How to get the rental car you actually wanted

by Сашка

6 tips to improve your chances at the rental car counter

Finding a rental car can feel like searching through the clearance bin at a clothing store. You’re not guaranteed the first pick of whatever item you were looking for, and your options depend on whatever inventory and seasonal patterns that particular store is going through.

This type of uncertainty has gotten worse in recent years as rental agencies have seen fleet inventories shrink and prices shoot up. Experts say the so-called rental car apocalypse, exacerbated by a nationwide shortage of semiconductor chips, is better than it was two years ago, but the industry is still nowhere near the pre-pandemic norm.

“It’s getting better, but it’s not fixed yet — there are not extra vehicles sitting on our lots,” said American Car Rental Association spokesperson Greg Scott. “It’s kind of an indication of how tight the supply chain is for dealers, car manufacturers and obviously for terminal companies right now.”

These changes have made it even harder to predict whether you’ll walk away from a rental car counter with your preferred vehicle, even if you reserved it online or paid in advance. Aside from changes to the national market, there are other factors at play: The last car in the category you wanted may have not come back on schedule, or that car might be undergoing maintenance or being cleaned when you show up.

If you’re determined to get your first choice, here are six tips to help.

The best rental car company for every type of traveler

Make a prepaid reservation

According to travel experts and rental car association officials, the more details you arrange before you arrive at the rental car counter, the better chance you have of getting what you want. This can save time spent on paperwork or waiting in line, and it also yields cheaper prices and a wider selection of cars.

“It is a difficult industry to manage inventory, also because a lot of people don’t pay in advance,” said Ani Malkani, head of ground transport at Hopper.

If you don’t walk in with a reservation, your prospects depend on agency offerings that can be fickle. This is especially true around popular travel destinations and during peak rental seasons such as holidays and long weekends.

You should also keep in mind the availability of different types of cars for different destinations. Minivans and larger SUVs are increasingly in demand near amusement parks, meaning reserving in advance for that family trip to Disney World will increase the chances that another family doesn’t snag your ideal car before you can.

Booking in advance also means you can take advantage of any discounts and loyalty programs that might give priority to certain vehicles. Some loyalty programs, including Avis Preferred and Budget Fastbreak, let customers skip lines. Some companies, like Sixt, also offer specialty cars as guaranteed models. These options can come with limitations, such as a requirement for drivers to be at least 25.

A common problem for rental agencies arises when people book online but arrive long after their scheduled pickup — or never show. A vehicle reserved online could be sitting in a lot for hours, but another renter can’t scoop it up if it’s under someone else’s name.

While there are nonpaid online reservations that serve as a promise to pick up your preferred rental, paying in advance serves as a more firm agreement, because there’s already a financial obligation attached to it.

Otherwise, Scott said, “you can go out and make five different car rental reservations, and not show up to four of them.

“You could’ve been shopping around and forgot to go back and cancel the other ones. Those four car rental companies may well have your car sitting there on the lot waiting for you,” he said.

Travel when others aren’t

A car rental company’s inventory ebbs and flows according to travel patterns throughout the year. You’re likely to find better prices and more options if you go against consumer trends.

For example, you’re more likely to find an SUV in Colorado at a cheaper price outside of the winter and spring skiing season, or to be bombarded with surge pricing at beach towns when it’s summertime.

If you must travel during peak times, it may be helpful to at least book your rental during an offseason, because you will likely find much cheaper rates if you reserve weeks or months in advance.

How to avoid surprise rental car charges

Book during a weekday

The day of the week and times that you are booking also matter. There will likely be more demand for a rental on a Saturday versus a Tuesday or Wednesday. Book on a weekday even for weekend reservations, Malkani said.

It might also be worth your time to call your agency in advance and ask when they’re expecting fewer people. Then you can plan around those days and times.

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The best rental car company for every type of traveler

Beware of ‘even’ hours

Malkani also recommends looking for cars outside of even hours — like 3 p.m. sharp — when cars are more likely to have maintenance or cleaning appointments.

Cars might not pop up on an agency’s booking system because they’re not available right at that exact moment. This can be true at traditional car-rental agencies, or companies that facilitate rentals, such as Hopper. One way to get a better sense of an agency’s stock would be calling ahead of time, as they can likely let you know the full extent of what the respective company’s inventory looks like.

“A lot of people choose to pick their rental car pickup times and drop-off times on even hours, just because mentally that seems to make the most sense, but give a half-hour a shot — pick up at 10:30 instead of 10 — and see how that differs,” Malkani said.

Try an electric vehicle

More rental car agencies have begun offering electric cars as a climate-conscious option. Despite the environmental benefits, experts say the option is still not as sought-after as a traditional gas-powered car.

Drivers might not have experience driving an electric vehicle or feel anxious about driving one for long road-trips where they’d need to find charging stations. However, many traditional rental car companies, including Hertz and Enterprise, will provide detailed guidance and resources for learning to drive an EV upon booking.

Depending on the make and model, an EV can typically travel around 200 to 300 miles on a full battery. That can also depend on outside temperature, because cars use more power in hotter climates, according to an AARP report.

Because the supply of electric rentals has increased and demand is still relatively low, Malkani suggests looking into EVs such as Tesla and Hyundai models. Electric vehicles come in many sizes now, so they could be an alternative to the sedan or SUV that you were hoping to reserve.

Renting an EV can be cheap yet inconvenient. Here’s how to rent smart.

Third-party booking and car-sharing

While many of the largest traditional agencies, such as Hertz, Budget and Enterprise, have been around for decades, there are now more third-party agencies that aggregate offers from multiple companies — or help customers avoid visiting a rental kiosk to begin with.

“People have found that the traditional model doesn’t work for them,” Scott said.

Much of this has been in response to customer dissatisfaction with big companies — and the mounting service fees and long lines. Hopper, founded in 2007, lets customers pick from a wide selection of vehicles across different companies. In recent years, Uber has also begun to offer similar services.

Many have also flocked to peer-to-peer car sharing companies, which match car owners with prospective renters. One of the largest companies that uses this model is Turo, a San Francisco start-up that is touted as the Airbnb for car rentals.

Many of these third-party options handle requests through their apps or websites, which, in some cases, allow customers to pick up cars outside of working hours.

Using a third party or service to facilitate your rental often means you’re not limited to the inventory of a single company; you have access to options across a variety of locations, companies and models.

“Everybody has had that negative experience of all these hidden fees,” Turo chief marketing officer Andrew Mok said. “The beauty of the Turo model is that the booking happens beforehand, and you see the price upfront. You know exactly what you’re going to pay and there’s no surprises.”

Some customers have noted that reservations made by a third-party service might not appear in a car rental agency’s system, which Scott said happened to him on a recent trip that he planned weeks in advance.

After arriving at the rental location, he was frustrated to see that the agency could not identify his reservation and had to match him with a similar vehicle.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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