First, the bad news: Manhattan is the most expensive place in the country to rent a car. You can get a decent deal, but it takes craftiness; moreover, if you're willing to go a little out of your way, that can also make a big difference in the tab.
The extra effort is well worth it. The same Geo Metro that rents for $22.99 a night in Los Angeles may run you $69.99 a night here. Add to that extra charges for additional drivers, refueling if you don't gas it up before returning, and the 13.25 percent sales tax (compared, say, with 6.25 percent in New Jersey), and the bill can quickly hit the stratosphere. And while most dealers will allow up to an hour's grace period, some companies here are notoriously unforgiving if you're tardy; rent a car at 5 p.m., and you'd better have it back by 5 p.m. They'll start charging you (perhaps $10 per hour) if you're five minutes late. So be sure to check with the agent for the policy.
These tenets are inflexible during the peak season -- the summer and holidays. (And if you're unlucky enough to be renting at high season, add 10 to 30 percent to the rates quoted below.) At those times, people are so happy to procure a car at all that they gladly pay upwards of $80 per day. Call early. During the rest of the year, if you find the right company and make nice to the people behind the counter, you'd be surprised what you can arrange.
One caveat: If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. Rental companies incur significant costs in Manhattan; they have enormous overhead and pay exorbitant insurance rates. (The latter is due to a state law saying they can recover only $100 on the damage you do to their car, even if you trash it deliberately.) Cheap rates are usually a sign that you're renting a lemon or an older car that's seen better times, and one that may well break down. So cultivate a relationship with a reputable company. And get everything in writing, including all possible fees and what time the car is due back, so you won't get taken for a ride.
THE FULL-SIZE COMPANIES
These are the majors, the names you know and love in other cities but that charge you through the nose -- often for less service -- here at home. There's a premium for renting from the majors, but it can be worth it if you're heading outside the tristate area, since they're best equipped to get you another car if you break down.
The smartest way to play the majors for a weekend trip is to get off the island, since the Manhattan locations will be swamped with weekenders just like you. You're better off visiting the airport branches, which cater to weekday business travelers and often have lots full of cars on Friday afternoon. Thanks to the laws of supply and demand, you may save $80 over a long weekend. (Or try Enterprise's Brooklyn location, on Atlantic Avenue; like all Enterprise branches, they'll pick you up if you live nearby.)
Whether or not going to the airports is feasible for you, you can find out which company is currently cheapest by searching Expedia (www.expedia.com), which prices the airport locations. Also, check out sites (including www.hertz.com and www.avis.com) to see if there's a deal for booking online (often 20 percent off), and use discounts from your frequent-flyer plan. Don't count on your company's corporate discount; the corporate rate structure is often higher to begin with.
One frequent driver I know goes even farther than JFK or La Guardia: He takes a train to Rye if he's going to Boston, to Philadelphia if he's headed for the Jersey shore, and to Stamford if he's en route to Hartford, often saving $40 a day on the base rate. He breezes through the rental office at the train station, then continues his trip. "I don't have to stand in line for 45 minutes to pick up the car. I skip the worst part of the trip, which is driving out of the city. And I can snooze on the train," he says.
ALAMO (800-327-9633): at Newark Airport
AVIS (800-831-2847): at the airports; nine Manhattan locations
BUDGET (800-527-0700): at JFK and La Guardia; five Manhattan locations
DOLLAR (800-800-4000): at the airports; three Manhattan locations, one in Queens, five in Brooklyn
ENTERPRISE (800-325-8007): at JFK and La Guardia; five Manhattan locations, six in Brooklyn, ten in Queens, and four in the Bronx
HERTZ (800-654-3131): at the airports; eleven Manhattan locations
NATIONAL (800-227-7368): at the airports; seven Manhattan locations
THRIFTY (800-367-2277): eight Brooklyn locations
The independents often offer one of two things in order to compete: cooler cars or cheaper rates. At Vogel's, it's strictly the former. The fleet consists solely of Mercedes-Benzes, perfect for three days of conspicuous display in the Hamptons. While owner Dieter Vogel won't divulge the names of his clients, he admits that they include A-list movie stars, directors, and music moguls. Mimicking their lifestyle it will cost you $675 for three days in a C280, or $1,485 for an SL500. (Minor details that add up: You pay 50 cents a mile after the first 50 miles a day; a rental day is from 8 a.m. to 8 a.m.) Vogel is based in Yonkers, but don't fret: He'll have your Mercedes at your doorstep for $25 each way if you live above 42nd Street or for $35 each way, below. And he'll have it there pronto. "We deal with people who are not accustomed to being kept waiting," he says. (Vogel's Eurocars, 453 McLean Avenue, Yonkers; 914-968-8200.)
There is a secret to dealing with many small companies (like this one, which gets consistently great word-of-mouth): You can bargain. During the off-season, aamcar might pick you up if you live near its Upper West Side location, or shave off $5 if you ask, to cover your cab or subway. Even without such perks, the prices are low, for good reason: "We undercut," says Dimitri, one of the managers. "It's a little game we play." A Geo Metro might run $169.95 for three days, plus tax, including insurance and unlimited mileage in the tristate area. aamcar may also save you the frustration of paying for an extra day: Unlike most companies in the city, which close at dusk, its garage stays open until 12:30 a.m. And Dimitri says you can score extra points if you call early in the week: "In the wintertime, I want to get rid of the cars as soon as possible. If you call Monday for a Friday reservation, I'm willing to take off $10." Or walk up at closing time and see if anything's left; then name your price. (aamcar, 222-8500; 303 West 96th Street, 506 West 181st Street.)
NEW YORK RENT-A-CAR
This independent chain is New York's hometown equivalent of the majors; it's familiar and reliable, and it really wants your business. Three days in a Ford Escort might cost you as little as $170, with unlimited miles if you dial the fax-on-demand (888-329-0189) line during the last week of the month. You'll get a jump on the coming month's promotions, which normally include at least one weekend in which you get a third day free. (Specials sell out fast.) "We do have leeway in our rates," admits general manager Len Brown. "Close to closing time, most managers are looking to get you in a car, and may give you a late return with no fee." But the Village location also offers sporty cars for non-bargain hunters, including Ferraris ($1,100 for three days) and the hot new Volkswagen Beetles ($329 for three days). (New York Rent-A-Car, 799-1100; 230 West 31st Street, 325 West 34th Street, 151 East 51st Street, 146 West 83rd Street, 154 East 87th Street, 240 East 92nd Street, 963 Columbus Avenue, between 107th and 108th Streets, 19 East 12th Street, plus three Queens locations.)
SPEEDY RENT-A-CAR CITY AUTO RENTAL SYSTEMS
If you're willing to venture farther afield, you'll find cheaper options. Speedy, a Park Slope favorite, lives up to its name, so you can start your vacation ASAP. Plus, it will charge you only $149 for a compact car for three days and throw in 400 free miles. "There's an unofficial frequent-rental program, where we'll give you extra mileage or allow overtime," adds Roger, the manager. City Auto Rental Systems, which is still undiscovered by the masses, will pick you up at the Journal Square path train and set you up with a Toyota Corolla for less than $100 for a long weekend, including unlimited mileage (that's no typo; they're cheap). A note about renting in Jersey: The collision insurance, which is included by law in New York, is optional here; check beforehand to see if your credit card will cover it. (Speedy, 800 Union Street, Park Slope, 718-783-0800; 4515 18th Avenue, Borough Park, 718-436-2929; 2463 Coney Island Avenue, Canarsie, 718-375-0300; 5511 Northern Boulevard, Long Island City, Queens, 718-545-0800; City Auto Rental Systems, Inc., 201-433-5400; in Jersey City, but they'll pick you up.)
THE LUXURY LINES
TOP CLASS LIMOUSINE
CAPRICORN LIMOUSINE SERVICE
SILVER STAR LIMOUSINE SERVICE
If money is no object, why not rent a driver with your car? Top Class (or any of the similar lower-priced limousine companies in the New York area) will provide you with a Lincoln stretch for $500 a day, plus gas, tolls, and your driver's food and board. As a bonus, you'll have room for six or seven friends to tag along. If status is important to you, pay more ($65 an hour, plus the standard 20 percent gratuity) for one of Capricorn's brand-new stretches, which usually cater to the needs of celebrities and world leaders.
If you like the idea of people gawking at you as your driver whisks you to your destination, Silver Star can help: If you want people to think that you're very rich, rent one of their Rolls Royces for $100 an hour; if you'd prefer to seem very rich and very eccentric, choose the stretch Corvette that seats four ($90 an hour) or the Ferrari Testarossa that seats eight ($100 an hour). Or, if you'd like to seem very rich, very eccentric, and very popular, try the one-of-a-kind stretch Hummer that seats you and 21 friends. Your three-day soiree may run you over a grand apiece, but it will surely amount to a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Top Class, 800-427-5450; Capricorn, 718-729-3000; Silver Star, 800-640-ASTAR.)