For most of my life, I've been interested in cars; in fact, at a young age I can remember picking up the rental car being one of the most exciting parts of a family vacation - secondary to the flight of course! So, naturally, when I came of the age of being able to do it myself, I learned as much as I could about the process, as well as the tips and tricks to allow me to get a vehicle at just 20 years old. In this guide, we’ll lay out some base level information to help you get on the road with less hassle and for less money!
First, I think it’s helpful to explain the makeup of the rental car industry as it's primarily dominated by three main companies: Avis, Enterprise and Hertz; all of whom have several brands under their umbrella: Avis has its namesake brand, which caters to business travel, as well as Budget, who targets the budget traveler; Enterprise is primarily neighborhood based and also holds Alamo, a low cost brand and National, primarily for business travelers. Hertz has a robust local presence and also targets business travelers at airports, it also owns Dollar and Thrifty which target low cost travelers. There are also many other players such as Advantage, Fox and Sixt which have smaller North American presences.
I’d be remiss not to mention the impact that COVID-19 has had on this industry, as well as all travel related companies, and as such there are many changes that have been made. Enhanced cleaning procedures are common from all of the major agencies, some fees have been reduced or removed and agencies are turning to new technology to avoid contact - Hertz has begun installation of biometric Clear kiosks for vehicle check out. This all being said, I’m confident in the safety of rental vehicles and think that they can offer an excellent opportunity for a temporary escape from the city and will be key to the reintroduction of the travel industry - we at From the Window Seat predict that domestic road trips will likely be where the initial regrowth will take place.
Reserve in 24 Hour Blocks
The rate structure in the rental car industry is pretty simple: you’re charged by the 24 hour period. With that being said, your best bet is to pick up and return your vehicle at the same time of day - setting your drop off of just one hour past this 24 hour block could incur an entire additional day, so try and stick to this structure. If you really need it for that time, consider extending the rental for another full period to give yourself some flexibility.
Use a Credit Credit Card
While some agencies may not require you to do so, using a debit card opens you up to a world of liability, and will likely incur hefty deposits that can take a long time to return to your card after you’ve returned the vehicle. Most airport locations also require proof of a round-trip ticket to use a credit card at their facility. Additionally, by using your credit card, you’ll earn points and likely receive insurance coverage as part of your cardmember benefits.
Consider Airport and Local Offices
Both offices have their pros and cons, so consider both and compare rates. I prefer to rent at the airport to take advantage of a larger selection of vehicles and being able to walk the aisle to drive off in whatever I’d like. Conversely, local offices tend to have a smaller selection and older vehicles, but do offer the convenience of not having to travel as well as fewer taxes and fees.
Join the Loyalty Program, Skip the Line
Loyalty programs in the rental car industry are a mixed bag, and shouldn’t soley drive your decision of vendors, but the biggest perk is the ability to skip the line. At most airport locations, you’ll walk directly to the aisle and select a car - totally removing the need to queue at the desk - this also gives you the ability to select your own vehicle. In a program such as National’s Emerald Aisle, you’ll pay the midsize rate and choose from an aisle with midsize or better for the same rate. In addition, with each rental you’ll work your way towards earning status which can unlock upgrades - Hertz has a specific aisle for each tier with increasingly better vehicles, receive better rates, and earn more points. Speaking of points, by enrolling in the loyalty program, you can earn points of credits towards a free rental or credit value back to a frequent flier program.
Don’t Up-Spend at the Counter
Depending on the agency that you rent with, you might be hit with a hard sell for everything from a toll pass to insurance. Do your research on the toll pass, you very well may need it, but also understand if you can pay later directly with the agency or really do need that expensive add on. Insurance wise, you likely don’t need it, if you’ve followed our advice and booked with a credit card, you’re probably already covered - ask your credit card company for a benefits guide. As far as upgrades go, if the agent is being particularly pushy and you’re not interested, don’t cave. They may be trying to make a buck on a vehicle you could get for free depending on inventory.
The game of contract codes and coupons can be as confusing as it is lucrative, but it can save you a boat...er car load of money in the process. Often time, Contract IDs that you qualify for can waive underage fees, include insurance or provide other amenities along with discounted rates. You may qualify for some of these contracts through organizations such as universities or clubs, insurance companies or airline loyalty programs. Additionally, many credit cards provide discount codes as well. Some that I regularly use - and am eligible for - are the VISA Infinite and USAA Contracts. AARP and AAA also offer discounts to their members as well as regular coupon issuances. Most agencies also list common coupons for Free Weekend Days, Upgrades and Discounts on their own websites.
Don’t Forget to Refuel
Picture this: you’re running late, forgot to get gas and make the call to return the car empty to avoid additional fees. However, later on you check your credit card statement to see a highly inflated charge. It was likely fuel. You see, when you return a car with a tank of less than what you checked it out with, you agree to paying the rental agency’s rate for fuel: often double the market value! I’ve even seen it approach $10/gallon! You may think a simple solution is to take that cheap rate they offer you at check out, and it can be, but keep in mind that you’re buying the whole tank and as such you’ve paid for it whether you use it or not so you’ll want to return the vehicle empty to get maximum value. This can make sense for a long trip, but probably doesn't for a short hop running errands.
When booking a car, you’ll notice there’s often a discount if you prepay for the reservation, but I advocate against this. Many people ask why, and my answer is simple: you’re stuck with that agency. All rental car companies oversell their inventory, an industry calculation to not lose revenue on no shows and cancellations, but on occasion it fails. If you’ve prepaid and show up without a car you’ll be stuck waiting for one to come in as you can’t walk to the next desk; and this happens much more than you’d think. Additionally, these reservations are usually non refundable, so if your plans are cancelled or changed, you’ll be left out of luck.
In my description above about who the agencies cater to, you may think that a business focused one might not be for you, but that might not be the case. You see, on the weekend those agencies may actually be cheaper given most of their demand is during the work week. Conversely, a budget leisure company may be higher on the weekend when they have the most demand.
It Never Hurts to Ask
Want something specific? It never hurts to ask nicely if that convertible in the back is available. You may get it for free, or be offered a reasonable daily upgrade cost. Don’t be afraid to negotiate too as these rates usually aren’t set in stone. Don't believe me? Check out some of my favorite upgrades below!
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering which agency to rent with, right? In my opinion, Hertz and National are most likely to keep my business. I love the ease of National’s Emerald Aisle, how quickly their awards compile, and the consistently great service I’ve received. For Hertz, I love large selections and upgrades that come with my elite status as well as the premium selections they offer if I’d like to pay up - think Porsche and Range Rover. In general, I tend to stay away from budget agencies as they often have older more basic vehicles, hard sales tactics and less convenience for pick up and drop off; however, one caveat is Alamo, whom I’ve had great experiences with in the past.
One that I haven’t mentioned above is ZipCar. The reasoning behind this is that, in my experience, you really only get value out of them if you’re renting for less than a few hours. Their rates are inclusive of insurance and gas, but are often quite pricey. Do the math and research before choosing one way or another. As for Turo, and car sharing, I’m skeptical. Yes the rates can be great, but you never truly know what you’re getting into: was the oil changed, plates renewed, vehicle cleaned, and will your insurance really cover that Jaguar? Sure the company has a system for vetting, but much like airbnb, it’s very loosely enforced.
I hope that my opinions and lessons learned in this article help to get you on the road faster and for less, not just now, but well into the future as we resume exploring the globe! Feel free to drop us a question in the comments below and we’re more than happy to help!