How to avoid a long wait at the car rental counter

If you rent a car this summer, don’t forget to pack your patience.

Kristin Brocoff wishes she had when she rented a car in Albany, N.Y. Her family was visiting the nearby Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and when they landed, she faced a three-hour line at the Budget counter.

“When we finally reached the front of the line, a representative told us there were no cars left,” recalls Brocoff, who works for a technology company in Las Vegas. “They’d be bringing more in from a nearby town.”

The representative said, “I can’t believe how many people are here today. There’s some baseball thing going on.”

A baseball “thing” near Cooperstown? Who would have thought?

Most car rental customers experience little or no wait for their wheels, but during peak times — such as special events or the upcoming Labor Day weekend — a lengthy wait is inevitable. But a little insider knowledge and advance planning can help you shortcut the line.

Delays are difficult to predict, in part because customers are hard to predict. Unlike dealing at airlines, which have strict refund rules, you can walk away from most car rental reservations with no financial consequences. That makes accurately forecasting a wait difficult, sometimes impossible.

“There are also unpredictable factors, such as weather conditions affecting rental returns and flight arrival delays or ‘courtesy bus’ delays due to airport traffic or local road congestion. All of which can impact counter lines,” says Neil Abrams, a car rental consultant.

Bottom line: There’s no such thing as an “average” wait time in the industry. There are too many variables.

There are solutions. If Brocoff had been a member of the Avis frequent renter program (Avis owns Budget), she would have never seen the line. The program, like other preferred customer programs offered by car rental companies, lets you give Avis your rental preferences, then sets aside a car for you. That’s right, no line. Inderpal Singh, a management consultant based in Detroit, uses Avis First every time he rents a car.

“It literally saves me 20 minutes per trip,” he says.

National’s Emerald Club works in a similar way. You give the car company your rental preferences and reservation information, then go directly to the “Emerald Aisle” at one of 65 locations in the USA and Canada. If you belong to National’s club and reserve a midsize car, you can select any vehicle in the aisle — even if it’s in a higher class — and still only pay a midsize rate.

Even if you don’t participate in a rental company’s loyalty program — and as the leading loyalty program atheist, I can understand your misgivings — you can find ways around that long line. Car rental companies such as Hertz have rental kiosks that can be far faster than dealing with a human agent at the counter.

On a recent visit to Denver, I witnessed a short line at the Hertz rental counter but no line at a bank of new kiosks. The electronic interface allowed me to finish my reservation remotely, by videoconference, and in half the time it would have taken me in the normal line. Total time saved: at least 10 minutes.

That tactic works as long as you’re not renting in a city of early technology adopters. When Cathy Duffy, a college professor from Racine, Wis., rented a car from Hertz in Los Angeles recently, she was met with a long line and only a few representatives staffing the counter. Then two agents suddenly left to go on break. An employee stated that she could always try the kiosk “but noted that the wait time even for self-service was about 15 minutes.”

What if you don’t want to join a car rental company’s loyalty program? You can still expedite the process by knowing what you want, says Sharon Faulkner, executive director of the American Car Rental Association.

“Know what coverage you want or don’t want in advance,” she says. “Contact your insurance company and your credit card company before you travel. Know what gas return policy you want to sign up for or decline. Be prepared to actually accept the vehicle you reserved.”

Good advice. You might not be able to avoid a wait, but at least you can lessen it.

Tips for reducing your wait time

• There’s an app for that. The National Car Rental mobile app lets you modify any reservation feature, including car class, arrival time or day and payments. Plus, Emerald Club members can receive alerts and directions through the app to help avoid any potential delays.

• Switch car rental companies on the fly. You can cancel your reservation without penalty and book at a car rental company with less of a wait time. That’s a classic win-win, because it frees up your car for a future renter and puts you in a vehicle faster but from another company.

• Avoid peak rental times. If you rent at an airport, the worst times are just before busy holiday weekends such as Labor Day, at a time of day when most flights arrive. Even the best-managed car rental location doesn’t stand a chance. Instead, take the red-eye and get first choice from the morning’s inventory.

Would you join a loyalty program to save time?

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