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

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By Christopher Elliott

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 secrets with me. His remarkable insights into the business 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.

Car rental employees have a goal: to sell you products

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.

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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.

What’s going on here?

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.

“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? (Here’s our guide to renting a car.)

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 car rental secrets from my insider.

Always inspect the car you are renting with an employee before signing anything

Car rental offices ought to provide a vehicle inspection form for you to sign before the car leaves the lot. This minimizes the risk of being held responsible for damage that you did not 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.”

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.”

Make multiple reservations and play the system

You can usually cancel most reservations without incurring a 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.)

Negotiate your upgrade

Upgrade rates don’t exist. Salespeople make them up. “If you come in with a Ford Focus reservation and are 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. (Related: Are car rental companies forcing you to buy insurance you don’t need?)

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.

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.”

Here are some of my own car rental secrets

If you’re in the market to rent a car soon, you’ll want to bookmark my ultimate guide to renting a car. This article contains critical information and secrets that you need to know before you step up to that car rental counter. (Christopher Elliott, Elliott Advocacy)

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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