Rental Car Tips - How To Avoid Being "Beaten Up"
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At first glance, one would think Rental Cars would be the simplest aspect of travel. I really believe it is the hardest and bears the closest scrutiny. Talk about prices varying. The airlines have nothing on the car folks. As far as I am concerned the only positive aspect or car rental is that a reservation is not a commitment! One or two of the major companies recently tried to charge for rentals that were not kept but amid outcry. they stole quietly into the night. I expect them all to eventually try to do the same as hotels and have a 4 to 24 hour prior to rental time cancellation or incur a minimum charge, but this will probably come about because folks make reservations, then don't keep them and don't cancel them. I also suspect the folks who complain the loudest about not having a car when they have reserved one are the ones who habitually fail to cancel reservations. The editorial part aside, make it a point to cancel reservations you don't need and we can begin to keep rental car prices down.
Prices! Hum, let's see, a compact in Florida for a week in August, $99. A compact in San Francisco during Fleet Week is going to run you $299. This is true "Market Driven" economics. Stand by to be smacked by Adam Smith's Invisible Hand! So what this section is really all about is how to make the best of an area of travel over which we have very limited control.
Advance purchase pretends to exist, some discount coupons can add 20% or more to the cost of a car, and the best deal can happen at the counter without or in spite of a reservation. If you are uninformed, the counter agent can convince you that your platinum credit card isn't primary coverage for insurance purposes (that can be true, but true by omission. In most cases your own car insurance is primary and the credit card is secondary - picks up what's left - more on this later), sells you insurance you don't need and splits the premium with the company. While you are at it, the compact you reserved is not available and the agent manages to upgrade you to what's left, a full size. So that $19.95 a day compact you reserved is a $34 full size with an additional $20 in insurance and we got the fueling option for $20 even though you told the agent you needed the car for one day and were going down town, to a meeting and then back the next day. Total cost for the $19.95 special? $74 plus 18% tax and a "Recovery Fee" (Guess what that is.. I'll tell you later.) Now we have a car that should have cost you $25 to $30 total with taxes, fees and the fuel you put in to top it off. You should have been upgraded at no charge due to non availability of the compact, but you paid a whopping $100! Wow, what happened?
You may not have done your homework. First, join one or two rental car companies frequent renter programs. I have never, ever, no way, no how paid the $50 fee they "require." You just don't have to. That packet you receive from the airlines usually contains an application which indicates that the fee has been waived. If you don't get one in your mailer, call the rental car customer service and tell them you would like to join and you, "Understand that Frequent Flyers with XYZ airlines are having their fees waived," and you would like to take advantage of that offer as well.
I know, I know, I am sounding like a commercial for the car companies but truth is, membership includes a profile which can save you time and hassles at the counter. The kind car you want, waivers for insurance, credit card, frequent flyer number and so on are in your file so when you make a reservation, that information goes with it and when you get to the counter, all you need do is give your reservation number, Name (if the reservation isn't handy) or stick your Club Card into the Kiosk and you are on your way. If you do encounter the agent who wants to sell you the sun, moon and stars above, just say, "I'm sorry, don't you have that information on the reservation already?" The only legitimate question, to me, is the fuel question and will you have a local number/hotel while in town. I can't tell you how many times I have stood in line while some agent told a renter horror stories trying to get them to upgrade, buy insurance or pre purchase fuel they may or may not need. So, do ME a favor, join a club so I don't have to watch you sweat through the torture.
What can you do, what can you do? Book early and check often. Rates can change hourly as they are adjusted for demand. Use your affiliations with AAA, AARP, The Retired Officers Association, Union membership, government rate, if you qualify, and others. Know what coverage your own auto insurance offers on rental cars and what benefits your credit card delivers in this area; chances are you may not need additional coverage. Before using a coupon, find out what the rate is without it? You may be totally surprised to find that many, many times that coupon for a 20% discount is based on their highest rate and may actually cost you money, a lot of money! The best coupons are "walk up" coupons which only require an advance reservation with presentation at the counter. In other words, make your best deal and when you walk up to the counter, they will knock off what ever the coupon is worth. Of the several hundred car rental coupons I get a year, very few fall into this category. And finally my biggest tip for this section, renegotiate at the counter if you think you can do better. If every counter has a sign up that says "CARS AVAILABLE," you have just found yourself in the cat bird seat. Econ 101: When supply exceeds demand, price falls. (Pssssst. Don't pass this clue along to them as they may take the signs down and make negotiation harder!)
So, book early and recheck often, check affiliations, be insurance wise, watch the coupons and negotiate at the counter! If you find you don't need the car, cancel. The more you do these things well, the more you can be an informed consumer and save on the Car rental.
Remember to get your Frequent flyer miles or Hotel points. From time to time, Car Rental companies try frequency programs which offer free rentals and free upgrades but so far these plans have not come to the level of the other travel award programs. Alamo had a plan in the early 90's which was an excellent plan for the road warrior. It included upgrades, free rentals and a wonderful business card holder which I still have. If the companies would study this model and modify it for the leisure traveler, I am sure some customer loyalty could be fostered. Oh, the "Recovery Fee?" That is the fee they charge you to get your car right at the airport. In other words, they are recovering their cost of doing business at the airport. They "hide" it to look competitive with the off airport companies. Off airport locations generally do not charge this fee and if you are unlucky enough to travel to an airport where major renovations are taking place, you probably want an off airport rental without the extra fee and extra time trying to get in and out. Sorry Portland, I know you are going to look good when you are done but as much as I like saving money by using you as an alternative to Seattle. Things are a mess! Let's talk Value Added.
What separates one rental car from another when the cars themselves are identical? The company. Onetravel.com has just finished an agreement with Avis which gives their customers an exclusive discount on car rentals. While that discount lowers the price significantly, Avis may still be higher than the cut rate competition. So, why go with Avis and not the guy $5.00 less per day for that identical car. Let me approach it from my perspective and you may get the answer. When I am traveling alone without a tight schedule I may use a discount agency but, when I am on a tight schedule or with my family I look for a company which gives me added value. To me, added value means Customer Service. I learned long ago to patronize agencies with 24 hour, 7 day a week customer service. That customer service also extends to the counter where I am more comfortable coming back to a location where I recognize folks behind the counter and, they know me as well. I also want to know that if I have a problem with the vehicle, I will not be given the third degree and threatened with being charged for a service call if it is my fault. So again, 24 hour, seven day roadside assistance is a must. Avis meets and exceeds my needs in this area.
Added value also means I want to rent from a location that has a better chance of being company owned rather than a franchise, or if it is a franchise, I want them to answer to a higher standard than those companies which are almost exclusively franchise. I believe that a frequent renter program which offers discounts and free upgrades is essential and should be offered at no cost. I also feel more comfortable renting form a company which offers several locations in a geographical area. This is important if I want to drop of my car at a hotel or down town location or look at another type of vehicle which may not be available at the airport location. Since frequent flyer and hotel points are important to me, I like an agency with many affiliations If my travel agency has an arrangement which offers me real additional savings anywhere I travel in the world, this is an added plus Many car coupons or discount memberships actually add to the price Since I am a member of their frequent renter's program, I want to go right in, get my car and get on the road I have heard horror stories of folks stuck in Orlando for hours waiting for cars to be returned so they can get theirs. These areas have never been a concern to me with Avis.
Like I said before, I hate getting hassled at the rental counter or watching folks in front of me raked across the coals by some kid trying to sell an upgrade or extra insurance or a full tank of gas when I or they will have the car for one day and use 5 gallons I will tell you that if I come into one of Avis's locations and my usual car, an economy, is not available, I am upgraded with no hassle No one tries to sell me an upgrade when the car I wanted wasn't available in the first place I know if I request a child car seat, one is available I am not bugged about insurance as my profile says that I waive the extra coverage. And with some of their exclusive services, I can get a printed routing to my hotel or just about anywhere else I want to go in the area and as a special plus, they will even give me directions from my hotel to another destination with their special routing software at most of their larger locations If you miss the pilots weather update before landing, Avis will give you their "WeatherFax" and update you immediately For me, this is a "penny wise, pound foolish" decision Saving a few pennies in the beginning may cost much more as I haggle at the counter about insurance and fuel options and point out all the dings on the car to the lot attendant or have to make that long distant phone call at 11 PM to the airport desk and hope that some one answers there because the national office is closed for the weekend When I want the best, for me the choice is easy I rent from Avis because they do try harder! My Top 10 Reason to rent from AVIS:
- 24 hour, 7 day a week customer service on the off chance that a customer service problem can not be handled locally.
- When I return to an Avis Location, there is a good probability I will see the same person I saw 6 months or more ago. Other companies have a very high turn over as their agents are primarily sales people who are paid a minimum wage and expected to make up the rest on upgrade and insurance commissions.
- 24 hour, 7 day a week road side assistance with no threats or questions asked. One discount company
- actually told me that if they came out and found the problem with the car to be my fault, I would be charged for the service.
- Avis locations are mostly company owned and managed giving a higher level of service than some companies which are mostly franchise.
- A no charge frequent renter program which allows you to maintain all your profile information and speed through the rental counter process. This may even help avoid location cancellation of a reservation.
- Several locations in large cities which allows a larger selection of specialty vehicles.
- No charge drop off at close by locations like hotels and closely located airports - (this was a few years back so I will have to check it for accuracy)
- As number two, Avis prides itself on trying harder!
- Exclusive discounts with onetravel.com for all rentals. This is a real discount, not a percentage off the highest rate like most other rental companie's discounts.
- Usable extras like map kiosks and trip routing.
Bob Jones, OneTravel.com Chief Frugalist