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8 tips for great car rentals

How many car rental stories have happy endings?
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How many car rental stories have happy endings?

Mine do.

Take this recent experience with a Hertz rental in Denver. I arrived at the airport, sauntered right past the rental counter, and immediately boarded the shuttle bus, where I was the only passenger. The driver dropped me right at my car. The car was clean, the engine was already running, and the trunk was open, ready to receive my bag.

As usual, I had paid a discounted rate, yet I received a free upgrade to a luxury car. As I drove away, I could see at least 50 weary travelers in line at the Hertz counter, waiting impatiently for their run-of-the-mill cars.

This happens to me all the time. Am I just a lucky guy? No way.

My experience in Denver is not based on good fortune; it is based on solid knowledge of how to obtain fast, upgraded car rentals and preferential treatment, all at discounted prices. I save time, I save money, I save the hassle, I drive a cool car-and I’m treated like a king. I do it all the time, and you can do it, too.

The General Idea
Car rentals are a small yet important part of luxury travel. With an upgrade and a low rate, you can spend a few days driving a car you can’t afford to purchase, or you can live out an automotive fantasy. You can drive a convertible with the top down, or careen through ski country in a four-wheel-drive SUV. I once drove a BMW along the winding roads of the Swiss Alps — a real adrenaline rush. Memorable experiences like these can be yours, too.


* Frequent renter programs
Like airlines and hotels, major car rental companies track their customers’ rental histories and offer preferential service to loyal customers. Most of the major companies offer frequent renter programs that are similar to airline frequent-flyer programs and hotel frequent-guest programs.

* Preferred renter clubs
Most major car rental companies also offer preferred renter programs or clubs (one example is the Hertz #1 Club). When you belong to one of these clubs, you get preferential treatment, including automatic upgrades when those cars are available. You can join these programs at any time, even if you are a first-time renter with that company.

While basic-level club memberships are often free, higher-level memberships (as in the Hertz #1 Gold Club, which allows you to bypass the rental counter) generally come with a price tag. What most people don’t realize is that it is often possible to avoid the membership fee by simply writing or calling your car rental company and asking them to waive it. They will do it because the car rental industry is very competitive, and they want your business.


* How to maximize your clout
Select at least two different companies for your car rental business. The first is your primary provider; this is where you will put most of your business so you can earn the highest level of preferential service.

The second company is your hedge against regional market variations. As in the hotel industry, rates and availability in the car rental industry can vary from place to place; on occasion, one company’s rates will be grossly out of whack By working two loyalty programs, you won’t get caught paying inflated prices when your game is to get luxury for less.

* How to get the best rate on the best car
You have to be persistent, and you have to call the car rental companies directly — sometimes several times. It is not uncommon to speak with one rental agent and be offered one rate and then call back a few minutes later and get another rate.

* How to get an upgrade
Upgrades are subject to availability. If you cannot confirm an upgrade when you make your reservation, make sure the agent documents your request in your reservation record. This will greatly increase your odds of being upgraded when you pick up your car.

Another strategy is to call the on-site manager in advance of your arrival, introduce yourself as a loyal, preferred customer, and ask if she can help you nail down that upgrade. It has been my experience that most on-site managers are very accommodating.

Sometimes you don’t even have to upgrade to get a great car. You just have to ask. For example, while planning a trip to Hawaii a couple of years ago, I was quoted a rate of $250 per week for a mid-size car. On further inquiry, I learned of a special luxury rate of only $215 per week. I was able to confirm a luxury Cadillac — for $35 per week less than what I would have paid for a mid-size car.

* How to work the discounts
Car rental companies offer myriad discounts, ranging from corporate discounts to those affiliated with airlines and hotels. I have found that AAA and American Express often have special rates with car rental agencies; check your monthly airline mileage statement for special offers available from you airline’s car rental partners.

Be sure to check the car rental company’s Web site for special deals or promotions; there are often discounts for booking online. Finally, individual rental locations will occasionally offer their own specials and promotions, so you should ask at the counter if they have anything for you. Just remember to mention your status as a preferred customer.


* The benefit of resort locations
Resort areas are often good places to get a luxury car upgrade. Resort rental agencies have inventories of luxury vehicles that regularly go unrented, especially during the off-season, so supply is in your favor. Preferred customers can often get a top-of-the-line vehicle for little or no additional cost.

* Why non-smoking cars rule
You will increase your odds for getting a newer, cleaner car if you insist on having a non-smoking car. You will also increase your chances for an upgrade because if a non-smoking car is unavailable in the class of service you booked (and it might be, since non-smoking cars are in high demand), you will be upgraded to accommodate your non-smoking needs.

A word of warning: Be sure to ask the reservation agent to calculate the total cost of your rental, including fill-up costs if you come back empty. Often the quoted rate leaves out such things as airport fees, city taxes, license fees, and more. These won’t sting so much if you know about them in advance.

Your rental car can be a clunker or a dream machine. Take your pick. It’s really not that hard to treat yourself well. If you take my advice, 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. or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .