to your comfortable price, knock away the remaining opposition by walking your walk. You told the employee you would pay a certain amount, so pull out your credit card and really make it clear that you are close to plunking down money for your rental car.
My experience: After my last walk away, we bandied back and forth a few more times until I slapped my credit card on the table and indicated I was ready to rent it, but only if he would just agree to a nice round figure: $700 US. This was more than I initially told him was my budget, but truly my limit. By showing that I would go over my first stated baseline, we could both walk away feeling like we had gotten a good deal.
Minutes after I set my card on the table, they had my petite red Nissan Micra waiting for me in the parking lot. It wasn’t as cheap as a manual car would have cost, but it would help me venture all over the Emerald Isle. I would have a lovely automatic rental car for an agreed $720 US—less than half the original quote! I gave myself a pat on the back, turned on the tunes, and braced myself for driving on the wrong side of the road!
Quick Renting Tip: There are many deals comparison sites out there and you should absolutely check those first. If they have something in your budget—great! But if you’re flexible, traveling off-season, and willing to risk not having a rental car, then negotiating in person can help. I generally start both my hotel and car searches at Booking.com before using those many deals sites (and I’ve found good deals on those deals sites in the past, nabbing a low-cost rental from rentalcars.com when traveling with my dad!)