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.

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.”

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at,,, and

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International,, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend