6 secrets car rental companies don’t want you to know


What’s it like on the other side of the car rental counter? The answer may surprise you. I’ve been corresponding with a former car rental employee, and he’s shared some remarkable insights into the business that might help you make a more informed decision the next time you rent a car.

The first thing you need to understand, he says, is that agency employees aren’t in the customer service business. They’re salespeople.

I’m judged almost solely on a number. It’s determined by the number of times I sell our products per given opportunity.

Every customer who walks up is an opportunity to sell a number of different services. For me, I can sell the damage waiver — that’s the most popular — liability insurance, personal accident and effects coverage, and the pre-pay fuel option.

Upon returning a customer’s vehicle, I can charge a fee if the tank is not filled up to the level it was rented at. For customers who have reservations, I can upgrade them to a better vehicle. That’s six different opportunities to sell to each customer.

As a car rental employee, your goal is to sell “every one of these products to every customer,” he adds. And if he can’t? Then that all-important number by which every car rental employee is judged is lowered.

So even though you may sell, for instance, the liability insurance, you have failed to sell four to five other services and thus your number will be docked. This number is very important because we get paid a commission on it according to a pay scale and the dollar amount we’ve brought in each month and quarter.

There is a floor and ceiling to this pay scale. If your number is below a certain level you aren’t eligible for a commission.

If our numbers remain consistently high, we can be considered for promotion. If our numbers are low, we hear about it from umpteen different managers in e-mails, by phone, and in person.

The numbers game is played at the highest level. Managers are judged based on their location’s cumulative number — an aggregate of all employee numbers — so they’re likely to encourage more aggressive sales strategies.

“I saw all kinds of tactics to increase these numbers,” he says. “Some higher managers turned a blind eye to questionable and unethical methods.”

How does this affect you?

Keep in mind that you’re dealing with overworked, stressed-out employees from the moment you walk up to the counter to the moment you return your vehicle. At one point, this ex-employee was working 12-hour shifts without a break. Also, remember that they see dollar signs the moment you walk through the door. So they will do anything in their power to sell you insurance, a fuel purchase option or an upgrade.

How to get around this racket? Here are six tips from my insider.

1. Always inspect the car you are renting with an employee before signing anything. Car rental offices should have a vehicle inspection form that’s signed by you before the car leaves the lot. This limits the possibility that you’ll get blamed for damage that you didn’t cause. “Unfortunately, from my experience, many customers were blamed for damage they did not cause,” he says. “As a tired and busy employee, the last thing I want to do is walk around the car with you and make notations about the small scratches on the rear bumper. I could care less. But you should be adamant that this is done before you sign for anything.”

2. Off-airport locations are often cheaper than airport locations.
The vehicles at airport locations typically cost more because of airport fees, which cover the car rental agency’s rental and transportation costs. “The cost difference can be great,” he says. “You may want to reserve a car at a location nearby the airport. You should see a difference.”

3. Make multiple reservations and play the system.
Most reservations can be canceled without penalty. My insider suggests making multiple reservations. “Look at rates online or call in for them,” he says. “If you’re not too picky, make a reservation for one of the small, cheap cars. Make another for a nicer car that you might like to rent. When you show up, use the reservation for the smaller car. Ask the rep how much it costs to upgrade to the nicer car you want to rent. If they rate ends up being less than what you reserved the higher-class car at, then do it. If not, use the other reservation. They have to honor reservation rates.”

4. Negotiate your upgrade.
Upgrade rates don’t exist. They’re made up by salespeople. “If you come in with a Ford Focus reservation and were interested in a larger car, I’ll charge an upgrade for you to get into a Ford Escape,” he says. “If you have a Ford Escape reservation and are looking for something more fuel-efficient, I’ll charge you an upgrade to a Ford Focus. This actually happens!” The “fee” is entirely at the salesperson’s discretion, and is entirely negotiable.

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.

6. Complain and you shall receive.
Car rental companies often go to great lengths to make customer happy — even when their grievance are not legit. “Like most companies, we want you to use again — and again and again,” says the insider. “Even some of the most ridiculous complaints that I’ve seen have been resolved by one of my managers. They offered a full refund and a free rental to a customer I knew was full of it. But we want you back so much that an occassional hit is fine.”

  • marge

    Great points! Especially number one. The past four times I have rented a car, they said the car is “pre-inspected”. Make them go over the vehicle with you – they would rather just stay at the desk, of course.

  • Karen Fawcett

    Re damage – I always take photos of the car before leaving the lot. Finding someone to inspect the car with you can take too long and the adage that a picture is better than 1000 words holds true here.

    I may take the photos with my cell phone (making certain that there’s a sign somewhere to back me up) and send the photos to my email account so the date is documented as well.

  • Eagle Lover

    Your item #3 seems rather unethical and inconsiderate. Suppose everyone made multiple reservations–some people would be told there were no cars available when there really are. Both the consumer and the car rental company lose. Bad idea.

  • Aglaia761

    I totally agree with Number 3. When I make leisure reservations that I have to pay for myself, I typically make 2 or 3 reservations and if I show up and the rate is higher I threaten to walk over to another agency.

    Works every time

  • Matthew in NYC

    If you join the frequent rental program (with the right type of credit card elite status is free) you can bypass the rental counter altogether and pick up the car from the lot. That way they have no opportunity to upsell youj.

  • T the B

    Just confirms what I have always assumed- everything they offer in addition to the basic rental is just another way to screw you. Thanks, but no thanks.

  • MVFlyer

    Chris–I’m kinda surprised you’d support #3–this really is a form of fraud–you’d never espouse doing this for airline seats, for example.

    From what your contact says, this is another reason I prefer using kiosks or frequent renter programs like Hertz #1 Gold–I can bypass the hardsell.

  • Joel Wechsler

    I am in total agreement with @Eagle Lover and am surprised, Chris, that you suggest such a thing. I would NEVER tell a client of mine to resort to such tactics. This is akin to holding a business class reservation and canceling at the last minute to improve your chances of getting an upgrade, something which you have written about in the past..

  • Janice Hough

    One thing with making multiple reservations……the more people do it the more car companies overbook. And that means a bigger chance of being at the counter and the agent saying, “sorry, we are waiting for cars to be turned in and cleaned, it’ll just be a little while, we hope.” Not great karma.

  • http://www.autoslash.com Jonathan

    As pointed out above, making multiple reservations to game the system does cause overbooking and leads to problems for others in terms of availability (not to mention bad karma!).

    A better approach is to book one rental, but track the rate of your rental. This way if the price drops, you can re-book at the lower rate. AutoSlash.com does this automatically for you (for free).

    FULL DISCLOSURE — I am the founder of AutoSlash.com.

  • DaveS

    I have to agree about #3. That’s very selfish and unethical. I don’t like the hardsell at all, and am happy to criticize rental companies when they’re in the wrong; but on this one it’s the customer (and this column) that’s wrong.

  • http://www.tpiworldwide.com/gerriwoznesenskytpi Gerri

    I have never received the same make and model of car that I actually have booked online. The selection is always different when I get to the counter. I have also come in with a confirmed reservation only to be told, there are no cars available.

  • http://www.singleparenttravel.net John Frenaye

    The tips were from the “insider” not Chris. And I am a bit confused–is he suggesting multiple reservations at the same agency? Or at different agencies?

  • Joel Wechsler

    @John Frenaye While it is true that the tips came from the “insider” and not from Chris, the mere fact of passing them on under his byline is an implied endorsement. My take is that he (the insider) is suggesting multiple reservations at the same agency. Otherwise there would be a lot of running back and forth from counter to counter.

  • Frank

    I have to say the best rateshave been from “name your own price” at Priceline… I can sometimes get a car for a third less than the lowest I find on-line, and the companies are the majors. Downsides: locked into rental, pay in advance, depends on season… And they still try to upsell you. But it’s like a game to guess how low can I bid and still get a car.

  • Bill R. in Texas

    I don’t like Suggestion # 3. Bogus reservations to save a couple of bucks is unethical.

  • http://takinglibertyseriously.net Taking Liberty Seriously

    Honestly, now! I rent cars 12-15 times per year, and have done so for many years. Nothing I have seen confirms this “insider’s” report.

    What this tells me is that there must be two kinds of car rental company out there, with two different sets of company policies. Maybe, too, there are a few rogue or unprofessional agents. It does not escape my notice, however, that the scary complaints I see on Elliot’s blog seem NEVER to come from the companies that I deal with.

    It would be a real help, to customers and those who really want to provide good service for money, to make some distinctions here.

    And BTW, just to start the process of making distinctions, the companies that I deal with are Budget and Hertz.

  • Barry Graham

    This is why I am glad I am a Hertz No 1 Gold member, Avis First member, etc – I don’t have to deal with this, I bypass the salespeople. On the other hand, they are entitled to make a living just like you and I.

  • Tom M. U-Save Auto Rental

    I own a local car rental agency. “Playing the System” like you suggest in #3 is what causes rental companies to overbook. Overbooking makes for customer disatisfactiopn. Rental companies are seriously looking at requiring a credit card # to hold a car just like the hotel and airline industry does. Dont blame the rental car company. Blame anyone that is selfish enough to tie up 3 or 4 cars in the rental car market just so they can “play”. Bad advice Chris.

  • James

    I have generally used off airport car rental sites as I have known for years they are way cheaper than the airport locations. Based on everything I just read, it may be time for State Attorneys General to rein in the rental car industry and make them actually be liable for any actions that could be considered “unethical”/bordering on fraud. Just my take on the situation. As a side note, IF you rent a car with a Visa card, you DO NOT have to accept car rental insurance as the card will cover that issue for you. Also be sure to check your personal auto insurance policy, because you might just find it covers you in rental cars. My company policy does. I do agree with the “walk around” inspection and possible photos BEFORE you leave the lot, as it WILL remove alot of doubt when you bring the vehicle back. IF the gas gauge needs to be back at the level it was when you got the car; definitely fill up outside the agency lot, whether it is at the airport or at another location. Gas prices are high enough without adding the rental agency fees they charge; which in my humble opinion is a total rip off of customers, and actually could be construed as “price gouging”. Be safe and drive safe.

  • Ed

    “4. Negotiate your upgrade. ”

    I have found that the more reputable car rental companies will treat a customer right regardless.
    Before I hit the rental counter, I check out http://www.gasbuddy.com and see what gas prices are where I’m renting the car. If the price for the tank is decent (minus a reasonable service cost) I will buy the tank of gas. This will usually get me an upgrade. I have done this at several locations (but with only one rental car company…I only rent from one company now) and in each location, they’ve upgraded me when I purchased the tank of gas…it’s kind of a scratch my back thing…

  • Trainer

    regarding #3: totally unethical and downright wrong. However, you can get the same result by making a reservation at a decent rate (I use rentalcarmagic,com to find my lowest price), and then occasssionaly checking back to see if the price has decreased. If it has, I book the lower price, AND cancel the previous reservation.

  • http://buycheapcarsinsurance.com/ kim

    Cheap Cars to insure is something you should consider before buying your next car because you can save money on your insurance or spend more money, when you make your choice. Prices are determined by the insurance companies according to a variety of factors and the type of car you own is very important.

  • Sean Carter

    When I needed a car I found some Vehicle Remarketing that really have put my leasing days behind me