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There are few things more disappointing than the mediocrity of most rental cars. You know the feeling….you get off the bus, stand in line, and get handed the keys to a lightly used generic domestic car with about 17,000 miles on it. Most people resign themselves to the mediocrity, but savvy travelers know how to get off the lot with something better, often with no extra money out of pocket.
Here are some strategies to help…
1. Join the frequent renter program. It’s free for all the majors like Avis, National, and Hertz (until Sept 30) — and while in itself won’t get you an automatic upgrade, it will give you some options. The key is, your car will be preassigned and waiting for you without having to go to the counter. If you don’t like what you get, you’ll know without having had to stand in line for 20 minutes before hand. Then, you can go up to the special frequent rental counter, which usually has a shorter line and try to ask for an alternative. Most agents will be helpful if they’re not short on cars, and while you may not be driving off with an Infiniti on a Chevy Cruze rate, you will get some say in something better.
In addition, National, select Hertz, and select Avis locations now have ‘select and go’ aisles for the members of their frequent renter programs. That means you can pick any car you want in those aisles as a trade for no additional price.
2. Ask about a ‘buy up.’ All the agencies will upgrade you to a vehicle for a price – what’s not so well known is the price to upgrade in person is often a lot less than if you booked that same car in advance. To upgrade from a full size car like an Impala to something nice like a Cadillac or Infiniti, you can many times get away with it for $25 – $50 per day, not a bead deal considering reserving it ahead of time would cost $100-$150 more. And the dirty little secret…the agents get a commission on buy ups so they’re incentivized to help. More recently Hertz and Avis are adding dedicated upgrade stalls where the prices are marked on the cars.
3. Get a coupon code. Just do a simple Google search for the name of your car rental company and ‘upgrade coupon.’ You’re bound to find something – the coupons for Avis and Hertz are most common. You just enter them in the coupon code field of your reservation. They’ll get you out of that compact or midsize car into something up to a ‘Premium’ level.
4. Get the right credit card. Two credit cards – the United Mileage Plus Club card and the Platinum Card from American Express offer instant membership in the premium level of car rental companies. Avis First in the case of the United Club card, and National Executive in the case of the Platinum Card. While these cards cost about $400 per year in annual fees (they offer airport lounge club membership) you’ll get free upgrades. With the National Executive benefit you get a guaranteed upgrade at the time of booking.
5. Check Priceline or Hotwire. Sometimes you’ll find the rates for premium cards on these bidding / opaque sites are less than you’d pay for a regular car using the traditional rental car agency sites.
6. Buy into the elite program. Hertz will sell you annual access to its Presidents Circle program for $250 per year and Platinum level program for $1,500 per year.
But above all, remember it helps to ask at the counter nicely for something better. There’s more flexibility than you think on days when they’re not slammed and sold out.
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