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Car Rental Racket: How to Avoid the Upsell

The upsell has long been an essential part of a salesperson’s toolbox: “If you like that, you really should have a look at this. It’s only a few dollars more …” We’ve all heard it at some point, and many of us have even gone for it.

The tactic is especially prevalent at “big box” retailers like Best Buy, where executives have recently made a battery of upsell tactics a central part of their bid to rescue the faltering retailer. (Ever been offered an extended warranty or a store credit card?) Unfortunately, some business writers believe a critical reason for Best Buy’s decline is the use of aggressive upselling tactics to try to improve revenue when they should have focused on improving the customer experience.

And now the upsell has come to travel. It used to be that many travel purchases were relatively straightforward, but that is no longer the case; airlines have “unbundled” fares such that almost everything except water will cost more, hotels are following suit, and cruise pricing deserves a whole feature of its own.

Every trip through an airline website, even if only to check flight status, offers you more chances to spend money — some of which probably shouldn’t be available for purchase at all. For example, when checking in for a flight, I get that the airline can offer to sell us a better class of service, more legroom or even a spot in the front of the line to board the plane; these are things over which the airlines do and should have some control, and they figured out they can charge us for them.

But should the airlines really be able to sell us the right to go through expedited security lanes? Security is run by a federal agency and funded by taxpayers, but some airlines let you pay extra for dedicated security lanes, with the pitch to “get to your gate faster.”

Yes, folks, your own government security agency is in on the upsell. The tactic has become a routine part of the travel-buying experience — but no one is more aggressive about the upsell than the car rental counter agent.

How Payless Tried to Get Us to Pay More

What happens these days at the typical car rental counter is not only upsell, but borders on fear-mongering and occasionally even outright lies. At least that was the case at a Payless car rental counter a couple of weeks ago.

On a recent family visit to her home town in Seattle, my wife made the reservations, including a standard-class car rental from Payless. She had never used Payless, but Seattle was in peak summer tourist season, and most of the better-known car rental agencies were sold out. After landing at SeaTac, we made our way to the rental counter and my wife presented her reservation to the agent.

“How much luggage do you have?” was the first thing the agent said.

“We have two large bags, and a couple of smaller bags,” my wife responded.

“Because the car you reserved is a Volkswagen Beetle,” the agent said.

My wife replied that she had chosen a standard-sized car specifically because we would have several pieces of luggage, and that a Beetle could not be a standard-sized car, as it has almost no trunk.

“Well, you have a Beetle,” the agent said. “That is what you are getting. I can upgrade you to an SUV since you have so much luggage. It will be an extra $280 total.”

“We don’t need an SUV, we just need a standard-sized car,” my wife said, waving me over from where I was goofing off with our son.

“Okay, well, the Beetle also has no air-conditioning and no power windows, so I can upgrade you to a full-size car that will hold all your luggage,” the agent said. “That would only be $160 more. Do you want me to upgrade you to a full-size car?”

Now crammed in at the counter, I pulled up our reservation as well as the Payless website on my phone. The reservation clearly showed a standard car, which the Payless site indicated should be a four-door “Ford Fusion or similar.” The site also showed a graphic with five people, four large bags and zero small bags corresponding to a standard car. I showed the pictures of the car and the capacity to the agent, but she wouldn’t be swayed. “The car you are getting is a Volkswagen Beetle,” she repeated.

My wife and I decided just to go check the Beetle to see if our luggage would fit inside, and the agent proceeded with the rest of the reservation.

“You will want insurance, or otherwise you are liable for anything that happens,” she said.

“My own insurance will cover me, along with my credit card company,” my wife said.

“Not in Washington,” the agent said. “Insurance is different in Washington, and you need liability insurance, which won’t be covered. Should I sign you up for the coverage?”

Given that my wife learned to drive and got her first license in the state, this was news to her. It was also news to her Seattle-lifers family when we told them about it later. Since that time, I have done quite a bit of research on car rental insurance in Washington, and can find nothing that sets it apart from car rental insurance pretty much anywhere else — except these reviews on Yelp, which make it seem like this happens a LOT at the SeaTac Payless counter.

My wife declined the coverage, but it wasn’t over. If we declined insurance, we had to get roadside assistance, the agent said.

“I have AAA, so I’m covered,” my wife said. “We just need the car.”

Finally, the agent said that if our luggage did not fit in the Beetle, we would have to come back and get in line to upgrade. We said we would risk it, my wife initialed all the papers and we headed for the garage.

As we walked, I called Payless’s main customer service number and explained the situation. The representative was understanding, but said that each location manages its own fleet, and she could not say explicitly what type of car we should be given, although it did sound odd. So I asked the following: Based just on common sense, what class of car would you think a Volkswagen Beetle would be?

“Well, based on common sense, I would think it would be a compact,” the phone representative said with admirable honesty.

Exactly my thought, I replied, especially since the Beetle has been famous since for about a half-century mainly for its compact size.

While I was on the phone, we arrived at the booth where they actually hand out the keys, and my wife mentioned to the attendant that she was told she had a Beetle, despite having rented a standard car. She asked if we could check whether our luggage would fit.

“Not again,” the attendant said. “I told them to stop telling people that, but they keep doing it. We don’t even have a Beetle here.”

And he gave us keys to a perfectly suitable standard-sized Kia Optima, which gobbled up all our luggage without a hitch, and we loaded up and left.

A Normal Day at the Car Rental Counter

Not every trip to a car rental counter will be as bad as this one, but that doesn’t mean you won’t encounter some pretty hardcore upsell tactics. Most agents won’t outright lie about their fleets, but it is pretty routine that aggressive (if not quite mendacious) pressure tactics are applied.

Here are the most common of upsell pitches you might hear:

– You need insurance — most people’s insurance does not cover everything that can happen.

– Okay, you don’t need full insurance, but you do need this one type of insurance that we are definitely going to exploit if anything happens, and it is not in most normal car policies; have you read your complete policy?

– It is better if you have us fill up the gas tank when you return. The gas stations near the airport charge more than we do.

– The bumper-to-bumper coverage is highly recommended in case anything happens — like if a stone hits your windshield, or if someone hits you in a parking lot, or if it starts to hail …

One quick note on mendacities: On two of my last three trips when an agent mentioned the local gas prices, they overstated the prices in the area by 10 cents. It’s not a ton of money, but a lot of little lies adds up to not a lot of confidence on your next visit, that is for sure.

Not Every Upsell is Awful

It’s important to note that not every upsell attempt is unsavory or even unwelcome. On two or three occasions in the past year, an agent offered an extremely well-priced upgrade that I was glad to accept. One was an upgrade from an economy car to a full-size car for an extra $3 per day on a three-day rental — a much bigger car for $10, sold!

The reason for the upgrade was that the lot was running low on economy vehicles but had too many full-size cars, and the agency was willing to rent out some of the larger cars at reduced prices until their inventory returned to a normal balance.

So while you may not want to shut down the agent’s pitches entirely, for those parts of the pitch you aren’t going to need and don’t want to hear, I have some suggestions.

How to Counter the Rental Counter Upsell

Before you reach the counter, you will want to:

– Know which class and type of car you rented.

– Understand your insurance coverage.

– Know whether you want to purchase the rental company’s gas deals.

– String it all together in one sentence when you step up to the counter.

Here is what I say: “Hello, my name is Ed Hewitt, I should have a reservation for a compact car.” Then, while the agent is looking up the reservation, I continue with, “I checked with my insurance company and don’t need any extra coverage; I will fill up the gas tank myself on my way back to the airport, so I don’t need any fuel plan.”

At that point, the agent may half-heartedly mention that gas costs more outside the airport than in the service they offer, or pitch a bumper-to-bumper comprehensive insurance package, but overall at this point the hard upsell is diffused, and he or she will usually just process your reservation.

Then get in your car and get out of there before they try to sell you a bridge.

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