Avis just added a new "Select and Go" feature to its longstanding Avis Preferred frequent-renter program. As before, you preregister your driver's license, credit card, preferences and other required information with Avis. Then, when you rent from Avis at any of its larger airport locations, you bypass the rental counter and go directly to your car—either a shuttle drops you off next to the car or you can walk to its parking space.
That service has been around for quite a while. What's new with Select and Go is that you can not only go right to your car but also select a different make or model from the same group, if you see something you like better. You can also elect to upgrade to a specialty car for a higher rate, but in either case you can make the switch without having to go back to the rental desk. Just show the paperwork on your way out of the lot and be on your way.
Select and Go is currently available at six U.S. airports and will be added at 18 more by August, ultimately increasing to 50 locations in the United States. Avis does not charge extra for membership in Avis Preferred or for use of Select and Go.
More than 60 years ago, Avis pioneered the industry's first stored-information "Wizard" program, later copied by most other rental companies. This time, however, Avis is playing catch-up: Three other big renters already offer similar programs.
- As far as I know, National was first on the scene with its Emerald Aisle choose-your-own-car deal. And National still features it in their nationwide advertising. As National promotes, you join the Emerald program, preregister, reserve a midsize car and when you get to the rental station, go to the parking area and select any available car, usually including some in higher categories. Emerald Aisle is available at 60 U.S. airports and at five in Canada.
- Alamo, National's corporate stable mate, offers a similar program. With Online Check-in, you can also bypass the counter: Check in online, download the rental documents, and when you arrive go right to the car area, taking either the car preassigned to you or selecting a different one from the same size group. Online Check-in is available at 42 U.S. airports.
- Hertz calls its pick-a-car system Gold Choice. It works about the same way as the new Avis program, and it's available at 48 U.S. airports, plus five in Europe. Unlike the other companies, Hertz still charges a nominal $60 membership fee for its Number 1 Club Gold membership. Currently, however, Hertz is promoting a "limited-time" offer through September 30 of "free" membership. In addition, several premium credit cards include Hertz Gold as a no-charge benefit.
As far as I can tell, the other two big rental companies—Budget and Enterprise—do not offer select-your-car options, nor do any of the second-tier companies I checked. But given the apparent market traction National finds with its TV commercials, I wouldn't be surprised to see Budget come out with a "me, too" system in the near future. Enterprise, which concentrates on in-town rather than airport locations, is a bit iffier, and in any event, it offers a selection capability through National, which it owns.
The selection programs are confined to large airport locations. But at thousands of other airport and city locations, most big rental companies operate membership programs that store personal data online and allow renters to bypass rental counters.
If you rent cars frequently, I see no downside to joining one or more of the car-rental membership programs. At the least, you can save time and hassle by prearranging most of your rentals and bypassing counter lines. Moreover, many of these rental company programs include various systems for earning either airline miles or "free" rentals.
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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.