Your car rental company doesn’t want you to know these secrets


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 prepay 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 emails, 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 the rate ends up being less than the amount of your higher-class car reservation, then do it. If not, use the other reservation. They have to honor reservation rates.” (Note: This site does not condone or encourage making multiple reservations.)

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 customers happy — even when their grievances are not legit. “Like most companies, we want you to use us 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 that I knew was full of it. But we want you back so much that an occasional hit is fine.”

Since this post first appeared, the situation seems to have gotten worse. More and more customers are complaining about high-pressure sales tactics at the car rental counter. If you’re an industry insider and want to share your secrets, please send me an email. I may publish your story and advice as a public service.


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.

  • Bob Curtis

    Good suggestions, except the “multiple reservations”, which is unethical.

  • cscasi

    Off airport locations are often cheaper than renting at an on airport location? Of course they are because there is a fee/tax charged to the on airport locations by the airport authority. That is one way the airport has to make money from the car rental companies who use its property. It’s all disclosed on the rental contract, so it should come as no surprise to anyone renting. But, it a good point and people should be aware in advance. And, if you reserve a vehicle online with a rental company, that fee and any others are fully disclosed before you push the final button to make the reservation.

  • finance_tony

    Yes, just awful. I wonder who will be the first to gripe and moan when cancellation policies become more draconian because of cheaters trying to work the system.

  • ctporter

    Right! There is an advantage to renting at an airport though, and that is the hours of operation which can bed much more than other than airport locations. It can also be somewhat problematic getting to and from the rental facility, so it pays to check the costs and compare – convenience of hours, cost of a bus/share ride/taxi to the facility and back vs daily rates.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Act as you wish the business would act. Both the “multiple reservations” and the “complain without a real grievance” are the sort of wrongheaded advice that I don’t associate with this website.

  • Chris_In_NC

    RE: #3
    Even pre-paid reservations may be cancelled without penalty, but every agency has slightly different terms. YOU MUST READ THE FINE PRINT!
    I always make 2 reservations with DIFFERENT rental car companies. Started doing this after getting burned by a car rental agency literally running out of cars despite having a reservation.
    However, making 2 different reservations for 2 types of vehicles to secure upgrades in my opinion is unethical

  • y_p_w

    It depends on many factors, especially availability and local fees/taxes.

    I was in Reno once where we took a bus in but wanted a car to go to Lake Tahoe. I looked at off airport locations, especially since several were near our hotel. We were looking at about $70 complete for 24 hours, but $22 at the airport. The airport had considerably more inventory and their fees were low. Our hotel had a free airport shuttle. I mentioned that to our driver, who said quite a few guests used the shuttle in order to rent a car at the airport.

  • Noah Kimmel

    only on this site can we encourage customers to book multiple reservations and no-show (aka overbuying), while shaming companies for overselling.

  • KanExplore

    I must agree. That rubs me the wrong way. Helpful in the short run to the individual, I suppose, but how many more people need to do that before cancellation policies get much more severe, say along the airline model?

  • KanExplore

    Last time I rented off airport, I had to sign a statement that I had not arrived on a flight at the airport in the previous 24 hours, or I would have had to pay the extra fee. I don’t know how they could enforce it if someone wasn’t telling the truth though.

  • Nathan Witt

    I would add that if you join the (often free) gold/preferred/whatever club, you can go straight to your vehicle and bypass the counter staff, and then you don’t have to run the gamut of upselling opportunities.

  • finance_tony

    And calling customers who book mistake fares thieves – as in literal, criminal thieves!

  • Noah Kimmel

    Chicago is one of those cities with the “tourist fee” regardless of location. It is much easier for states / cities to charge “other people” than their own citizens. The signed statement is likely the best protection the rental car company has if they get audited. Doubt anyone would comb through air records (if they could even get them), but it probably suffices to give them plausible deniability and doesn’t look like they advise customers to lie to save money.

  • Noah Kimmel

    just remember that hertz, dollar, thrifty are one company. Avis, budget are another. And enterprise, alamo, and national are all a 3rd.

  • Noah Kimmel

    best advice on here – join the club, book direct!

  • Carol Molloy

    If one is new to renting cars just like any other new experience, it pays to research how what is involved in advance. Sales pressure is inevitable, but “no thank you” works well, and you need not be anxious, if you have done that research. I can’t endorse any of the dubiously ethical advice given in this column, and frankly, I don’t think it’s necessary in order to get a decent rate. Avoiding airport rentals when possible, taking extensive photos of the vehicle, and insisting on an accompanied inspection prior to leaving the lot, in my experience has resulted in a satisfactory outcome. It’s not that complicated once you understand how the rental proces works.

  • Robin

    “(Note: This site does not condone or encourage making multiple reservations.)”

    It doesn’t look to me like this site or elliot encouraged multiple reservations.

  • Noah Kimmel

    sure, but when the bold headline is “3. Make multiple reservations and play the system.” and then relying on fine print in parentheses to contradict that just screams irony. Not to mention all the comments that aren’t written as posts, but certainly taken as advice by many.

  • Robin

    Perhaps it depends on how you read the article.

    When Elliot said “Here are six tips from my insider”, and what followed were six tips in Bold from his insider, I assumed they were from his insider.

    When he wrote in “fine print in parentheses” that he disagrees with one of the tips I assumed he disagreed with one of the tips. It was very easy to determine in this article the difference between the rental Guy’s tips and Elliot’s view on that particular subject.

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