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9 Smart Steps to Finding the Best Rental Car Deals


After a few years of working and living remotely for several months each year, I’ve gotten the process of snagging a cheap rental car down to a science. Friends and family have asked me on a few occasions for tips or to find one for them ;) so I decided it was about time I wrote it out in a handy step-by-step process.

While my ideal trip doesn’t involve driving (I’d much rather walk, bike, train, bus, subway, Car2go etc), there are some parts of the country (and world) that you simply need a car to get around. Jump to the end of this post to get my free price-checking worksheet. 

Here’s how to find a cheap car rental:

Step 1. What are your dates and are they flexible?
I recommend scoping out the rental car scene several months in advance of your trip. You won’t actually be paying for it until the week before (or when you arrive), but it’s good to get the wheels turning early. This also allows you to set up a simple process for price checking which can save you hundreds of dollars.

I usually keep a Google Spreadsheet with this info so that in the coming weeks I can quickly find the info I need, and not have to “re-orient” my self to what’s happening.

In this sample trip, we’ll use the example of going to Florida for one month over the holiday season (yikes!). Dec 15 – Jan 12. Our dates are not “flexible” in that we have flights on either end, but if needed we could return the car early and rent another if there’s a huge price difference. Write down your dates so you remember what you searched for.

Dec 15 4:30pm
Jan 12 5:30am
28 days

Step 2. Go to Priceline and search
My first step is usually Priceline, to get a grid of companies and prices as a baseline for my search. Please note, I don’t actually buy through Priceline. Rental cars are very interesting when it comes to travel expenses. They are unlike flights – which you have to pay for way in advance and then pay a change fee if something comes up. Similar to hotels, it’s nice that you can reserve without paying up front, with the option to cancel usually 48 hours before. However with rental cars, you can reserve your car and then never show up and nothing happens. You’re not charged. Now I’m not recommending you do this, it is possible. Rental car companies are also starting to offer a “Pay Now” discount of 5%-ish, but rental cars are still quite unlike any of the other major travel expenses.

I search for TPA airport, and enter in the date/time that gives us enough time before/after our flights. Priceline defaults to “Grid” view, so I click the “List” view option:

The “List” option sorts your results by Lowest price. I now see $32/day, total price $1149, instead of the confusing Grid view which makes it seem like all the cars are $50-80/day range.


$1,150 for a month of car rental is pretty spendy. Hopefully this price will decrease over the coming months.

Step 3. Go to the individual rental car sites to search
My next step is to note which companies are the lowest. Note: EZ Rent-a-car and Advantage are usually top of the list. I’ll pull up their websites and do the same searches that I did at Priceline, noting in my spreadsheet the price. If you’re not happy with the price, also adjust your return times by 30 min to several hours. Sometimes this makes a huge random difference and sometimes it doesn’t at all. Go figure. If my trip is almost a week or month, I’ll also change the dates around slightly just to see if I hit the “weekly” or “monthly” rate discount.

Example: In this case, I’ll be checking Advantage, EZ Rent-a-car, and Dollar. So, I’ll pull up the sites and do the same exact search. I start with Advantage and see that if I switch my search by one day difference, I trigger the month rate of $780/month – which after taxes and fees ends up $1,022.17. This ends up being lower than the other companies.

advantage monthly

Step 4. Find coupon codes
car-rental-coupon-codeBefore I click the “Pay Later” option and reserve my car, I will do a quick search online for coupon codes. I’ll search for the car company name + coupon code (eg. “Advantage coupon code” etc). There are often deals for an average of 5-10% off floating around. I’ll note the coupon code and the “new” lower price also in my spreadsheet.

Example: I found one for Advantage DC3180 for 10% off. My new monthly price is $702/mo. or $926.89 including taxes and fees, hopefully for the super adorable Fiat 500.


Step 5. Reserve the lowest option
Even if the price seems a little crazy expensive I’ll make my reservation only. DO NOT enter your payment information. Remember to use the name of the person that will be driving the car if you’re booking for you and a friend or spouse. If the price goes down or you find a better deal elsewhere, you haven’t already paid (unlike if you’d paid at so your options are wide open at this point.

Step 6. Add a reminder in your calendar
Next, I’ll jump into my Google Calendar to remind myself to check prices over the next weeks/months before our trip. I usually check once a month before the trip, and then 2 weeks before, 1 week before, and 2-3 days before. Put these in your calendar, and make sure your spreadsheet or notes will make sense to you when you come back to look at it a month from now. You want to be able to jump in, search, make a note, and be on with your day in a few minutes – not re-orienting yourself and spending an hour searching.

Step 7. Checking 1-30 days before departure and booking

As time progresses, I check the prices one month, 10 days, one week, and five days out, noting the new prices in my spreadsheet. It’s now two days before our trip, so we’ll pull up the spreadsheet for the last time and see what prices are looking like. It’s likely that our price will have gone down 10-60% from when we first checked. Remember, if your booking is for more than 4 weeks, check the prices for exactly 4 weeks and then the extra days. Example: 1 search for 4 weeks and 1 search for 4 days etc. I’ve seen price differences of hundreds of dollars using this approach.

At this point, if you are ready to go with this deal, select the Pay Now option if it will knock off 5% – or something – off your total. Remember to book in the name of the person who will be driving, and the credit card also needs to match the drivers name or they’ll pull all kind of shenanigans when you pick up the car (“You can add another driver for $10. A day. Hell no”)

Step 8. Picking up your car
Remember that if you selected an off airport car rental place sometimes their shuttles are slow and you have to wait. Console yourself with the knowledge that you saved a couple hundred dollars. When you arrive at the rental car place guard yourself that they will likely try to upsell you and possibly try to confuse you. Be calm, zen, but firm. You do not need insurance (so long as you booked with a credit card, that includes insurance, as does your current car insurance at home). You do not need a car upgrade (you picked the cheapest for a reason, better gas mileage!). You do not need GPS or any other silly upgrades (it’s 2014 you have a smart phone). You do not need to add an extra driver. If you decide to do the gas refuel (meaning you’ll be there long enough for it to make sense), just remember to verify that if you forget and fill it up that you won’t be charged for a tank anyway. Usually you just have to tell them at dropoff that you refueled and all is well.

Step 9. Check the car for any damage and you’re on your way!
This finally step can include a delightful sing-song of sorts as you exit the car rental lot “We got an awesome deeeeeal”

Free Rental Car Pricing Worksheet:

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Do you have any tips for saving on car rentals? Leave them in the comments

My 2014 Goals


Happy new year from the sunshine state!


Now that I’ve reviewed 2013, here’s what’s cooking for 2014…

My 2014 Goals:

  • Live / work remotely for at least a month – internationally this year
  • Blog twice a month here on Powered by Tofu and weekly on my business blog
  • Max out my IRA
  • Go to a conference again
  • Run another half marathon and another shorter race (8k or 10k)
  • Pick a monthly fitness challenge (this month I’m doing the new Nike+ Coach 5k Intermediate program)
  • See my niece 3-4x (I better get going on this one!)
  • Visit a new North American city (San Francisco was last year, thinking Boston or the other Portland)
  • Pick a new “thing” every month (Duolingo, Codecademy etc) to do for 30 days
  • the rest of my goals are a secret

Did you do a year-end review and a 2014 plan? Download my free goals template here.

What’s on your list for this new year?

2013 in Pictures & Goals


Another year in the books!

2013 was a big year for me. Some years seem to sneak by, but 2013 was not one of those years. My life was all about health and freedom this year. While everything didn’t go exactly as planned, I did two big things this year: #1 I quit my job to start freelancing. #2. I ran a half marathon.

The half marathon was a big change in my life because I spent months training for it. And for the first time in my life actually started to enjoy running (not something I thought would ever happen). Quitting my job was also a positive life change to end my year on.

As I’ve said before, doing an annual review is my favorite way to acknowledge the closing year before ushering in a new one. I don’t want to pretend that nothing bad or disappointing ever happens, but by reflecting on the good points of the year (and briefly touching on the not so great), it creates more positive momentum in my life. Sometimes when I’m feeling down, and only looking at the negative, it’s also nice to reflect on all the good that has happened.

So when I look back at my goals from the beginning of the year, I’m pretty proud…..

Some of my 2013 Things:

  • Worked remotely for 1-3 months in 2013: about 2 1/2 months total this year in Hawaii and Florida
  • Visited my bff and new baby niece in Hawaii 2x
  • Attended 12 new Portland/Oregon things
  • Ran 101x for a total of 333 miles (and counting)
  • Ran a half marathon
  • Got my health back in order
  • Made my place feel more like home
  • Hosted a cocktail party (French 75 party) and a baby shower for my sister
  • Applied for a few more mileage/points cards for travel (Chase Sapphire, and a business AA card)
  • Visited a new North American city: San Francisco
  • Launched my freelance business working for myself – and blog Early Bird Strategy
  • traditions: planned camping trip with family & made an advent calendar
  • focused on cultivating more friendships
  • put $4,500 in my IRA
  • did my first yoga headstand!!!
  • completed another 30 day yoga challenge
  • took 4 “mini break” trips! (meaning: local or west coast – Astoria, Bend, Vancouver, SFO)
  • days traveling: 79 and 17,355 miles, new countries: 0, countries: 1 (Canada)
  • read 6,445 pages (or so Goodreads tells me)

Some things I didn’t do:

  • Get a road bike
  • make an iPhone app
  • grow savings to X
  • Take a new class
  • Visit a new country :(
  • Take another 2-3 week trip (but one is planned for early 2014 instead)
  • lots more things

So in all, including personal items that I haven’t shared here on the blog, this year I completed 68% of my goals, which leaves me with not completing 32%. In all, a pretty fantastic year!

2013 in Pictures

JANUARY: Home life + Portland outings + kitty snuggles
FEBRUARY: Portland winter life + making our place feel like home

MARCH: Spring + hosted a cocktail party + hiking

APRIL: Florida + beach time + yoga + working remotely

MAY: Back to Portland + hosted baby shower + Bend, Oregon

JUNE: summer + family and Oregon coast + 1st 5k + Astoria, Oregon

JULY: baby niece arrived + running + running + running

AUGUST: 1st half marathon + nonstop Oregon visitors

SEPTEMBER: meeting my niece for the first time + Hawaii

OCTOBER: Fall colors + I quit my job + San Francisco

NOVEMBER: more fall + back to Hawaii for Thanksgiving

DECEMBER: Portland + Advent calendar fun + Florida again

What great things happened in your life this year?

Annual Goal Setting Template + Ideas


I love goals. Perhaps it started by running around with a miniature notebook and a stockpile of colored pencils instead of going to preschool, either way I’ve loved goals and challenges, and lists of epic proportions ever since I can remember. So as my annual “end of the year musing and scheming” has arrived this week, I’ve been excited to take a day or two and reflect on 2013 before I get carried away with planning for 2014.

Since I’ve been asked for a bit of the process behind my personal planning, I decided to share an example of my Yearly Planning spreadsheet this year. (After opening this Google Spreadsheet you can select File>Make a copy to use the template for your own goals. Or download it as an Excel spreadsheet to use in Excel or Open Office).

Download the Goal Setting Template:

Yearly Goals Template

Tips for doing an Annual Personal Review:

1. Make it an event!
For the last few years, I’ve combined my annual goal setting time with a last minute close-to-home post-Christmas getaway. However you decide to do it, set aside a few hours, get out of your usual space and routine and get thinking.

2. Recap the year
To start, I like to ask myself a few questions. 1. What went great this year?  Look at last year’s goals to remind yourself, your calendar, Facebook – whatever is going to jog your memory. My list includes all kinds of things – like big goals (started freelancing!), some stats (ran 320+ miles), more vague things (got healthier). 2. What didn’t I accomplish this year, that I had wanted to? The point of this step isn’t to be hard on yourself. Consider what didn’t happen, think about why it didn’t happen (because you didn’t focus on it? because you tried and failed? because you changed your mind about wanting it?), and then move on. (Example: my list included – I didn’t blog as frequently as I wanted to, and I didn’t start a book club etc) 3. What do I want to happen 2014? What do you want to be celebrating next year at this time?

3. Accountability
I like the idea of posting all of my goals for the world to see for accountability, but some are also personal, so while I’ll mention a few here on my blog, I keep a Google Doc with all my goals. Whatever your system is, share it with someone (start with your BFF!)

4. The Grand Picture
Some of my yearly goals tie into other lists (like in the past, my 30 Before 30 list, some were new goals, bigger goals, smaller goals, BHAGs (big hairy audacious goal, etc.

5. Pick a theme
I’ve seen some people have a theme for their year or a one word description, which I’ve done some years. Other years, I’ve selected a quote. 2011 was “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do” — Rumi. This quote really covered the different areas of my life from work to personal to fitness, and I added it to my chalkboard inspiration stripe in my home to remind myself all year.

6. Categorize!
I like to break out my goals into broad categories. In previous years, I’ve done really specific categories (eg. job, fitness, learning, money, family, blog etc), but a few years ago I decided to go a little wider with the general themes of: Health, Wealth, Happiness. They all go together, yes, but then I could stick the usual sub-categories under each, like “Health” has Fitness & Learning, and Service & Spiritual etc.

7. What by when?
Just like typical goals, I try to follow the GTD method to my year-end personal planning. I will… {do what?} {by when} and the {next action step} is. With a  {monthly/quarterly review area} and {final review}.

Example: I will put $5,000 in my IRA for 2014 contribution by April 15 (tax time). Next step: Transfer money from my savings account to my IRA account.

A more fun example: I will list my condo on HomeAway or AirBnB by June 1. Next step: Look at current studio listings in Portland for ideas.

An even more fun example: I will take a cooking class in 2014. Next step: Look at class options and schedule at Sur la Table.

While I used to only do a quarterly review of where I’m at on my goals, I found that it was too easy to have 3 months go by and forget about my “priorities”. So now I jump into Google Calendar (my calendar app of choice), and set a recurring calendar appointment for the last Sunday of every month. This way, I actually look at my goals on a monthly basis and can gauge where I’m at or if my goal needs readjusting.

Happy planning and I wish you a marvelous new year!

Part 1 – Yearly Goal Setting Template
Part 2 – 2013 in Review: Pictures & Goals
Part 3 – My 2014 Goals
This post was originally in a three part series back in 2011.

Do you do an “annual review” of your personal life?

How To Make A Grown Up Advent Calendar


Advent Calendar Ideas

This year, I wanted to make an adult advent calendar. No, not that kind of “adult”. Sheesh!

Seeing a friend’s calendar of adorable tree-topped miniature boxes, I started thinking how it would be fun to do a grown up version. After doing a bit of searching around, it seemed that most advent calendar ideas were either for kids or they were interesting themed gifts of 25 whiskeys, 25 chocolates, 25 wines etc. I wanted to do something a bit more budget friendly and experience oriented instead of shopping/consumer driven.

The result was a giant list of fun activities and outings. After the list was mainly finished – meaning I had at least 24 ideas, I realized that they fall into three main categories (which actually helped me think of a few other ideas) – food or drinks to make/eat, at home activities, and holiday outings. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of a ton more fun activities along those lines!

Since I was traveling the first few days of December, the advent calendar was just a list in Google Docs. Then I ordered some silver cardstock on Amazon, so by the time I got the paper, printed and cut out all the circles it was Day 6, but who’s counting?

Here’s how to make your own:

1. Create a list of at least 24 activities or little gifts. (see ideas below)

2. Make sure the activities line up with anything already on your calendar (ie. if you have a big Christmas party on the 13th, make sure you slot in something simple as the activity for that day).

3. Be flexible. If you miss a day or need to re-arrange things, don’t stress about it. The point of creating this advent calendar is to add more joy into your month, not create a stress storm!

4. Find a calendar style that works for you. You could go as simple as writing them all down on paper or keeping a list on your calendar, or more complicated with little boxes or bags, like some of these ideas. I designed my own Christmas tree shape out of silver dots. Check out the instructions on how, below.

#1-12How To Make the Dot Christmas Tree Advent Calendar:

Step 1. Get silver cardstock (or any color you like).

Step 2. Arrange 12 #s to a page equally spaced with a fun font. Here’s my template, #1-12 printable pdf, #13-24 printable pdf, #25 printable pdf (in gold or silver). Print onto the card stock with your printer. If you don’t have a printer, you can print to Kinkos for pretty cheap too.

Step 3. Round up a few glasses from the kitchen to see what size of circle fits best (using either the rim of glass or base of glass) and trace around each circle with a pencil. Then cut out the circles!

Step 4. Print out the list of activities (or write them on the back side of each dot) and assemble on the wall in a Christmas tree shape. I printed out the activities list and used double sided tape to attach to each dot so we could have the option of moving days around and re-using the dots another year.

Advent Calendar Christmas tree

Adult Advent Calendar Activities:

Here is my list in categories of making food or drinks, at home activities, and outings – some of which can overlap. :)

  1. switched to washi tape after some fell off the wall :)Make fancy hot chocolate
  2. Make eggnog
  3. Make spiced cider
  4. Soup night! with friends
  5. Buy a new whiskey – make hot toddies
  6. Make cookies
  7. Make or go out for a holiday cocktail
  8. Make smores
  9. Decorate the tree
  10. Make something crafty
  11. Wrap gifts
  12. Massages
  13. Write a holiday card?
  14. Mail or send cards
  15. Make popcorn and watch a fun holiday movie
  16. Any 2013 donations?
  17. Buy or make some Christmas candy
  18. Make paper snowflakes
  19. play Christmas songs on guitar
  20. make a holiday playlist on Pandora
  21. go to Timberline lodge
  22. get chai go for a walk
  23. Stocking stuffer outing
  24. Shopping downtown
  25. Visit Hood River
  26. Go to Powell’s Books – look at travel books
  27. Get beers at a new brewery
  28. Go out for holiday ales
  29. go look at Christmas lights
  30. Take grandparents out talk about childhood Christmas’
  31. Play a game/crossword etc
  32. Attend a Christmas event
  33. Dress up for a dinner
  34. Have a Holiday picnic
  35. Volunteer somewhere

And here’s a printable list of some of the above activities that we picked. Enjoy!

advent calendar ideas

Are you doing an advent calendar this year?


Olivia Raymer
Things I ♥: travel, food (I'm a pescatarian), the Pacific Northwest, bikes (I ride an orange mixte), beer (IPAs), summer, coffee, lists, and kitties. Travel enthusiast, former product manager, dabbler, and currently helping small businesses with digital strategy at Early Bird Strategy.

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