6 secrets car rental companies don’t want you to know

What’s it like on the other side of the car rental counter? The answer may surprise you. I’ve been corresponding with a former car rental employee, and he’s shared some remarkable insights into the business that might help you make a more informed decision the next time you rent a car.

The first thing you need to understand, he says, is that agency employees aren’t in the customer service business. They’re salespeople.

I’m judged almost solely on a number. It’s determined by the number of times I sell our products per given opportunity.

Every customer who walks up is an opportunity to sell a number of different services. For me, I can sell the damage waiver — that’s the most popular — liability insurance, personal accident and effects coverage, and the pre-pay fuel option.

Upon returning a customer’s vehicle, I can charge a fee if the tank is not filled up to the level it was rented at. For customers who have reservations, I can upgrade them to a better vehicle. That’s six different opportunities to sell to each customer.

As a car rental employee, your goal is to sell “every one of these products to every customer,” he adds. And if he can’t? Then that all-important number by which every car rental employee is judged is lowered.

So even though you may sell, for instance, the liability insurance, you have failed to sell four to five other services and thus your number will be docked. This number is very important because we get paid a commission on it according to a pay scale and the dollar amount we’ve brought in each month and quarter.

There is a floor and ceiling to this pay scale. If your number is below a certain level you aren’t eligible for a commission.

If our numbers remain consistently high, we can be considered for promotion. If our numbers are low, we hear about it from umpteen different managers in e-mails, by phone, and in person.

The numbers game is played at the highest level. Managers are judged based on their location’s cumulative number — an aggregate of all employee numbers — so they’re likely to encourage more aggressive sales strategies.

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“I saw all kinds of tactics to increase these numbers,” he says. “Some higher managers turned a blind eye to questionable and unethical methods.”

How does this affect you?

Keep in mind that you’re dealing with overworked, stressed-out employees from the moment you walk up to the counter to the moment you return your vehicle. At one point, this ex-employee was working 12-hour shifts without a break. Also, remember that they see dollar signs the moment you walk through the door. So they will do anything in their power to sell you insurance, a fuel purchase option or an upgrade.

How to get around this racket? Here are six tips from my insider.

1. Always inspect the car you are renting with an employee before signing anything. Car rental offices should have a vehicle inspection form that’s signed by you before the car leaves the lot. This limits the possibility that you’ll get blamed for damage that you didn’t cause. “Unfortunately, from my experience, many customers were blamed for damage they did not cause,” he says. “As a tired and busy employee, the last thing I want to do is walk around the car with you and make notations about the small scratches on the rear bumper. I could care less. But you should be adamant that this is done before you sign for anything.”

2. Off-airport locations are often cheaper than airport locations. The vehicles at airport locations typically cost more because of airport fees, which cover the car rental agency’s rental and transportation costs. “The cost difference can be great,” he says. “You may want to reserve a car at a location nearby the airport. You should see a difference.”

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3. Make multiple reservations and play the system. Most reservations can be canceled without penalty. My insider suggests making multiple reservations. “Look at rates online or call in for them,” he says. “If you’re not too picky, make a reservation for one of the small, cheap cars. Make another for a nicer car that you might like to rent. When you show up, use the reservation for the smaller car. Ask the rep how much it costs to upgrade to the nicer car you want to rent. If they rate ends up being less than what you reserved the higher-class car at, then do it. If not, use the other reservation. They have to honor reservation rates.”

4. Negotiate your upgrade. Upgrade rates don’t exist. They’re made up by salespeople. “If you come in with a Ford Focus reservation and were interested in a larger car, I’ll charge an upgrade for you to get into a Ford Escape,” he says. “If you have a Ford Escape reservation and are looking for something more fuel-efficient, I’ll charge you an upgrade to a Ford Focus. This actually happens!” The “fee” is entirely at the salesperson’s discretion, and is entirely negotiable.

5. Timing is everything. The largest expense incurred by a car rental company is depreciation. Basically, these companies are leasing all the cars in their fleet. They’re charged different rates for different types of cars. “It is very important for car rental companies to have as many cars on the road as possible, as any cars that are sitting are not making money, and are actually costing the company money in depreciation fees.” A customer who shows up after a busy holiday weekend can more or less name the price for a rental car. “They should be begging for you to take cars off their lot,” he adds.

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6. Complain and you shall receive. Car rental companies often go to great lengths to make a customer happy — even when their grievances are not legit. “Like most companies, we want you to use again — and again and again,” says the insider. “Even some of the most ridiculous complaints that I’ve seen have been resolved by one of my managers. They offered a full refund and a free rental to a customer I knew was full of it. But we want you back so much that an occasional hit is fine.”

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • Amandali11

    Just because your a disgruntled employee who didnt succeed in the business shouldnt motivate you to write what should be confidential stuff to help the jackoff cheap customers we have to deal with every day
    We’re not trying to hide the fact that we are trying to make money
    This isn’t the March of Dimes it’s a retail business
    Nothing more annoying than the cheap customers that read every little thing and argue 5 bucks
    We’re giving you a 20 thousand car you loser
    Pay 40 instead of 35 if you want the bigger car or stfu and if you don’t take coverage it’s not a smart decision it proves your an idiot

  • Marissa Wachsstock

    You got some good tips right there! I actually used to work for  car rental a years ago and you are right. http://dealsmonkey.com/CarRentals,_LLC_Coupons_Deals.html

  • Eldurodepaterson

    Yeah, really…not to mention the damage done to the vehicle to soothe your bruised ego. Mean people SUCK!

  • Xislander

    I bet you throw 5s around like they are toilet paper. If it’s no big deal, open your wallet cheapskate!

  • Pgsharksfan32

    This has got to be one of the biggest loads of crap I’ve read in a while.  I am seeing very effective disinformation going around, and its so believable that people are falling for all of it and agreeing here. A lot of them I see have had bad experiences and come on here to rant.  Yet I find it funny that I never hear about the people who made informed decisions and have nothing to complain about therefore have no reason to come on here and post… There is no doubt in my mind that you are sending people into a trap with this infowar you have created…Now people will go to rent a car and feel justified in declining protections against their credit, their personal insurance rates, and it will go to the bottom of their coffers.  By telling people this ill-advised information you are misleading them big time.  Just because you may save a few bucks here and a few bucks there does not make up for the amount of stress, panic, annoyance, pain, whatever you want to call it for the day you have to pay for a vandalized car, an accident, a chip in the windshield that happens during normal wear and tear, and whatever else happens when you are in a city you don’t know and in a car you don’t own.  Hello? Don’t you realize that the car rental industry has been monopolized and you really don’t have a lot of options?  If you do not meet the criteria for a counter agent they can simply deny you for whatever reason if you are not going to come through with your end of pay…Meaning you will have to pay money regardless of whether it goes to the agent’s commission or the company itself. If you deny taking it, you will either be hit from the beginning (sent to another rental agency to get off their back and go pay more money at another agency) or when you return the car, you will be charged for a rock chip or even a small scratch/ dent on the car! And you will then be paying for the time the car is off the line and not rentable or even (if the car is in an accident and has to be sold for insurance money) you are in even more trouble when you have to pay for the loss of value from the time of rental compared to after the accident!  Regardless, you really have no choice when it comes down to it.  It is common sense to go with the average renters choice.  Bring your own GPS, cover your own when it comes to insurance, and pay your own gas.  But don’t be stupid, and deny taking the Loss Damage Waiver…Where a few bucks can save you more than money and time can tell.  One thing I can’t stand is seeing a person hop on a high horse when an opportunity comes rolling through to coax sheep into a barn and light it on fire just to get a little publicity.  Oh and be sure to buy the book he’s offering, because its better to spend your money on that than the $9 bucks you would be spending from putting your ass on the line.  Someone who is a true scholar and well educated individual would know the countless tricks in this day and age have come to the point of “I justified it with one or two examples, so buy my book and believe that I’m right”  Almost reminds me of Al Gores political campaign to leach millions of dollars off of the public with his global warming episode while he pranced around in his gas guzzling suburban and flied around on his expensive polluting luxury jet. Paaahhhleeaaseee.  I am disappointed if people really are so negligent when it comes to being aware of reality these days!

  • I have found rental car agents at airports to be among the over-worked,
    harried, and impolite service employees in any arena of the travel
    industry.They now want to collect the full amount .

  • Edko426

    I had a pre-paid reservation at Hertz in Miami thru Priceline. When I got there the agent Humberto aggressively upsold me into another car for $600 more, without telling me. They never even gave me credit for what i paid Priceline. I sued them and they came into court with a big law firm saying that a blank space ont he rental contract, which i never got to read, was where they gave me credit. Hertz is crooked. Be careful renting.

  • stephanie sandoval

    Im a few late days on returning my rental, car control has beeb calling, I dont have the money to pay the rental yet, my bank account was closed… suggestions? please

  • miami033

    Where else can you truly rent anything worth $20k or more for sometimes as little as $10-20 per day + taxes.
    Go rent a power tool at Penske or Home Depot. An air compressor worth $500 bux will rent for $120 a day. Parking at the hotel may actually cost more than the rate of the car rental (S. Mia Bch hotels charge $35+/night). Rent a car in many parts of the Caribbean or Europe and coverage is mandatory. Follow the advice of most posters here and dont take coverage in South America and get into an accident and then let us know how that advice worked out for you.
    Most everyone works in a sales related environment. Whether your in Real Estate, Law, Optometrist or even a McDonalds drive thru…you will get a sales pitch. The value meal draws you in, the upsize makes them the $. Its the nature of the beast. Its called capitalism. If you dont like it, move to Cuba; where you wont be sold anything because theres not much to sell and car rentals are $100 a day for a Russian stick shift old car.

  • This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it
    away about rental company. I love seeing websites that understand the value of
    providing a quality resource about rental company. It is the old what goes around
    comes around routine.

  • Bestpch Carhire

    Thank for sharing.

    I have found some really good prices booking with bestpricecarhire.com

  • mortimer2012

    Like you stated earlier, sign up for a frequent renter program to avoid any kind of pitches. It’s not just the car rental industry it’s EVERYWHERE so deal with it! When you go to a movie theatre and are buying concessions, they always offer you a larger size for a “quarter more”. Or when you go into the bank that banker you’re dealing with is trying to get you to sign up for something you don’t necessarily want. It’s called corporate america and it’s not going to change anytime soon.

  • mortimer2012

    If the customer is a good customer, someone who’s spending money on coverages and/or upselling into a nicer vehicle even if it’s a minimal amount then sure we’d love to do business again. But if the customer is some penny pinching hotwire or the like miserable sewer-dwelling maggot then we reps couldn’t care less if they come back and in fact we hope they don’t because they’re taking money out of our pockets. Those who pre-pay through third party companies for pennies on the dollar aren’t loyal customers by any means. They’re loyal to the price and they are always the ones who are the most likely to make some type of frivolous complaint. I’m a firm believer in getting what you pay for, but when customers are paying $10.00 a day for an 18k vehicle they should be leaving on a mobility cart, not in a car.

  • mortimer2012

    Exactly! The biggest advantage of the fuel purchase option is the convenience of not having to stop to refuel.

  • mortimer2012

    Very well stated, Nalani. Very caring and compassionate. Thank you!

  • mortimer2012

    That’s too bad that you got charged an extra $30.00. That seems very unfair if you replaced the fuel you used. However, if you replaced the gas but drove 30 miles between the gas station and the point of return, the gas needle may not have moved but they (Hertz) would’ve still had to have refueled however much was burned and so that being the case, you probably got hit with the $9.29/gallon plus tax fuel & service charge. It’s best to refuel no more than 2 miles from the point of return and provide a receipt to the return agent proving you just refueled the tank. 

  • mortimer2012

    Maybe she does. Paying $5.00 more for a nicer vehicle seems like an incredible bargain to me. I don’t see why you would call her a cheapskate. She wasn’t the one complaining about a measley $5.00.

  • mortimer2012

    I agree with most of what you posted but I do like Al Gore.

  • mortimer2012

    Yes, return the vehicle! This is why car rental companies used to be so reluctant with renting to customers with debit cards. You don’t have to qualify to have a debit card. You have to qualify to have a credit card just like you have to qualify to rent a car. This is why most car rental companies have implemented conducting credit checks to customers using debit cards.

  • mortimer2012

    Couldn’t have stated it better myself. So, so true!!

  • craigers1

    I have rented many cars and the companies love me and treat me with respect…There is no pressure to buy insurance and are customer service friendly. I think this is crazy you would say this about the empoyees!!

  • pissed off

    I rented a car at enterprise in ky and 100 for 1 day. went through priceline and got a price it was supposed to cost 45.99. when i get there they said they didn’t have the model i wanted even though priceline said they did….they said they would put me in a mini suv for the same price….they knew I was in a hurry to get to work…by the time the guy was through I paid over 100 for 1 day. ended up getting it forthree mor and paid almost 450…when i checked the weekly rate it was under 300…I got robbed.

  • miami033

    Youre story is incomplete. HOW DID YOU GET TO 100 BUX? Whenever you rent a car you reserve a category or similar. The car agency reserves the right to upgrade you at no additional cost into a larger size should the size you reserve not be available which in this case you said they did. If the base rate was 45.99, you add the 5-7 different airport taxes and concession fees and add any of the optional coverage products it can easily climb to 100+. Enterprise out of all companies carefully goes over the charges as you sign the contract and even walks out with you to do a walk-around on the vehicle. When you drove out you knew you were paying 100 bux. You then kept the car for THREE more days. If I rent a compressor at Home Depot for 120 a day and keep it 3 more days, im expected to owe 360 bux. Nevermind the fact that if I wouldve bought a compressor I wouldve bought one for less. But thats my fault. I knew what I was paying.
    Yes, the weekly rate was perhaps 300 bux but after you wouldve added the taxes/coverage etc you wouldve been at over 550-650 bux. Alamo, Enterprise and National management gets promoted not by the bottom line eventhough its important to the operation. They get promoted on the service quotient. If you feel youve been taken then call their customer service number but from your story above you dont have a leg to stand on. Renting a car in the USA is still one of the most affordable services around. A days rental during the low season could cost less than a trip to the movies for 2 and less than 1/2 it would cost to rent a jet-ski at a beach resort for just 30 minutes. Keep it in perspective…

  • Carrie

    I absolutely agree with points in this article. I rented an SUV through Enterprise her in Iowa. I was traveling, opened the glove compartment box, and saw the person before me had paid $30 less a day. Seems crazy. Thanks for these helpful tips!

  • John Howell

    please tell me you were joking. you drove a car in low gear to use more gas? that’s one of the dumbest things i’ve ever heard! what exactly was the logic in that? let’s hope the next guy who rented that car didn’t get stranded somewhere dangerous with his family when the transmission blew up on him.

  • John Howell

    you need to have your brain examined.

  • Blank

    Wow… This Article is funny. LDW-Loss of Damage Waiver. (Covers the Car), Liability Coverage (Covers third Party in an accident), PAI/PEC Free Money when you have an injury in or out of the car. Roadside (Dont call that number if you didnt take the coverage, Get this so you dont have to pay for the tow when it gets a flat or you lock the keys). Pre-pay Gas (Lets see ya. Ill pay $3.61 on the street versus $3.51 in the store, that makes since.) There is a reason for everything. You may think you coverage covers you but when you got to pay out your $500 Deducatable because some kid scratched you rental car which one are you gonna think about. I should have taken the full coverage and not worry about paying $500 for no reason.

  • Car is necessaries for everyone at time of spend their
    holidays or visit a place. You doing great job to provide car in rent. Thank
    you for sharing……………

  • Dabraat

    When I worked for a Rental Car agency the reps who made the most money worked at international airports. They worked the foreigners for all the insurance and gas options pretty brutally. The flip-side though was that often foreigners on business travel would come in with a budget rental, not be able to fit their luggage and people, upgrade to a van or SUV, and then go back to their home company and complain that the counter reps took advantage of them, and that they never wanted to pay extra for the larger vehicle. Management would come down hard on the reps and counter managers, and give refunds. It got so bad with the complaints from Travel departments at specific companies that reps started getting managers to witness their upgrades, and making the renters sign/initial that the needed the bigger vehicle and agreed to pay extra for it, so that the disputes would stop. Of course, they would charge the maximum upgrade fees the system could take at the time, $99 per day, very often, but even that was reasonable given that the fleet was depleted by Monday afternoon, and any upgrades were going to be expensive. The thing that many reps do in the industry is check the number of people in the group, see how much luggage they are dragging around, car seats, etc. and then look for the smallest car available if the group turned down an upgrade. They’d go out with four people, two bags each and not be able to close the trunk on some Toyota Tercel and come back in asking for something larger. The rep would tell them that we had reservations and that the fleet was totally booked. The renter would say, “But our stuff doesn’t fit into this compact car” and the rep would say let me talk to my manager. The manager would come out and say, I do have a van, but that is our only un-reserved vehicle right now, and the difference is $99 per day. There would be a rap about the airport is empty, all the agencies’ fleets are calculated to be cleaned out by Monday, with everyone returning the cars on Thurs/Fri. The renter would end up doing the deal very unhappily and the next renter would come in all by himself with barely any luggage and get a car in the same class as the previous renters that would have been big enough to hold them and their stuff, and drive off with all the room in the world.

    I do think the FPO is a good deal in many cases. Much better than paying the airport gas station prices. When I rent I just figure out in advance if I will empty the tank or not and make a decision. I don’t mind giving the rental company a little gas for the convenience. I also will book subcompacts and tell the counter agent I want an SUV or luxury car for $10 more per day and take the fuel option if they can work it out, otherwise stick with my original reservation. They always work it out for me…

  • Dim Kovalenko

    #2 advice is completely wrong for NYC, cars at airport locations are at least twice cheaper than in the city… just saying

  • Jeff

    This post should be taken down its incredibly inaccurate. Maybe if your dealing with some mom and pop car rental company yes these apply but I work for the largest one in the world and guess what? WE HAVE A CUSTOMER SERVICE SCORE THAT COMES BEFORE SALES. This is what pisses me off most people come up to the counter thinking were just trying to rip them off because of sites like this!!! These things are un-true and i’m highly offended.

  • Jeff

    Your incredibly misinformed and probably should get educated before commenting next time because your wrong plain and simple. UNLESS your dealing with small franchised mom and pop car rental places these things do not happen. So I have to ask, what are YOU smoking?!

  • Jeff

    This is very accurate and true nice post

  • Jeff

    We don’t even offer insurance to half of our customers. Ugh these posts are really getting to me wish people would get educated before opening their mouths incredible.

  • Jeff


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