Save On Car Rentals By Renting After Busy Holidays

Our favorite travel troubleshooter blogger Chris Elliot interviewed a car rental salesperson to reveal six insider tips on how to get the most for your money. We like number 5, rent after a busy holiday.

5. Timing is everything. The largest expense incurred by a car rental company is depreciation. Basically, these companies are leasing all the cars in their fleet. They’re charged different rates for different types of cars. “It is very important for car rental companies to have as many cars on the road as possible, as any cars that are sitting are not making money, and are actually costing the company money in depreciation fees.” A customer who shows up after a busy holiday weekend can more or less name the price for a rental car. “They should be begging for you to take cars off their lot,” he adds.

To get a view on what goes on inside the (twisted) mind of some car rental salespeople, check out our “6 Confessions Of An Alamo Car Rental Agent.”

6 secrets car rental companies don’t want you to know [Elliot]
(Photo: oliliqui)

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  1. hills says:

    I can just see Hertz laughing at me when I try to name my price….

    Last time I rented they charged me $50 extra for picking my car up 30ish minutes early – my flight was early! WTF? We resolved it, but still…..

  2. jpx72x says:

    I just reread the 6 Confessions of the Alamo guy and my blood pressure and pulse spiked.

  3. YouPeople says:

    Reserving multiple cars seems like a bit too much work. My trick is to always reserve the cheapest subcompact car. It’s rare that they actually have the Aveo or Yaris or whatever in stock, so you usually get an upgrade for free.

  4. Buran says:

    @jpx72x: Make a “Deeker” shirt. I dare you!

  5. mantari says:

    Oh! He looks kind of CUTE!

  6. bohemian says:

    I can see renting during off days getting you a better deal. We tried this for our last vacation. Got a much better deal on hotel rooms and the museums an such were nowhere near as crowded.

    If I have to rent a car on my dime I book it through a third party and make sure I have proper insurance through my auto coverage. Call me a deeker or whatever. I have no interest in forking over extra money so some jerk working a rental counter can make his commissions. I also don’t care if I get a sub compact. A car isn’t the core feature of a trip or vacation.

  7. i just use hotwire.com for car rentals. usually a sub-compact is $13/d and as someone mentioned above, you can usually get an upgrade because all of the cheep stuff is already rented out.

  8. woot says:

    I used to work in car rental, so here are some tips:

    #1: Book the minimum acceptable car class for your needs and don’t be a douche-bag at the counter. A lot of times we actually have a bunch of the cheapo cars you booked, but we know we’re going to run out of them. We’d rather give nice customers a better car and hold-back the lower classes of cars for walk-ups and douche bags.

    #2: Consider not renting from an airport location. Often times you will be able to get a better deal from one of the “local” offices. Sometimes it makes sense to take a hotel courtesy bus (or even a taxi) to your hotel and then get a local office to pick you up and rent the car to you the next day. As an added bonus, your rental will be shorter – possibly dramatically shorter if you choose to spend a couple of days hanging out at the hotel and / or using free shuttles.

    #3: Keep your reservation as short as possible and then extend it. A rental agent is much more likely to let a higher class of car go out as a free upgrade on, say, a 1-day rental than they are to have it go out for 7 days. You need to be careful about this since 5 or 7 day rental rates are lower, but never book for 3 weeks if that’s what you need and there isn’t a price break – book for 1 week and then call in to extend it – you are much more likely to get a free upgrade for the entire duration because you already have the car.

    #4: Fleet utilization is everything. At or near airports frequented by a significant number of business travelers, there are a glut of cars from 3-4pm on Friday through Monday morning. This is why there are special weekend rates, but we want those cars back on Monday morning to re-rent to business travelers because they pay more. Consider multiple rentals. For example, in Orlando, you might want to take a weekend rental to travel out to the space coast and around the attractions, but then return it and chill at the hotel (and use its shuttle) for a few days before taking a second rental.

    Finally, understand that there are 2 streams of income to the rental business. The obvious one is that we make money from renting cars. The less obvious one is that we make money by running mileage up on cars and either returning them to the manufacturer (in which case dealers get to meet demand for slightly used vehicles by selling them to people who won’t pay the new price) or sending them to auction. If you ever find yourself wondering why the fleet mix you see in the parking lot seems completely out of balance with the demand mix, this is why (and why tip #1 makes sense).

    Good luck.

  9. dantronism says:

    I was a Branch Manager at a large car rental company for two years, before I decided I was losing my soul and quit. While the advice given in the article is somewhat helpful, I think woot’s advice is more relevant. I thought I could add a little more:

    #1: If you book more than one reservation, I’m calling your listed phone number to confirm that you need the multiple vehicles. If you don’t have a listed phone number and the reservations are made online, I’m likely canceling one of them. So I don’t suggest trying the multi-reservation method.

    #2: If you use woot’s advice about extending a contract out week by week, realize that the rate can dramatically increase if fleet utilization is high. For instance, if you decide to rent a van two weeks before July 4th (one of the highest rental weeks) and then extend it out to cover your July 4th holiday travel, your original contracted rate may raise from 374.99 a week and turn to 749.99 a week for the whole rental. This is much more likely for “specialty vehicles” like vans, SUVs, etc, and is legal under the terms of the contract.

    #3: If you decide to extend the rental, realize that you are actually taking the rental from another individual (cue Seinfeld episode on reservations) as we are expecting that vehicle back in our projected returns.

    #4: If you have a complaint, do it at the airport, not at a local branch. The airport locations are rated on their Customer Service ability, (I believe their bonuses are based off of it). Local branches are not rated, and therefor their Customer Service numbers do NOT matter, so don’t expect that free rental, just for complaining.

    #5: On One-way rentals you are likely to receive either the nicest car on the lot, or the one with mechanical problems, as your rental saves us a trip to drop off the vehicle. I suggest asking the rental agent if they have a vehicle that they want to get rid off when renting, you just might get that Audi thats parked out front (as it kills the store in depreciation).

    Any other questions? I’ll answer them as honestly as I can, just remember its been a year or so since I quit, so policies may have changed.

  10. StevieD says:

    If the car is big enough for me and can get up hill without being towed then I will be very happy.

    Yo, that mini sub-compact with 81 hp just ain’t going to make me very darn happy.

  11. woot says:

    dantronism makes some very good points, so I thought I’d add some additional comments on those. I apologize for the length of some of these answers, but I hope you will find them informative and actionable in understanding the car rental industry and saving money:

    #1: Absolutely – multiple reservations won’t get you anywhere. We spot them and ignore them. Plus it makes you look like a douche-bag and that’s exactly how you’ll be treated. If it’s a toss up between upgrading you or not, you’re not getting an upgrade. Don’t set yourself up for pain by behaving badly. We don’t find it amusing. If you f* with us, we’ll f* with you.

    #2: While it’s true that rates can change week to week, you’re generally safe from a significant fluctuation if you are renting a run-of-the-mill car outside of peak periods, like the 4th of July weekend. Dantronism cites vans and for those – or any other kind of specialty vehicle – you are better off taking his advice than mine and secure your rate for the entire duration. Plus, if by “van” you mean “truck”, avoid the big-name car rental companies completely and go with someone like Ryder that specializes in those kind of rentals. The only caveat to that is that some locations do a lot of those types of rentals and will perform well, but for the most part car rental companies suck at renting trucks – we have too few of them and we really don’t understand or care about your needs (sorry). There are exceptions, but not by company, rather by location.

    #3: Extending is only problematic for the rental company at relatively isolated local locations who are often managing what is more or less a fixed fleet. At major locations, like airports, we’re ball-parking and betting that a certain % of customers won’t show. Smart location managers dig into the reservations a bit (kind of like a taste test) – for example, if I can peg you as someone on vacation that booked way in advance, I’m pretty sure you’re turning up. For business travelers (bread and butter at airports) I know a bunch of you are going to change your plans. If I start to feel that I’m at the point where I need cars, I need A LOT of cars. Your one extended rental isn’t going to kill me – I need transporter loads of the things, but I can get creative and start to rent cars waiting for sale, service or transport to auction. I used to get into trouble for that, but customers were happy. What would you rather have – the crappy car you’re paying for, or a much better car with a ding in the door? I can give you either. Your choice.

    There was one time when I was totally out and there were a bunch of mostly business customers stranded at the airport. I invited them to chill out in comfort at our service center at the other side of the airport, made coffee, went out and got donuts, etc and they all got excited every time they saw a transporter coming over the flyover from the freeway, anticipating it was coming to us. A few customers reverted to doing what they needed to do by phone and e-mail and never took their rental at all. The only customer service repercussions? A bunch of e-mails to corporate praising how the situation was handled. Lesson learned: if you make the effort to empathize with customers and show them the respect they deserve, you always do well. The reverse is also true – you’ll get better service if you maintain low tones and work the problem with us instead of just yelling at the agent.

    I’ve even pulled stunts like handing over the keys to a shuttle bus to a customer so they could get to their destination with a large family in tow and then going out with my dad after-hours to deliver the MPV they ordered and we didn’t have at the time (and get the shuttle bus back ‘cos we needed that thing). I initially got a lot of flack for that (duh – you’re not supposed to give shuttle buses to customers), which promptly ceased when the customer e-mailed our CEO to praise my performance because it avoided them having to sit in the airport for 5 or 6 hours with a bunch of restless kids. And it didn’t hurt that the customer (unbeknownst to me) was a VP with one of our largest corporate customers. Lesson learned: when things go really, really wrong, that’s when you have the opportunity to shine. For consumers, it’s worth prompting such actions if your rental agent seems to have a deficit of innitiative: “well, it looks like things are really screwed up, can you come up with some creative solution to this for me?”. Oftentimes there are – it just takes some thought.

    #4: I actually would advise trying complaining at the office you return the car to, mainly if you are there in person. A good duty manager will fix the problem on the spot. If you don’t get satisfaction there, then call corporate and consider contacting your credit card company to question the charge. I used to deal with the credit card complaints all the time. They’re easy to research and, a lot of the time, I could find evidence to substantiate what the customer was claiming and we refunded. Where there wasn’t absolute proof, common sense applied. Your credit card company is your friend. For example, we eyeball the fuel gauges and bypass the pump if the car looks full (it might not be, so you start off with a fuel deficit). Your car might well have been randomly appropriated as a ferry vehicle to transport employees back and forth in filling up a remote rental parking lot before it is officially checked in. By the time we’re done, significant fuel could have been used. We try to avoid that kind of stuff, but it happens. The truth is, at airports, we really don’t know where all our cars are at any given time. That’s why we do physical fleet checks in the small hours of the morning when stuff stops moving so that we can work out what we really have and error-check anomalies.

    #5: Dantronism is right again. We hate one-way rentals especially much if you take a luxury car and want to drop it off somewhere we can’t re-rent it at the class level it is and, ultimately, have to move it back to somewhere it can be properly rented at as a non-revenue trip (transporter or, more likely, hired drivers). This is entirely the fault of the rental car companies themselves. We love offering “special vehicles” but HQ never properly restricts their use to select (usually major airport) locations. For customers at non-mainline locations, that means your chosen car might not be there, which sucks for you. We need to do a better job of restricting those vehicles so consumers know where or where not providing those cars is going to be a problem. More restriction is necessary, but that’s the fault of the rental car companies, not the consumer.

    I guess I should add that I filled-in as national fleet manager for a couple of months when the real one was off for medical reasons. All you can really do in that job are broad-brush approximations. Doing the job properly involves calling down every major location every day and fielding calls for the minor ones, and I took to sticking post-it notes on a map to track fleet utilization and the specialized vehicles in stupid places I had to ensure they were moved. The most fun part was directing transporters from the manufacturers, which I could re-direct at-will. It was very much like a video game. I am truly sorry if I f*d up sometimes and you didn’t get your car.

    Feel free to ask more questions. Looks like both dantronism and I are willing to answer anything you have to ask.

  12. opal says:

    @woot: Don’t shuttle drivers have to have the license for operating a large passenger vehicle (I forget the exact number)?

  13. woot says:

    @opal: You are correct. However, these were medium-sized vehicles and we deliberately reduced the number of seats to 12 so that anybody could operate them on an ordinary drivers license. They were pretty sweet rides, too. Airline-style seats, a high roof, and a ton of room for luggage.