Tuition isn’t the only thing getting more expensive on college campuses across America. Over the past 25 years, the price of college textbooks has risen dramatically – at four times the rate of inflation.
With this rise in textbook costs, students and parents are trying harder than ever to find good deals on textbooks. Today, you can purchase used textbooks on eBay, Amazon, from your friends and through Facebook groups. Buying books, however, can still be incredibly expensive – especially for textbooks in the hard sciences where a new book can easily cost over $300 and used copies sell for only slightly less. That’s where renting textbooks comes into play.
For a fraction of the cost of the new book, companies will let you rent textbooks for a set time frame – by quarter, semester or other set period. The books ship directly to your door and you ship them back when you’re finished.
There are dozens of textbook rental companies, and that’s not counting the individual renting programs that many college and university bookstores offer. We researched online textbook rentals, rented textbooks from the top eight and wrote reviews of these textbook services. The following categories will help you decide where to rent your textbooks.
Best for Book Selection
One of the biggest factors in choosing where to rent your textbooks is overall selection. You want to rent your textbooks from a company that has the most offerings and options. One benefit to services with lots of options is the ability to price shop and compare your costs before you rent textbooks online. While it may be cheaper to rent one book and return it after the semester, another book might be cheaper to purchase used.
When it comes to overall selection for textbooks, there isn’t a better one-stop shop than Amazon. It has long been the king of online booksellers and hasn’t lost any ground to other online textbook sellers.
Best for Renting eTextbooks
Renting eTextbooks can be a handy way to cut down on the weight of your textbook load. eTextbook rentals have been around for years, but it is now easier than ever to rent a digital copy instead of a paper book. eTextbooks generally have highlighting and note-taking capabilities, as well as the ability to read your books across multiple devices and offline.
The best eTextbook providers, like Chegg, offer flexible rental terms and the option to purchase a lifetime version of the book. Something that sets Chegg and some other eTextbook services apart is the option to read the digital version of a physical book you ordered while you wait for the physical copy to arrive.
Chegg is an online textbook company that rents and sells textbooks and eTextbooks. This company also offers test prep services and tutoring and studying services. We rated Chegg as the best online textbook rental site for eTextbooks because of the flexible rental terms it offers and the ability to access a Q&A section through its eTextbook platform.
Best for Flexible Rental Terms
Picking the right textbook rental company can come down to many things, including your class schedule. If you’re renting textbooks for a summer term class, you don’t want to pay to have your textbook for any extra time. Similarly, you’ll want the ability to extend your rental if you need the book for an extra project or if you end up needing it past the semester’s end date.
While some companies only offer a few different rental terms, BookByte gives you the largest selection of rental terms for your textbooks. You can rent for 30 or 60 days, or rent for an entire quarter or semester. If you need to extend your rental, this textbook rental company lets you extend for 15, 30 or 150 days, giving the most flexibility of the companies we reviewed.
Best for Highlighting
Many of the textbook rental companies we evaluated don’t allow you to write or highlight excessively in your rental books. If you do write or highlight too much, you can be charged the full price of the used book.
The best company for highlighting is Barnes & Noble. In its terms, B&N states that “normal use highlighting and writing is permitted.” This is the most generous language of any of the textbook rental companies we reviewed. You should be aware, however, that if your writing or highlighting is deemed to be excessive, you’ll be responsible for the full replacement cost of the book.
We recommend that you purchase a used book if you’re someone who takes a lot of notes in the margins. If you’re just highlighting key passages as you go, however, renting from a company like Barnes & Noble should be fine.
Barnes & Noble is one of the most recognizable names in our online textbook rental buying guide and the best choice if you are someone who does a lot of highlighting in your textbooks. Writing and highlighting in rental textbooks is a bit of a gamble, but if you take care not to write a lot of notes and only highlight what you need, you’ll likely be fine.
Best for Last-Minute Cramming
We at Top Ten Reviews aren’t so far removed from college that we can’t remember the days of last-minute cramming for exams and midterms. Many people work well under pressure and would rather read and study a textbook the week before the final than read it in chunks over the quarter or semester.
iFlipd is an innovative business that rents eTextbooks and print textbooks by the week, allowing you to snag a copy of your textbook in time to cram for your final. No other online textbook rental company offers week-by-week terms, so iFlipd is an excellent solution if you’re searching for a textbook for your cram session.
When you’re finished with a book from iFlipd, you can return it for credit toward your next rental. How much credit you receive depends on how fast you return the book, so you’re rewarded for only keeping the book for as long as you need it. If you end up needing or wanting the book for longer, iFlipd calculates how many weeks you’ll need to rent before the book is yours outright.
What We Tested, What We Found
To test online textbook rental companies, we ordered books from each of the companies in our test.
We rented seven paperback copies of the sixth edition of Alan Strahler’s “Introducing Physical Geography.” Once all the books arrived we took them out of their packages and gave them a once-over.
As expected, these books weren’t pristine – they’re rentals, after all. However, we judged the books on the following criteria:
Two of the books came in actual boxes, three came in cardboard sleeves, and two came in bubble wrap envelopes. While none of the packaging damaged the books during transit, the bubble wrap envelopes were annoying because we had to find our own boxes to return the books in. Textbook Underground’s book came in a bubble wrap envelope, but the return instructions asked us to find a box to put the book in before sending it back via USPS. We appreciated companies that sent their books in boxes so we could easily return our book in the box it came in.
Two of the services we reviewed, Chegg and Barnes & Noble, included extras in the boxes with our textbooks. Chegg included a small sample kit with an air freshener and laundry detergent (things every college student could use more of) and B&N included discount coupons to Hello Fresh’s meal delivery service. We can’t promise that you’ll receive the exact same coupons, or any coupons, but these two companies added some nice extras to the box.
After flipping through each of the textbooks and admiring the cool maps in our geography books (yes, we’re nerdy), we went through the return process with each of the textbooks we rented.
To return the books we logged on to the accounts we set up for each of the rental companies and printed off return shipping labels. Then we boxed the books up and delivered them using the different shipping companies that they use. Chegg and Barnes & Noble both shipped their rental textbooks in boxes, so we used those same boxes to return the books. For the other books, we found boxes that we had lying around.
Help & Support
We also noted how easy it was to find answers to our questions for each of the companies we reviewed. While almost every company offered phone and email support, as well as FAQs, there were differences between the levels of service provided by each company.
Chegg provided the best and most intuitive FAQs. These covered all of the questions we had about returning our book, how much we could write in it and how the service worked.
New, Used or Rent: Which Is Best?
Because the average textbook load for a college student costs around $1,200 for a school year, if you’re reading this you’re probably trying to figure out how to save some money. The first tip in budgeting for renting college textbooks is to make sure you actually need the book.
Once you know what books you need it’s time to start shopping.
From a purely economical perspective, it rarely makes sense to buy a book new if you have the option to buy the same book used. For those who truly love to own the book, or if you’ll be using the book regularly as a reference during and after college, you may want to buy a nicer, new copy. However, by searching online you can generally find a used copy of any textbook you’ll be using – unless it’s a campus-specific edition.
If you decide to buy your textbooks, you’ll save the most money by buying used books. Used books come in varying states of newness; some books will hardly be worn at all, while others may have damage to the cover, pages or spine, or contain marking and highlighting.
If you purchase a used book, one of the major benefits is that you can sell the book when you’re finished – as long as the book is in fair condition and is still in demand.
Of the three textbook options, renting is almost always the cheapest (if it’s not, buy away). You’ll generally pay much less to rent a textbook than the used price, but there are rules about how much you can write or highlight in a rental book, and you can’t recoup any of the cost by selling the book when you’re done.
Doing the actual math and comparing the costs of buying used or renting is tricky because it’s hard to estimate how much money your book will be worth after a semester of use. Do some research, but don’t be afraid to pull the trigger on a rental copy or a used copy. The difference won’t likely be that big and you’ll still be saving money.