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|| News Item: Posted 1999-11-15

Travel Tips: Rental Car Survival Guide
By Captain Ron

Hertz "#1 Club", Avis "Preferred", Budget "Fast Track". If you're a Sports Shooter, chances are pretty good that you have at least one or more of these cards floating around your travel wallet. For the clueless, these are basically "charge cards" with an attached customer profile, with your car class preference, and Master rental agreement on file. This lets you bypass the LINES at the rental counter and go directly to your car. (if you don't have one, then what the hell are you waiting for? Do you like waiting in line to fill out paperwork?)

How do they stack up and who's got the best deal?

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For many years, I rented from Hertz, primarily because I was issued a corporate #1 card and we had a contract with them. (500 airline bonus miles per rental was a nice incentive as well) I remember being in charge of the motor pool at an Olympics, and every week I would drive the vehicles down to the Hertz lot to renew the rentals. When the nice lady at the counter asked for a frequent flyer number, of course I had to give them one ... mine. (I think I got 2 round trip tickets to Hawaii that summer) Anyway, Hertz has a nice variety of cars to choose from, plus they update their fleet quite frequently. Shuttle buses OTA (out the ass) so you never have to wait long at the curb for a pickup. When they drop you off at your car, in the summertime it's already running with the AC set so, you can see your breath. During the winter, they have the heat at full blast to defrost everything including your eyeglasses. Overall the service is great, but you pay for it in the long run. For example, a 7-day (weekly rate) on a 4 wheel drive SUV from Hertz is $349.99. That same class of car from Budget, is only $239.99

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In an effort to get a better deal, my company wisely negotiated a contract with Avis, and I got an "Preferred" card. The timing couldn't have been better, Hertz was waffling on further participation with the airline frequent flyer programs and Avis was being generous with their car upgrades. Lots of shuttle buses, (not quite as many as Hertz, but close) a good selection of cars to choose from and rates about the same or LESS than Hertz. The trick to saving money with Avis is to watch the Sunday travel section of your local newspaper. Avis is always running some kind of promotion somewhere in the county EVERY week! Recently they ran an ad in Los Angeles, touting a $49.00 a day rate in California or nationwide for an SUV, if you asked for rate code "4W". Without the code, the rate is a whopping $77.99 per day! If you give them rate code "TK" your 1st tank of gas is included on rentals of 3 days or more! It pays to know the code!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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About a year ago, I got a Budget charge card in the mail, looked at it, and wondered "why the hell would I rent a car from Budget?" so I tossed the card into the trash. The next day, a gigantic envelope shows up, stuffed full of promotional materials for something called "Perfect Drive" from Budget. Every time you rent a car, you earn points, which you can redeem for something called a "BIG BERTHA" (can you tell I'm not a golfer?) Not being a golf gerbil, I tossed the nice glossy catalog showing all the shiny new clubs you could get, into the trash.

Ding! A little bell just went off in my head ... hey, all of our management gacks are golfers. Gee that must be why we got corporate charge cards for Budget. Well if management is sanctioning this, then I'd better Dumpster dive and at least write down my card number.

(Good thing I wrote down that number, cause now Budget has added K2 skis to the program)

A few months later, while planing another business trip, I came across a Budget ad promoting a $19.95 a day or $129.95 a week rate on a Ranger pickup truck. WOW! $19.95 a day, 4x4, with a locking truck bed cover. I called and made a reservation, caught my flight the next day, got off the plane, collected my baggage, wandered out to the rental shuttle bus stop, and there waiting for me was the Budget bus. Actually it wasn't as big as a bus, more like a van on steroids, anyhow the driver takes my bags and loads them on board, then whisks me to the Budget lot, where the driver then proceeds to unload my bags in front my truck. YEOW! Man I've never had service like this. (and never will again, keep reading) toss my gear in the back of the truck, pull up to gate show them my driver's license, and away I go.

The truck handles just like a SUV. I really like the extended cab, cause it's got lots of space behind the seat to store stuff and it's easy to get to with the extra doors. The truck bed has LOTS of usable space, making it a snap to work out of. There's also cargo net to keep your luggage from sliding around, when you're swerving across the road to earn some road kill.

So far so good.

At the end of the week it's time to return the truck and catch a plane home. I clear the outer perimeter of the airport with almost (2) hours till my flight departs. (no I'm not paranoid, it's goddamm DIA, where the rental lots are in east bumfuck) Drive up to the curbside baggage check, and slip the skycap a $20.00 for the (3) extra pieces of luggage and motor away to turn in my truck. Pull into the lot; look for the roving return minion, unload my truck and do a once over just to make sure I've got all my goodies. Still nobody with one of those little handheld printers in sight, so I go inside to the counter. It's an ugly scene, there are half a dozen customers milling about in front of the counter but NOBODY behind the counter! After a couple of minutes of staring at one another, I can hear the faint din of a conversation taking place in a back room, so I yell out "hey is there anybody working here?"

No answer.

I pull out my cell phone and call the local number listed on the rental contract ... phone mail.

I try calling the 800 central reservation number.

"Hello, I'm at you Denver airport rental office, and there doesn't seem to be anybody on duty here"

A few minutes later, a head peeks around the corner, disappears and then reappears. One lone counter person...... great just great. It takes about 15 more minutes for the lone counter person to process the people in front of me. Glancing at my watch, I note that I still have about an hour before my flight departs, so I figure no problem. Get my receipt, wander out front to the shuttle bus stop, and wait, ..........

And wait ...

10 minutes go by, and I walk back inside to the counter to ask if a shuttle bus is coming soon?

"Oh yes sir, they run every 15 minutes"

Back outside to the shuttle stop, and I wait ...

And wait......

20 minutes have passed, so I storm back inside and demand to know where the bus is?

"Oh yes sir, the bus is just running a little late, it'll be here any minute now"

I tromp back outside to shuttle stop again, and wait ...

And wait ...

30 minutes elapsed, and now I am getting a little irritated. Just as I am about to go back in to kick some ass, the bus pulls up. I scramble onboard with 6 other pissed off customers and off we go the terminal.

When we get to the terminal, I note that it is almost deserted, the folks at the United counter are wrapping it up for the night so it seems. I look at the agent and say LAX..... she looks back and I can tell by the look of pity in her eyes that's there no way I'll make the flight. She books me on the first flight out the next morning. As I saunter out to the hotel shuttle, I briefly entertain the thought of going back to the Budget office to raise hell, but I'm tired, so I opt to turn in instead.

Normally, after a screwup like this, I would NEVER rent from Budget again. BUT as it turns out, about a month later, I've got a chance to do a little flyfishing with some buddies in Colorado. I know that I'm going to need a 4x4 and the $89.95 a day rate Avis and Hertz are quoting are out of the question. Being the cheapskate that I am, I succumb to the unbelievable low rate of $19.95 a day for the Ranger pickup.

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When I get to the rental lot, I notice that there are no pickups anywhere in sight. The lady at the rental counter says "I'm sorry, but we're out of Rangers, but you can pick anything that's out on the lot" My eyes zero in on one of those gigantic Ford Expeditions, "I'll take that one". While the nice counter lady is doing the paperwork, she mentions the fact that a lot of the Budget rental offices don't have many of the Rangers in stock which is strange given the popularity of the vehicle.

Ding! There's that little bell going off in my head. Sounds like an upgrade scam in the making!

I test out my theory at IAD the next week, I called and made a reservation for a Ranger, showed up at the lot, and sure enough, NO Rangers in sight. The same scenario as DIA and the same basic conversation takes place in the rental office and I'm off wheeling around in and Explorer this time.

At SEA, its another Explorer, hey, I think I'm on to something here.

This is just a variation of the old, "reserve a compact and get upgraded to a midsize" scam. Most rental car companies keep a few compacts on the lot, but really never enough to guarantee one will be there, so they offer to upgrade you to next car class for the same price. It's just that in this case $19.95 can get you a $89.95 SUV class vehicle.

For the record, 4 out of my last 7 rentals with Budget involved some kind of hassle. Trunks that didn't lock, missing tools for changing a spare tire, AC on the fritz, headlights that didn't work.

But I'll tell you it's really hard to pass up that $19.95 rate and those bonus points.

(Captain Ron roams the universe in search of calm waters to flyfish and the truth about extra terrestrials.)

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