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9 tips and tricks for renting a car for your road trip this Memorial Day — or any day

By Friday, you may be on the road in celebration of the unofficial start of summer.

If you’re renting a car — either at your destination or to get to your destination (which may be smart if you have limited miles on a leased car you drive at home) — here are eight ideas that might smooth the way (and one suggestion) before you even put the pedal to the metal. 

1. You can prepay for a rental car and usually get a better rate.  Let’s say you’re renting June 5-12 in Portland, Ore., through Hertz, and you want a compact to midsize car.

When you get to the booking page, you choose a Toyota Corolla (or similar, as they say) and are faced with two options: You can pay $242 (using the Save $ Pay Now button) or you can pay $336 (Pay later button).

No-brainer, right?

Mostly right. Except you need to check the fine print, where, in this case, you’ll find this tidbit:

“Any change to the reservation may impact the rental charges. The rental rates may be higher if you make any change to your rental, including a change to extend the rental, the drop-off location or return the vehicle prior to the scheduled return date. Additional fees or surcharges may be applied at time of rental.”

Rental car companies are not the airlines, most of which penalize you mightily for changes. But it may be worth your while, before you make the reservation, to find out what, if any penalties, your rental company might assess if you change your “pay-it-now” reservation. This would require a (perish the thought) phone call. You'll find the list of agencies and numbers here.

2. Be aware of fees that drive up the price. We just finished saying that rental car companies are not the airlines, but that doesn’t mean you won’t encounter some fees.

In the above Portland rental example, your total will grow from $242 to $345, thanks, in part, to $24 in airport concession fee recovery and another $24 in customer facility charges, plus about $50 in taxes.

3. But you can dodge some of those by renting off-airport. If I switched my rental to June 6-13 (because the off-airport location in Portland I chose is closed on Sundays), the tab is about $143 for a Corolla for those same dates and grows only to about $181 — with taxes and fees.

Ask yourself this: Is it worth a cab or Uber or Lyft ride from wherever you arrive to pick up the car? Some agencies Hertz also offer free delivery in some cases. Call and ask.

4. If your destination is off-the-beaten path, try flying into a larger market, then renting a car and driving to your destination. You’ll save on airfare in all probability, said Carrie Peters, travel editor for Hotwire.

I did this a couple of years ago when I attended a reunion of college friends in Waterloo, Iowa. It was far cheaper to fly to Des Moines (by about $400) and drive two hours to Waterloo in a rental car (which would have run about $120 for my weekend rental, except I paid in reward card points) than to fly directly to Waterloo and rent a car.

5. Instead of calling a rental car agency, think about calling a travel agent. This advice came from several travel agents, but they make a compelling case, including Tyler Diehl, an entertainment travel specialist at Protravel International in Beverly Hills.

“No matter when you’re planning on a renting a car, you should do so through your travel agent,” he said in an email. “They have relationships with the rental companies and usually have discounted rates.”

6. Look for flash sales. Hertz promises something special on May 25 but would not say what. You may find others through newsletters and social media.

7. Got a problem? Take it to social media. Rental car companies, like many industries, don't want your ill will in the social media-verse.

“When companies today try to meet their customers where they live, they increasingly find that it is on social media,” a 2014 Forbes article said.

“Now that such sites are an integral part of the culture, using them for customer care is moving from cutting-edge concept to business necessity. “

Note that companies may have a separate Twitter name for such issues. Make note of it ahead of time, just in case.

8. Don’t be taken in by ridiculously low prices. Chris Brown, the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News, notes that $3-a -ay rental prices aren’t realistic and that rental companies can’t make money off of them. So how do they? By pushing add-ons, he noted in his May 3 post "$3 Weekly Car Rental Rates Are Unsustainable."

“They’ll make it up at the rental counter with various forms of insurance-type coverages,” he wrote. Leisure destinations, he noted, may be more prone to use lowball tactics because, as leisure travelers, we are more price-sensitive.

9. Live a little. Many companies offer exotic brands. Hertz offers the Adrenaline Collection (Corvette Stingray or Shelby GT Mustang, among others); Avis has its Signature Series (Maserati Ghibli, anyone?), or a Bentley through Enterprise. Some companies specialize in exotic cars, and you also can use some of the private-car-rental services, such as Turo (formerly RelayRides) to find the dream car of your choice.

Life is unpredictable, so maybe we should, every once in a while, just enjoy the ride.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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