The Most Important Tip to Improve Your Rental Car Experience

This is so simple I’m almost embarrassed to lead with it, but it’s really important: Join a rental car company’s frequent renter program.

I’m not going to tell you that it will get you Porsches or Lamborghinis. It will get you out of the lot faster. And it will help ensure you actually have a vehicle.

  1. You won’t have paperwork to do
  2. There will likely be a car pre-assigned to you, certainly ahead of those that aren’t part of the program

I’m so spoiled by this, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to rent without a frequent renter number attached.

I’ve rented mostly from Avis for years, and more recently from National. That means getting in a car and driving away, stopping only to verify your license (or, frustratingly with National, your credit card each time at the booth too).

Anyone can join these programs. National used to charge, but at least it’s now free. At the base level I like National the best because you pick your own car from their ’emerald aisle’. Just get in the car of your choice that’s in that space.

National is also the easiest to elite status, American Express Platinum cardholders get ‘Executive status’ and for the past two years premium members have as well. That lets you pick your car from the ‘executive’ aisle (usually better cars). You also earn free rentals a little faster. (I’m currently ‘executive elite’ with National, so I can rent premium vehicles on my free rental days but it’s otherwise very similar to straight-up executive status.)

Years ago I had status — ostensibly lasting many, many years — from Sixt. For a long time they gave away status for free. But I’ve let that lapse.

Fast-forward to the following check-in experience in Miami, where for the same price as a mid-size at National, Sixt was offering a Mercedes. Seemed worthwhile to give them a try.

The bright red check-in desk should have been a sign.

And yet..

  • There was no car available at the reserved pickup time. An upgrade to a better class Mercedes was available for $30 a day, or it was expected to be a 25 minute wait while ‘the car was cleaned’.
  • After 25 minutes it turns out that they make you wait for the same person who helped you originally to get free. “Only the person that helped before can print your ticket.” Wait. “It is being processed.”
  • Turns out “the car still isn’t ready”
  • They don’t have any Mercedes after all. Not even the better one they offered for an upgrade fee.
  • “A car should be available soon.”

Cancelled reservation, booked with National, done.

Always rent from a company whose frequent renter program you are a member of. Always be a member of the frequent renter program of the rental agency you’re picking up a vehicle from. Never wait in line. Never fill out paperwork. As Lucky says, “ain’t nobody got time for that.”

Incidentally the second most important tip for a hassle-free experience is not to rent from Enterprise (and yes I know that they own National now). I simply won’t do the “walk around the vehicle of shame” and hard sell of the collision damage waiver.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You are so right, Gary. ALL of the bad rental car experiences I’ve had involved agencies whose frequent renter program I stupidly had not joined. It is worth joining even for a one-off rental, and even if you feel pretty sure you’ll never rent from that agency again. If anything goes wrong, non-members are at the bottom of the priority list.

  2. Sixt is my favourite n Europe, but I had similar experience with them at the same station. The best would be to book from earlier: if my flight arrives at 2pm, I book the car from 12:30pm.

  3. I work for myself and travel for work and pleasure dozens of times a year in the USA, and I ALWAYS book rental cars by bidding on I ALWAYS get a ridiculously good rate–usually around $15-20 per day before taxes–compared to the average rates of between $50-80 per day before taxes. There just isn’t any comparison. I usually reserve a car in advance using a major chain of which I’m a member–just to be safe–but cancel that once I’ve booked the rental car for much less money. I’ve NEVER had any problem, though I have had to wait in a long line a few times. I could care less what car I get, so I always get the economy/standard and refuse an upgrade–which I usually get anyway if they are out of the lower cheaper categories. My successful rental bids always come from major chains (National, Thrifty, Avis, and even Hertz a few times, believe it or not), anyway.

    There is NO reason to not bid for rental cars on, unless you absolutely despise standing in line and/or getting some premium car. The outrageous amount of money saved more than justifies it for me–I’d rather put that money into a nicer hotel stay or upgrades on my flights.

  4. For me, the best way to improve a car rental experience is to get the best price possible by frequently checking rates. I have seen rental rates start out at $400 per week, go down to $135, and go back up several days later. That being said, I prefer choosing my own car so I favor Alamo and National.

  5. Agree. Good post. I use Fox rent a car some on the West Coast USA and they are super cheap but it’s like waiting to check in at the counter for a flight. Takes forever. I like Hertz the best but I typically can’t afford them. To bad really. I

  6. I have Sixt Platinum status that was bestowed upon me by Lufthansa. I have never rented from them in the US, but in Europe my experiences have been golden. I have always received great service – minimal waiting and great cars, almost always with navigation. Probably the best one was a trip to Munich where they gave me a BMW 5 series that was fresh from the factory…it was such a pity that I had to drive it down the autobahn to a meeting in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. 🙂

  7. Gary: I’ve done the Sixt thing at MIA and FLL, both were adventures, but at the time virtually the only option (Christmas, etc) when others were charging ~$1000 week. The FLL location is so far offsite from the airport I’m pretty sure we were close to Boca by the time the shuttle pulled in. Never again with that group. But EZ Rent A Car is actually pretty decent at both airports, should the need arrise.

  8. Tried Sixt at SEA a few months ago. Never, ever, ever again. Both the check out and check in experiences were awful; just primitive compared to Avis/Hertz/National.

  9. 100% in agreement with Enterprise: it’s the rental car equivalent of a boiler room. They have an interesting model: hire college graduates, pay them a little better, and make them sell X amount of trash or get fired. I had a buddy from college work there for a while: all they do is scare and fleece people (FUD all the way).

    That’s not to say the inept employees at every other rental place are somehow better (they don’t have to be – the good customers never see them). But at least Hertz doesn’t run a business predicated solely on scamming fees onto their customer base.

  10. Where have you been asked for a credit card at the national? Albuquerque always asks, b15-2ther than that I have not experienced that, at probably 20+ locations per year.

  11. I also do my best to avoid Enterprise. The last time I rented from them it occurred to me that my own car had fewer miles, was worth twice as much, and had never been as carefully inspected as this sad little Chevy Cruze.

  12. Tried Sixt @ ATL a couple of times and they’re very good. Platinum status may have helped 🙂

  13. Just a couple of hours ago, i rented 5 minivans for the week from Enterprise without any trouble. Have never had any problem with them.

  14. I just can’t deal with the punk in the white shirt anymore. I will pay more to avoid Enterprise at all costs.

  15. I’ve also been reasonably satisfied with Enterprise. When one of our cars was disabled, we rented locally with them several times. The first time I told them I didn’t appreciate the CDW hard sell; they accepted my feedback and backed off for subsequent rentals. I also rented from them in SEA last December when the rate was $7/day plus fees; no problems at pickup or return.

  16. I had possibly the worst experience ever with the sixt in san jose costa rica. started with no shuttle to their location for a half hour. we arrived there and heard angry people yelling about disputing the charges on their amex…sinking feeling kicks in. they make you wait outside in the heat instead of in the air conditioned office until it’s your turn at the ticket counter and finally it was our turn only to be told the car class we reserved was not available and take a downgrade or walk. it gets worse but I’ll spare you all the details…lesson learned. only rent from the 4-5 majors!

  17. Second the frequent renter programs. Hertz you go to your car (get a text with your “CarFirmation” showing location), National you pick from the aisle, Alamo you check in online, pick car from reserved row, and get paperwork quick on the way out. Easy. Enterprise had the hard sell at PHX for insurance.. will skip them. And no Budget, had crappy cars in DSM.

  18. You are so right Enterprise always try to push on the insurance and then at the end when you return the car they try to double tax…For example…I am renting a car for 1 day it is %20.00 for the rental and $20.00 in tax-the total is $40.00…What they will do is tax again on the total amount of $40.00,but tax was already included in that amount…Every time i have to go in there and make them take off the double tax or i tell them “O.K. the price of the car is $20,now put tax on that amount” which is always= the amount it was in the 1st place!

  19. HERTZ is awesome to me. I found an AMEX auction a year ago that got me 15K points for $600. I have rented 3 week long rentals so far in FL and still have 10K points left. AND as a Gold THEY TREAT ME WITH RESPECT. Something the others never did. Now I don’t think I will ever change.

  20. SIXT is one the best rental car companies in Europe. However, they still did not get to succeed in the US. Their service is the worst possible. I booked Mercedes for my parents in MIA twice. The first one they did not have the car we booked and gave them a Hyundai for 1/2 of the price. Second time they got the Mercedes and for $45/day it was a steal. Usually I book a Mercedes at SIXT and another car at National for the same rent. If SIXT messes up I am guaranteed at National. In my opinion, National is the best rental car company in the US. I have the Executive card through my Amex Platinum and can access their Executive Aisle and I always get 2 or 3 upgrades over what I reserved. However, if you can get the car you reserved with SIXT their German cars are way better than any Chevy or Ford you get at any US rental car company. BTW, SIXT runs a “German guaranteed” rental where when you are guaranteed a German car (Mercedes, BMW or Audi) and if not your rent is free. Not a bad deal in my opinion.

  21. I really want SIXT to succeed and grow in the U.S.; with all of the consolidation in the industry, competition is becoming limited and prices have gone up in a lot of markets. (And no, the little bottom-feeder guys like E-Z, Fox, Payless, etc. don’t count as competition.) SIXT stands to give renters another decent choice and help keep rates lower (they’ve had a measurable effect in the SEA market, for instance). Unfortunately, they haven’t lived up to the first part of that (being a decent choice).

    I know SIXT wants to grow aggressively in the U.S. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t snap up Advantage when it was sold off by Hertz (or even when it went through bankruptcy recently). That would have given them and their brand a sizeable presence in the U.S. Their choice of markets to open seems a bit esoteric, though–why MYR (small) and SEA (which already had depressed rental rates) but not LAX (one of the world’s biggest markets)? They did finally get into two huge markets, though (PHX and, very recently, LAS).

    As to the rest of the topic of this post, I agree with many others that National (whether as a basic EC member or an Exec with access to the Executive Selection) provides the best rental experience. Hertz is a close second (maybe a more distant second if you are picky at all about your cars–Hertz’s Gold Choice selection pales in comparison to National’s Emerald Aisle) and Avis is a distant third (operationally similar to Hertz but with a vastly inferior rewards program).

    That said, if you’re a member of the frequent renter programs with anyone else, it’s pretty hard to have a *bad* experience: Dollar/Thrifty actually now preassigns cars, preprints contracts, and provides full counter bypass (a sign directing members directly to their cars) in many locations (making their operation not much different than Hertz’s), Alamo has its kiosks, and Budget has dedicated Fastbreak lanes (or booths) that provide fairly speedy service. Enterprise Plus remains a bit of a joke of a program, though–you’re still subject to the full hard sell by an overly eager still-wet-behind-the-ears college graduate thinking he’s got his career made for him (“Six Figures In Six Years,” or so the recruitment saying at Enterprise goes). The funny thing is, all that hard selling the Enterprise clones do is all strictly because of brainwashing and fear of losing their job (or not getting promoted)–whereas every other rental company commissions its agents on sales, Enterprise doesn’t.

  22. I Despise Enterprise (should I put that on a t-shirt?).

    The insurance inquisition is so annoying, even when you’ve been through it before and know that it’s coming.

    The last time I rented from them, the agent asked how much insurance I had. I told her $1 billion. She didn’t react well. I would not give her a lower number, and finally she wrote something down and let me take the car.

  23. what’s so bad about enterprise? they have to do that walk around the vehicle before and after you rent just to make sure that there’s no damage because if there is the renter is responsible. as for the fuse they tell you those fees right up front and its on the contract itself. As for all the protection products, which are also on the contract, you’d be smart to add them to your rate.

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