By Joel Widzer Travel columnist
updated 7/28/2006 1:44:03 PM ET 2006-07-28T17:44:03

On a recent trip to Spain, I rented a BMW 3 Series car with Hertz’s NeverLost GPS system and unlimited mileage for 92 euros a day. Yes, I could have saved 30 euros a day with a subcompact model, but since I was planning to drive from Barcelona to Bilbao and on into southern France, I figured the extra 120 euros (the total for my four-day rental) was little enough to pay for the thrill I would get hugging the curvy roads through the Pyrenees, along the Bay of Biscay and on through Toulouse and Bordeaux. To this driver, a snazzy car makes driving a rental a joy rather than a chore.

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Car rental companies have been quietly sprucing up their fleets with cars designed to give travelers a little extra. One beefy example is Hertz’s exclusive special-edition Ford Shelby GT-H Mustang, which is sure to please the muscle-car crowd. Adventurous types might find a Hummer fits their needs when they head out to explore the red rocks of Sedona or to ski in the Rocky Mountains. Want to impress your business associates, or cruise Rodeo Drive or South Beach in luxury? Try a car from Hertz’s Prestige Collection, which offers Audis, Jaguars and even Cadillacs.

Sometimes what you want from your car is something fun or out of the ordinary. While planning a rental for a recent visit in Hawaii, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Hertz’s Fun Collection features unusual and sporty cars like the Mazda Miata, Nissan 350Z and PT Cruiser Convertible. And Avis recently launched a line of Cool Cars, including the new Cadillac CTS, Volvo S60 and Hummer H3. Avis has also expanded its fleet with more convertibles, including the Chrysler Sebring and Ford Mustang, and more sedans and coupes, including the PT Cruiser and the Chevy HHR.

Most of these special-collection cars come equipped with Sirius satellite radio and GPS systems, and in many cases, you’ll get special services like free pickup, delivery and dedicated customer service agents.

Here are a few tips for getting the most from your car rental:

  • Join the club. Most major car rental companies offer memberships that allows you to book online and bypass rental lines. Just print out your contract and go directly to your car.
  • Book direct. The best rental deals are found on the company’s own Web site. Look for limited-time specials, which can save you big money.
  • Use your membership. Being a member of AAA, AARP and other organizations can often save you 5 to 10 percent on the cost of a rental.
  • Look beyond the lowest rate. Sometimes cheapest is just, well — cheapest. There is a lot to be said for comfort, special features and a fun drive.
  • Think safety. Special-collection cars typically have added features like side air bags and enhanced braking and stability systems that increase your chances of walking away from an accident.

With customers looking for vehicles that are more fun and entertaining to drive, car rental companies have made great strides in improving vehicle selection and their customers’ overall driving experience. In some markets, Hertz even lets you select the exact make and model of your car — which really gives customers something to get excited about.

Look past the jalopies the next time you rent, and you will drive away happy.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. E-mail him or visit his Web site.


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