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Six Common Sense Tips for Keeping Your Rental Car Fuel Costs Down

May 16, 2011 at 1:52 PM | by | ()

A gas sign this week in downtown San Diego

In San Diego last week, we snapped this photo of gas priced at $4.73 per gallon just before picking up a rental car. Suffice it to say that we were a tad freaked out about a budget road trip we had planned, as the fuel costs had the potential to raise our outlay into not-so-budget-friendly territory. In the end, after following some common sense approaches to keeping gas costs down, we had a great time for less money than we thought.

If you're heading out on a road trip or renting a car this summer, bookmark these tips and you should do just fine:

· If offered an upgrade from compact or economy to an SUV, decline or inquire about other options.
Oftentimes (it happened twice in the last month to us), rental car agencies have sold through their economy or compact car options. As an apology move, they may try to upgrade you to an SUV. If you have a family or gear to tote, this could be a huge benefit. If not, your first thought should be fuel consumption and how this supposedly free upgrade will end up costing you at the pump. Don't be afraid to tell the rental agent that you're watching your fuel consumption and would prefer a smaller or hybrid option, if available. This approach recently scored us an SUV with eco-driving system that relayed fuel consumption information to us directly on the dash.

· Choose the direct route.
Google driving directions is your friend. With it, you can test a few routes to your destination and see estimated drive time as well as view the topology of the area. Skip the route with more mountains, more stop-and-go traffic, and of course more time. If that route is the scenic one you've got your heart set on, then only take it one way instead of round-trip.

· Avoid gassing up near downtown areas, airports and rental car hotspots
$4.73 for an unleaded gallon in downtown San Diego quickly became $4.40 on our way out of the city, which shot down to an amazing $4.19 at a cash and debit-only AM/PM gas station somewhere near Temecula, CA. Guess where we topped off our tank? Oftentimes you can't avoid filling up near prime spots, especially if you're renting from an agency that requires you to have a gas receipt from within 10 miles of their rental depot (ah hem Thrifty). The secret to getting around this is to top off at the cheapest place you find, then throw in a few dollars to re-top-off within 10 miles of the depot.

We talked the rental agency into giving us a smaller SUV (at left) than our friend's (at right), for fuel savings.

· Rent a manual transmission for improved fuel economy
First you've got to know how to drive a manual versus an automatic car, and double-check to make sure your rental agency has them available. This is no problem if you're renting in Europe, of course, but in America a manual trans is decidedly more scarce. A manual lets you control gears, and if you're doing it right, this will make your manual slightly more efficient than an automatic.

· Consider the rental agency's pre-fill option
This is best for one-way road trips that have you dropping off the car in a city center. Rental agencies will offer a pre-fill option that allowed you to turn in your car completely empty and they'll handle the refueling. Ask for the total when you rent the car, and if it's within your budget, it's a solid option that relieves the stress of finding a cheap place at your destination, especially if you're in an unfamiliar city. Our recent 3-day rental would have had a $70 pre-fill price, but we declined because, after following all these tips, we only ended up spending $40 on gas ourselves.

· Rent a hybrid or electric car
Hertz may be toying with offering electric Teslas for rent, but for now, your best option is usually a Toyota Prius, Toyota Camry, Honda Civic, the itty-bitty Honda Insight, or the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV. Enterprise has a list of cities that offer electric cars for rent, and Hertz offers an entire "Green Collection" of eco-friendlier car options.

[Photo: Jaunted]

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