The Insider: How to book the right rental car

Editor’s Note: This is part two of our new “Insider” series on car rentals. Here’s the first part. By the way, if you see something I’ve missed in this post, please tell me in the comments or email me.

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Looking for a set of wheels?

Here are your options:

Ask your travel agent. A full-service agent can offer recommendations and negotiated rates that you won’t find anywhere else. If you’re uncomfortable booking online or don’t rent cars often, this is your best choice. Bear in mind that agents get paid a commission on rentals, so they may steer you toward a company that pays a higher commission or bonus. (That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad deal for you.)

Book directly. If you are partial to one brand, you’ll probably want to go straight to the car rental company’s website or call its 800-number. Car rental companies will offer bonuses and other incentives to deal directly with them. You can also negotiate a discount using any membership organizations, like AAA or AARP. The downside? You won’t be able to make an easy price comparison and unless you’re careful, you might book a nonrefundable rate through the site.

Use an online travel agency. Companies like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity offer virtually every major car rental brand and price guarantees that make them an attractive option to either shop or book a rental car. Note that like with full-service agencies, online agents sometimes display the cars that pay them the highest commissions (or exclude the companies that pay a lower commission). Don’t assume you’re getting every option with an online agency.

Opaque sites. Sites like Priceline and Hotwire sell you pre-paid, deeply-discounted rentals, but you don’t find out the name of the car rental company until you book the car. The benefit? You can save anywhere between 20 and 40 percent, and the voucher you receive includes all mandatory taxes and fees. But there’s a catch: the car is totally nonrefundable. Book with any of the other method, and you can normally cancel the reservation without a penalty unless you’re renting a specialty vehicle.

No matter how you book your car, you’ll want to double-check the dates of your rental and the location before pulling the trigger. If you’ve made an error you can always fix it if you’ve booked through one of the three conventional methods. If you’re using an opaque site, it may be difficult, if not impossible to modify your reservation. (As a general rule, the quicker you let the company know of the error, the better the chances of getting it corrected.)

Above all, read the confirmation you get by email. Then read it again. The last thing you want is to discover a problem on the day of your trip.

What about car classes?

Car rental companies offer vehicle classes ranging from subcompact to luxury. 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. One car may be considered a “compact” by one company and “midsize” by another. Why? Because the car rental companies say it, that’s why!

Rental customers typically use one of several strategies to book the best car.

Reserve the exact car you think you’ll need. Most drivers do this — they take an inventory of number of passengers, luggage, and consider their itinerary and then book the vehicle that’s best-suited to them. It’s a safe strategy.

Book the smallest car and hope they run out. It’s an open secret that car rental companies often run out of subcompacts because they’re so popular (or maybe because this strategy is so popular). The accepted industry practice is to give you a car in the next available class, which can mean a free upgrade for you. This is a risky move if you have more than two passengers and lots of luggage, because the car rental company could have the vehicle you reserved.

Make several reservations at competing companies and try to negotiate the best deal. Since you can make as many reservations as you want to, and then cancel them without a penalty, you can play one car rental company off another. I know of some frequent business travelers who will always make a “backup” reservation just in case they can’t get the car they want, or in case the company runs out of vehicles. I take a dim view of this, and so does the industry. Not only does it mess up the car rental company’s inventory management, but it is selfish to take more than you’ll use — particularly if you’re doing it just to see which rental agent will offer you the most favorable terms or an upgrade.

A note about specialty vehicles: If you need something that’s not on the “menu” on the car rental company’s website, don’t assume that it’s not available. Some locations may carry other kinds of vehicles, but they’re unseen to you because the reservation system they belong to uses generic photos of vehicles as suggestions of what may be available. Solution? Get the name of the location manager and call at least a week before your rental date. Ask what types of minivans or SUV they have in their fleet.

Tomorrow we’ll deal with car rental fees.

(Photo: aspheric.lens/Flickr)

7 thoughts on “The Insider: How to book the right rental car

  1. Also you should mention – if you are a member of Sam’s Club or Costco, they actually provide discount rates for rental cars.  Check with your membership and see what the current offers are.

  2. I’ve seen some interesting definitions when it comes to car classes.  I once rented from Alamo at a $14/day special rate – in Honolulu no less.  I didn’t quite get that once the paperwork was filled out, we were supposed to go get a car in our class, drive it to the inspection area to load the vehicle, and then drive it past the final checkpoint.  However – what they called an “intermediate” car varied, with a whole range of different vehicles including a Subaru Legacy (a largish compact) and a Subaru Impreza (a compact bordering on being a subcompact).  I wanted the Legacy (for more trunk space) but someone else drove it off before I even had the paperwork in hand.  I took the Impreza, which was possible the most driveable car I’ve ever rented.  The only problem was a distinct lack of trunk space although we managed to fit everything in with almost no space to spare.

    I’ve also been assigned a car without a trunk in areas where I would have preferred to hid my luggage in the trunk.  I understand that vehicle luggage theft can be a problem in Florida and Hawaii, but I’ve been assigned trunkless vehicles like a Chevy HHR or a minivan.

    The California DMV has specific definitions of car classes for registration purposes, but they might not fit into a car rental scheme where a convertible or sports car is a specific class, but the registration is as a 2-dr compact or 2-dr subcompact.

  3. A variation of the subcompact rental is applicable for those targeting bigger cars: some rental agencies have some obscure intermediate categories (group P on Hertz, for instance) that easily run out of cars, and offer good value. A safe-ish bet is to rent a car in one of these less known groups immediately above the minimum acceptable for you, so that you can bet on getting an upgrade to better category vehicles.

    It doesn’t work well for very large airports where they have everything, but might well do in medium and small locations. 

  4. If you belong to a frequent flyer program, don’t forget to check your loyalty program’s website for car rental offers.  Most airline frequent flyer programs have car rental “bonus offers” where you can get some combination of discounts plus bonus offers. 

    Also, if your company allows you to use their corporate contract to book personal car rentals, that can also get you a good deal. 

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