Be Careful Booking Hotwire Rental Car Deals

We recently returned from a two-week road trip across the United States, covering 5,250 miles in a rental car. To save some cash, we grabbed one of the many Hotwire rental car deals. While it was a relief not having to drive our decade-old vehicle with 160k miles on it, picking up our rental car wasn't a breeze either.

While we ended up getting a better car for the same price, it was a slightly stressful experience. I'll share the details below about why you might book a rental car directly from the agency for a long-distance trip.

Don't worry, this isn't going to be a complete whinge of a post. Spoiler alert: Hotwire gave us a full refund (read on for more details).

Our Rental Car Dilemma

We drove from east Tennessee to Arizona and back in a rental car. That's five states and three time zones. We also crossed the Mississippi River along the way as well, but more about that later.

Buying four plane tickets plus renting a car at the vacation spot is still out of our spending range at this point in life.

The Original Deal

Hotwire Rental Car Deals
We booked a Hotwire mystery deal similar to this one.

Before getting into the weeds here, I should admit I'm not a rental car expert. What I'm usually concerned with each year is usually, “Do we book through VRBO or Airbnb?”

Since I'm relatively inexperienced with rental cars, I'd love to hear your rental car tips and tricks in the comments.

We had been looking at rental prices for about two months and prices finally dropped about $400 from where they originally were. The best deal was a mystery Hotwire rental car deal where you only discover the agency's name after you pay. Oh, and these deals are non-refundable. If you don't like the agency, too bad, so sad.

Below is a screenshot of our rental car deal.

Thrifty Rental Car

How Our Rental Car Deal Went Bad

Fast forward to pickup day. I arrive at our local airport and walk up to the Thrifty desk. Expecting a full-size car, such as a Chrysler 200 or Toyota Camry, the Thrifty desk clerk says he has a Kia Soul for us.

Kia Soul
Does this look like a full-size car to you? Credit: Pixabay

Red Flag #1: Assigned Smaller Rental Car

The Kia Soul is a standard or compact car with other agencies. Getting a smaller car than the one you reserved is a common problem. Since I booked through Hotwire (i.e. a third party agency) and not directly through the agency, I was told I needed to contact Hotwire to talk about the price difference.

Red Flag #2: Overpaying by $100

I'm not exactly sure where the disconnect is for this next setback. What you should know is that Hotwire (and other travel booking sites) assign mystery deals to the cheapest agency and pocket the difference.

While discussing the car size, the Thrifty clerk said, “I don't know what they are smoking but our list price is $100 lower than what you paid.” Ouch!

At this point, he said always book directly through the rental car agency as they can negotiate a better rate at the counter if necessary.

Red Flag #3: Can't Go West of the Mississippi

Here's the sucker punch.

As I was getting ready to swipe my credit card for incidental charges, the clerk and I had the following dialog:

  • Clerk: “So where are you going?”
  • Me: “Arizona.”
  • Clerk: “You can't go there.”
  • Me: “Why not?”
  • Clerk: “It's going to cost you 32 cents a mile, plus tax, for every mile you drive starting today.”
  • Me: “No it's not. I have unlimited mileage.”
  • Clerk: “You do. As long as you stay in the 32 U.S. states east of the Mississippi River.” He conveniently pulls out a color-coded map that shows all the eastern states shaded blue.
  • Me: “When I booked the car, it said unlimited mileage in the entire U.S.”
  • Clerk: “You will need to call Hotwire to sort that out. Our cars have built-in GPS that alert us if you cross the Mississippi. I can't let you rent this car because I know where you are going. I'm going to assume you refuse pickup. You can try Hertz as they have national unlimited mileage although you will pay walk-up prices.”
  • Me: “Thank you.”

At this point, my wife and I called Hotwire and thought we wouldn't get a refund. Usually, rental agreements are ironclad to the benefit of the rental agency. After an hour of being on the phone, they finally decided that this restriction wasn't disclosed during the booking process, and we were issued a refund.

There was a link buried in the fine print of our confirmation email from Thrifty stating the travel restriction. Like most people, we didn't look at the terms and conditions because we had already paid for the reservation with the understanding we had unlimited national mileage.

While waiting for a decision from Hotwire, I was able to rent a car from Hertz. In any case, we needed a rental car. We actually paid $5 less and got a mid-size SUV. This was the only vehicle size left but they charged us the standard Manager's Special car rate. Maybe we overpaid some, I don't know. But this whole kerfuffle was a blessing in disguise as we got a larger vehicle that was out of our price range during the initial booking process.

Rental Car Booking Tips

This is my advice for rental car booking having gone on this trip.

Book directly through the agency for long trips.

This is the first time I've used a travel booking site like Hotwire to book a rental car. In the past, I've always booked directly. For long trips like going from north to south or east to west, booking directly through the agency can give you more assurance that you won't have a misunderstanding as we did.

I've had plenty of family members use Hotwire and Expedia to book rental cars for around town. But, they stayed in the same area. We were the anomaly, renting a car for a cross-country trip.

Use Costco Travel if you need additional drivers

The original plan was for my wife and I to rotate driving duty as our driving days varied between 12 and 16 hours.

Rental car agencies charge between $10 and $13 (plus tax) per day for additional drivers. We thought spouses were free. They're not in most states for personal rental purposes. So I ended up driving the entire trip as it would have added an extra $230 to our total for my wife to be listed as a driver.

One way to waive the additional driver fee is to rent through Costco Travel. This benefit alone can be worth more than the $49 annual basic membership fee.

Purchase rental insurance through the agency instead of a third-party

I've always declined rental car insurance, but the Thrifty clerk said to always purchase directly through the agency instead of a third party. The reason being is that the third-party policies don't cover as many claim types as you think (according to the rental car agency).

I don't know if the above statement is true or if it's a good upsell pitch. Once again, the court is open to expert opinions to set the verdict straight.

Get Cashback With Rakuten

When booking online, you can get bonus cash back with the Rakuten cashback app. Simply activate a shopping session and book your car. You will get an email saying how much cash back you get.

We were able to get 2% back. On a $600 car rental, that's a nice cash reward.


If I book mystery Hotwire rental car deals in the future, it's going to be for local trips only. Otherwise, I'm booking directly through the agency and may even call ahead before booking to see if I can get a sweetheart deal. We're also tempted to get a Costco membership if we plan on making another cross-country trip and need a rental car so the two of us can drive “for free.”


Josh founded Money Buffalo in 2015 to help people get out of debt and make smart financial decisions. He is currently a full-time personal finance writer with work featured in Forbes Advisor, Fox Business, and Credible.