As points and miles programs have evolved, there are a number of different ways to earn rewards from car rentals.
Veteran travelers might remember the days when they would show up at a car-rental counter, and the clerk would ask if they wanted to provide a frequent-flyer number. Provide the number, earn miles.
Then, around the early 2000s, car rental companies started charging fees if you sought frequent-flyer miles from rentals. That made the prospect of earning miles from car rentals less attractive.
Now, as points and miles programs have evolved, there are a number of different ways to earn rewards from car rentals. Usually, you’ll earn only a few hundred points or miles, so nothing too lucrative. But remember that one of the key ways to amass a lot of rewards is to earn them for things you were already going to purchase. That’s the case here, and over time, every little bit adds up.
Today, clerks at the rental car counter no longer ask if they can key in your frequent-flyer number. Instead, the main way to earn points through rental cars is how you book them and how you pay for them:
Book through airlines.
You can still attach a frequent-flyer number to a rental car reservation, but you’ll need to do it when you book.
To start, you might try a travel aggregator site, such as Kayak.com, which gives you a baseline overview of prices and car types in the city you are visiting. From there, go to the website of the airline with which you have a frequent-flyer account and find the details of its partnership with car rental companies. Sometimes the airline will provide you with a discount code you must use at a car rental company’s website, and other times it might direct you to the airline’s own travel portal to book your rental car.
The key is to compare the rate you find on the travel aggregator site against the rate you find through the airline. You don’t want to pay more to earn a few hundred frequent-flyer miles.
For example, looking at a rental in Seattle the first week of November, I found a rate on Avis booked through American Airlines that was $15 cheaper than what Kayak listed. An Alamo car through Delta was the same price as on Kayak. But Kayak also listed cheaper car rentals than both of those, with smaller rental companies that don’t have airline partnerships.
The bottom line is that if you want the cheapest car available regardless of rental company, you probably shouldn’t book through airlines. But if you want a well-known national brand name – Alamo, Avis, Hertz, Enterprise, National – then it can make some sense.
Use credit cards with travel bonuses.
Rental cars count as travel expenses on cards that give category bonuses for travel. So if you have a Chase Sapphire Reserve card (annual fee: $450) or a Citi ThankYou Premier* card (annual fee: $95), for instance, you will earn triple points on car rentals. Using a travel credit card often can wind up providing you with more points than a comparable rental in which you listed a frequent-flyer account.
With other travel cards, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards card (annual fee: $59, waived first year) and Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite card (annual fee: $89, waived first year), you have the ability to redeem points you have accumulated for rental car expenses. You also can use points for rental cars through credit card reward portals, such as Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program.
In addition, there is nothing to stop you from using these two strategies on the same car rental. That is, you could book the Seattle rental example through an airline’s frequent-flyer program, then pay for it using a card that gives extra points for travel expenses.
That way, you would pocket both airline miles and credit card rewards points – all for an expense you were going to incur anyway. Not bad!