The best time to book a car is six to twelve months in advance if you’re traveling with a big group during peak season, but it’s ok to book closer to the rental date if you’re traveling in the off season.

When is the best time to book a rental car?

One of the main questions people ask when trying to find the best deal on a rental car is about the best time to book. Does the day of the week make a difference in getting a cheap rental car? Is it better to book weeks in advance or does it not make a huge difference? When do car rental prices drop? These are all important things to wonder, and the answers may surprise you.

Why prices fluctuate

The first thing to keep in mind is that rental car prices change a lot, and there are a number of factors that determine the price on any given day. Prices can fluctuate because of the season, a particular holiday, the car category, the rental company and timing, just to name a few. In general, rental companies want to rent out as many cars as possible, just like hotels want to rent out as many rooms as possible. They’ll price cars competitively to increase demand, but when demand is high, they may raise prices to capitalize on it. Keep in mind that the base price is the most likely thing to change. All of the additional elements of the rental, from young driver fees to baby seats to ski racks, will stay the same price regardless of the timing. This background information will help explain how far in advance you should book your rental car.

When it’s best to book in advance

If you know you’ll be renting during a busy period when prices are likely to be the highest, it pays to book as much as six to twelve months in advance. If you’re traveling with a big group or with kids, and you’ll need a minibus, a large van and extra amenities, you should start your search early.

The best strategy is to shop around and compare online before committing to any single deal. Once you’re familiar with the price range for your itinerary, decide on a target price or the highest price you’d be willing to pay. When you find a deal that you’re happy with, just book it. If you have free cancellation, you can always cancel that booking and spring for a cheaper deal when you see one. It’s better to have booked a car for a reasonable price than wait until the very last minute and risk missing out on an equally good deal, or learning the rental company ran out of inventory.

When it’s ok to book “last minute”

If you know you’ll be renting during a less busy period or you’re flexible with your dates, it’s acceptable to book closer to your rental date. If you’re traveling alone, with your partner, or in a small group, and you don’t have any special requirements, you can leave it a little late. Common car types are the most available so prices may not change that much. With that said, prices may rise during the final 48 hours so don’t leave it until the literal last minute! One last thing to look out for when booking late is seasonal promotions that get emailed to mailing list subscribers.

The golden rule

The golden rule for the cheapest car rental is simple – book a car in a common category like compacts and full-size sedans in a popular destination at an off-peak time of the year around 1-3 months in advance. This is effective for a large number of cases if these circumstances fit your travel plans.

This post is part of our Car Rental Guide. Thinking about renting a car but have questions? We get it. Find the answers on our comprehensive guide.

See the guide