How to find the perfect rental car for your next vacation

When it comes to rental cars, I’m picky.

I like mine newish, but not brand new, roomy but not oversized, and stylish without being ostentatious.

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So when Hertz handed me the keys to a rental car in Phoenix a few weeks ago, I was delighted to discover it had a few thousand miles on it and plenty of room. And, thanks to my Gold status and a friend or two at the company, they upgraded me to a Cadillac Escalade.

Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad.

If you haven’t driven the latest Escalade, here’s a preview: It does everything for you. You own the road. Any questions?

But the experience left me wondering how, exactly, you choose the right car for you. How can you ensure you’re getting the perfect vehicle when you arrive at the car rental counter?

The ideal car is difficult to define. But here are a few ways to narrow it down:

Check your car type
Car rental companies offer vehicle classes ranging from subcompact to luxury. But as I’ve often noted, these designations are about as meaningful as the star ratings used to grade hotels, which is to say they can be a useful guide, but you shouldn’t give them too much weight. Generally speaking, a subcompact is small and basic; a luxury car is, well, luxurious.

Look at the options
Car rental companies offer a variety of optional amenities, including GPS navigation systems, satellite radio, child safety seats and internet hotspots. Some of these are installed; other items are added at the time of the rental. All are worth careful consideration, and some may even be required by law, like the safety seat.

Inspect the vehicle
Then there are the less obvious criteria. How many miles are on the vehicle? What’s the condition of the car? I don’t like renting brand-new cars because sometimes there’s an expectation I’ll return it in pristine shape. I’m a good driver, but not that good. Also, check the tire tread, to make sure it’s roadworthy. Finally, have a look at the registration on the plate to ensure it’s current and won’t expire before your rental period ends. These can only be determined when you inspect the car personally.

I’ve rented everything from a Jaguar (also from Hertz) to a high-mileage sedan from a no-name car rental agency. I’ll never forget that wreck. It was covered with dings and dents, and I consider myself lucky that they didn’t make me pay for a new car after I returned it. The Jag was a different kind of scary. I was afraid I would put a scratch on it. (I didn’t, thank goodness.)

Anyway, point is, I have a lot of experience with renting cars, and I can tell you this: You have more of a choice than you think.

The travelers with the most choice are frequent renters. I’m a member of Hertz Gold Plus, the Hertz loyalty program, which lets you skip the lines at the airport, and at a higher level, offers confirmed availability of standard vehicles. Other loyalty programs, including Avis Preferred and Enterprise Plus, offer similar benefits.

Another way to maximize your choice is to be flexible. At a busy time like now, many car rental companies run out of their economy cars. If you’re willing to upgrade to a larger vehicle, you can increase your choices. Savvy renters know that car rental locations run out of the small cars and intentionally reserve them, hoping to score a free upgrade. There’s even a name for it: upgrade roulette. But if you need more room for your trip, that can be a risky move. What if they have your car class on the lot?

When you’re trying to find the perfect car, enlist the help of the agents who are working with you. For example, if you’re renting a car in Denver and thinking of heading up to the mountains, you’ll definitely want to mention your plans to the agent. There might be a perfect four-wheel drive with an XM Satellite radio in it, just waiting for you. (I would pay extra for both.)

Think you’ve found the right car? There’s one more thing. Make sure you know how to operate it. I’m not kidding. Car rental companies are now offering everything from electric vehicles to hybrids to Smart Cars (microcars), and they don’t work the same way the standard gas-powered cars do. Don’t believe me? Try starting a Toyota Prius without first reading the manual. Go on. I’ll wait.

Car rental employees are trained to help you get acquainted with your car. At the very least, check your glove compartment to make sure the manual is there. That is, if you can figure out how to open the glove compartment.

I couldn’t do it on the Escalade, but finally my 12-year-old figured it out. Then he asked me if he could take it for a spin. Don’t worry, Hertz — I said “no.”