Hertz. Avis. National. These are the three best car rental companies on wheels – at least according to a consensus of customer surveys and my own customer interviews. I thought I’d get that out of the way first, because it’s the easiest (and easily the most important part) of this column.
Where should you rent your next car from? Hertz, Avis and National. In that order.
Says who? Well, says the most recent Plog Research American Traveler Survey. Says Travel + Leisure magazine’s readers’ poll. And says the latest survey from our good friends at J.D. Power & Associates. These choices were bolstered by your comments, which I weighed heavily against the findings of the statisticians.
Among the reasons you cited:
Good service. That’s why Dave Harley, a construction company vice president in Stone Mountain, Ga., prefers Hertz. “I always get a premium car when I reserve a full-size four-door car,” says Harley, a frequent traveler. “Several locations I rent from always provide a low-mileage Avalon, Volvo or sometimes a Jaguar. You can’t beat the personal service.”
New fleet. Veronica St. Claire, who runs a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, likes the fact that Avis’ cars are new – and clean. “They also offer good rates, and they’re nice people,” she adds. “As my very quotable mother would say, they are very obliging. Nothing is too much trouble.”
Lots of choices. William Muckelroy, a Dallas business traveler, leans toward National because it lets him pick the car he wants without over-billing him. “I get a preferred rate for a midsized car, but am able to choose any car on the lot,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to pick a different car or the same car every time you need a rental.”
Between the top vote-getters and the bottom-scrapers (I’ll get to those in a second; if you’ve made it this far, it’s probably the real reason you’re reading this column), there’s a middle-class of car rental companies that is neither bad nor good. They’ve got their fans, but they also have their critics. In an industry where revenues slid from $19.4 billion in 2000 to $17.9 billion in 2002, most rental experiences – really, a vast majority – will probably be just so-so.
Three to steer clear from
Dollar. Payless. Enterprise.
Again, I base the list on their placement (or lack thereof) in the surveys, plus feedback from travelers. Why?
Bad service. Los Angeles consultant Mark Stanley is turned off to Dollar because of what he considers the hassles and inconveniences of renting from them. Often, he is sent to an off-airport location to rent a vehicle, and the rates aren’t always competitive, he says. As a business-travel columnist for this site and as National Geographic Traveler’s ombudsman, I’ve also received an unusual number of complaints regarding Dollar, ranging from problems with inexperienced rental agents to being overcharged for insurance. Too many to ignore.
Old fleet. Rental car companies are keeping their vehicles longer as a way of saving money, which means you’re likelier to get a high-mileage car. That’s what David Yeutter found when he rented an Enterprise car at Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport recently. “Filthiest cars on earth,” he complains. “I asked them to dry the car after they just ran it thought their car wash. They laughed and said that driving it off of the lot would take care of the water – and indeed, it did. And it also left water spots all over the windows and mirrors to the point that they were distracting. The car broke down two days later.”
Nickel-and-diming. In order to make an extra buck or two, the worst of the car rental companies are jacking up their fees when you least expect it. Consider Matt Turner’s recent rental experience with Payless. When he arrived at the rental counter in Las Vegas two hours late, the South Charleston, W.Va., tourism official was told his rate would now be $48 a day instead of $113 a week – even though the holdup was caused by a canceled flight. Tough luck, said the manager, who told Turner he should have asked a flight attendant to “call and tell us from the airplane.”
Michael J. Harley, Payless president and chief operating officer, disputes the contention that raising Turner’s price constitutes “nickel-and-diming.” He notes that “hold” policies such as the one Turner encountered are common in the industry. “We do our best, just like the other companies, to be friendly and provide clean, safe vehicles,” Harley says.
Price and location matter, too
Since a majority of car rental locations are owned by franchisees, you’ll find a lot of exceptions to these lists. (Indeed, after this article first appeared, some of you e-mailed me with your own stories about clean, new vehicles from Enterprise, reasonably priced autos from Payless, and excellent service rendered by Dollar.)
As a frequent traveler and car renter, I can think of a few exceptions myself. I would rent from Dollar in Albuquerque, N.M., in a heartbeat, for example. While on assignment there a year ago, I had what was probably the best car-rental experience in recent memory. The rental agent upgraded me at no additional charge and offered me a brand-new car (no, I didn’t tell her who I was).
And I’d probably skip the Hertz counter in Hartford, Conn., where I was hassled about a drop-off charge I didn’t owe, even though they did know who I was.
And then there’s price. The award-winning, full-service car rental companies are almost always more expensive than the rest. So it’s possible that you could spend more without really getting much more.
In order to ensure the best possible rental experience, I would consider a company’s national ranking against a variety of other factors. The franchise’s individual reputation, your elite status (yes, you get preferred treatment if you belong to programs such as Fastlane or #1 Club Gold) and, of course, price, matter too.
The top three and bottom three car rental companies I’ve listed in this column shouldn’t be the deciding factor in your rental decision. Consider them a signpost in making your car-rental purchasing decision.