Winner: National's Emerald Club
These days, it seems a company can't be a player in the travel marketplace without a loyalty program. Even car rental companies operate such programs. Rather than focusing on "rewards," however, we believe that the most important loyalty feature for rental cars is the fast lane system each company uses to get travelers from deplaning to driving with a minimum of time and fuss.
Rental car companies use two basic fast lane systems, available at the largest airports, both of which bypass any counters: The first requires travelers to shuttle or walk to a pre-assigned car with a pre-prepared contract, stopping only to show the paperwork to an attendant at the parking gate; the second requires travelers to shuttle or walk to an area and select any car parked there, then drive it off the lot and check paperwork only at the parking gate.
We believe the second approach to the fast lane offers superior convenience. And the rental car loyalty program offering the best such experience this year is National Car Rental's Emerald Club. National's "Emerald Aisle" take-any-car facilities are available at 56 major airport locations. Budget, which has also adopted National's approach, is essentially tied with 58 such facilities.
National, however, wins several tie-breakers over its other competitors:
- Fast lane system: As noted, we prefer the take-any-car approach to the system used by Avis and Hertz. Alamo and Enterprise are out of the running because their programs provide only dedicated lines or automated kiosks, not true fast-lane systems.
- Consumer satisfaction: In three of four available consumer satisfaction surveys (My3Cents, J.D. Power and Associates, and RateItAll), National either tied with Enterprise for first or rated second to Enterprise. (CarReview rated Enterprise and Hertz as tops.)
- Cost: Enrollment in National's program is free. Only Hertz retains an enrollment fee, although the $60 charge is frequently waived in various promotions.
All programs offer some sort of rewards applicable to rental cars, and all are comparable. National gives one credit per rental or for every four consecutive paid days; seven credits earn one free car-day. These programs also offer optional miles in major airline frequent flyer programs, but travelers have to pay more to earn those miles than they're worth.
On the downside, none of the big rental car companies wins any trophies for honesty in pricing. All of them add, as separate fees, charges that are really a component of the companies' basic cost of doing business and should be treated as such. None of these companies is appreciably better or worse than others in this regard. And they all grossly overprice collision damage waiver (CDW)—and then figure out ways to discourage travelers from using the no-charge coverage that so many credit cards offer.
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Most Customer-Friendly Airline | Best Free Airline Perk | Best Coach-Class Experience | Best Value Airline | Best Value Destination | Best Hotel Loyalty Program | Best Rental Car Loyalty Program | Best Travel Rewards Card for Domestic Use | Best Travel Rewards Card for Overseas Use | Best Travel Rewards Card for ATM Use | Best Airline Website | Best Use of Social Media | Most Pet-Friendly Airline for Checked Pets | Most Pet-Friendly Airline for Carry-On Pets | Most Eco-Friendly Airline | Best Airport for Layovers | Best Airport for Connections