“The only thing cheap on this island is us.”
This direct quote from my husband pretty much sums up our recent experience on Kauai. While the sandy beaches, tropical sunsets and fragrant air made for an overall great vacation, the high prices of everything from food to fuel to funsies was tough for two frugal people to handle. From the minute we ordered our first meal to the moment we crossed the threshold of the local grocery store, my husband and I knew we were in for a very pricey 10 days. And while it’s understandable that an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean cannot compete with mainland prices, we never really recovered from the sticker shock.
To help others looking to spend a future vacation on the Hawaiian islands, I’m writing a three-part series on how to save on paradise prices. My intent is to help you better budget for your trip and learn from my experiences.
Part 1: The Car — Our rental car ironically represents one of the cheaper expenditures during our trip, but one that could have cost a lot more had I bit on any of the numerous upsells thrown at me during the checkout process.
Part 2: The Food — This will be eye-opening for some and will help travelers better budget their food costs since “everything is more expensive here” is a pretty vague form of preparation.
Part 3: The Fun — I’ll offer low-cost ways to experience the highlights of the island, based on what we did and what others in our party did.
PARADISE HAS A PRICE: THE CAR
Scooter McGoo: A Story of Rental Car Savings
Most savvy travelers know to avoid all the upsells associated with renting a car. However, it can be hard in the moment, when a persuasive sales rep can make you feel foolish for not getting the extra insurance coverage or prepaid gas tank. As always, knowledge is power, and the following specific examples from my experience in Kauai will hopefully help you avoid any future indecision while renting a car.
Tip 1: Avoid the rental car upsell. I reserved the economy car for $232, which amounts to a relatively inexpensive rate of $23 per day. Immediately the rep classified my reservation as “the smallest car we have,” and asked if I would be interested in a special discount rate on a convertible Mustang. Usually, the upgrade costs $70 per day more than my economy rental, but just because I’m special, that rate will be just $15 more each day. I declined. “What if I can get that down to $10 per day?” Listen, that’s nice, but there’s no way in hell the real rate is an extra $70 per day if you’re willing to part with it for 85-percent less. You have to keep this in mind when they offer you special deals on upgrades. It’s like the “compare at” prices from TJMaxx or outlet stores; the item likely never sold at the “original” price, so the difference between it and the selling price is arbitrary.
Also, the gas mileage on a Mustang convertible is terrible, especially compared to the whopping 41 MPG we achieved with our economy rental. You must always keep in mind gas mileage and expected use when considering an upgrade, as it’s typically a bigger car that isn’t as fuel efficient.
Tip 2: Deny the insurance offer. Naturally, I was pitched the Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) to protect myself against liability for damage or theft. After declining it and explaining our credit card offered this coverage already, the rep said our card’s coverage “probably didn’t cover” accidents that were not our fault. Scary, but I declined nonetheless. According to my credit card benefits, I am covered by a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), synonymous with an LDW, when I charge the full amount of the rental car to my card and decline the rental company’s coverage.
I know some travelers who prefer to pay for peace of mind than decline extra coverage for the sake of savings. Obviously this is your call, but research what your auto insurance and credit card companies will cover so you don’t end up paying for redundant protection.
Tip 3. Decline the prepaid fuel pitch. The rep stated their company’s fuel price cost 10-percent less than elsewhere on the island, making us sound foolish if we declined. She even scrunched her nose and looked at me incredulously when I said “no.” The thing is, we’d be prepaying for a full tank of gas, even if we returned the car with half a tank. The company’s terms specifically state this: “There is no credit or refund given for any fuel in the tank at the end of the rental.” Did she mention that? No. Instead, she made me feel like an idiot for not prepaying for cheaper fuel.
And PS: her suggestion that fuel averaged $4.68 on the island was bogus! We got it for $4.42, and because we’re Safeway Club members, we received two fill-ups for 10-cents less per gallon than advertised. Where’s your scrunchy face now, huh?
Tip 4: Note any issues and make a change immediately. Upon leaving dinner, we felt the rental car stutter and make grinding noises. Rather than grin and bear it, we returned to the rental car facility and requested a different vehicle. We received a Mazda 2, even smaller than the Ford Focus, but it worked just fine. It did so well, in fact, that we named him Scooter McGoo, and offered words of encouragement and gentle pats on the dashboard as he methodically made his way around narrow roads and steep inclines.
In fact, opting for the small car actually helped us squeeze into tight parking spaces and navigate the exceedingly tight and often one-way passages around the island.
Tip 5: Avoid using the air conditioner. On day three of our vacation, my husband and I took a road trip around the island just to escape the heat. We stopped at several places along the way and getting out of the car was like hitting the brick walls of Hell. The contrast of air-conditioned air to the hot, muggy atmosphere actually made our experience worse. Once we turned off the A/C and traveled windows-down style, we found ourselves far more comfortable. The flow of air and occasional trade winds helped us from overheating and allowed our bodies to adapt quicker. Bonus: we nearly doubled our fuel efficiency by avoiding the A/C.
Hopefully this detailed account helps you better understand why all the upsells associated with renting a car are, by and large, a waste of money. For even more proof, check out Forbes’ contributor Roger Dooley’s experience with a rental car agency who tried to upsell him on a vehicle they planned to give him anyway.
How do you avoid rental car upsells? Do you think some options are worth the extra cost?