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Drive up your mileage balance with car rentals

SmarterTravel

Your mile-earning opportunities don’t end the moment you step off an airplane. In fact, they’re just beginning. One of the additional ways you can earn miles during your travels is through car rentals. You can pick up some quick miles when you rent a car, but be prepared to pay for the privilege.

Who’s got the miles?

Most of the rental companies you’re likely to use offer airline miles. Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz, National, and Thrifty partner with most major U.S. carriers. You can also earn miles with a few airlines on Europcar and Sixt.

Miles earnings vary by rental company and often by airline as well. Typical rates are 50 miles per day (sometimes with a maximum earning cap) or 250 to 500 miles per rental. For example, you can earn 50 United miles per day for one- to four-day rentals with Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, and National. Rentals over five days with these companies earn a flat rate of 500 miles per rental. United frequent flyers can also earn 300 miles per rental with Dollar and Thrifty or 500 miles with Sixt.

In contrast, American offers 50 miles per day with most rental companies. The exception is Hertz; AAdvantage members earn one mile per dollar spent on their rental charges. So be sure to check with your airline and rental company to understand how many miles you will receive for your rental.

How to earn miles

Usually, you won’t need to time your rental with a flight to earn airline miles, but some airline-car rental relationships do require proof of a flight. You will need to provide your frequent flyer membership number at the time of your rental, usually when you are completing paperwork at the pickup counter. You can also give your member number when you first reserve your rental car, but it’s best to double check at pickup. Miles can take up to eight weeks to post, so car rentals are not the way to round up your account balance in a pinch.

Also, only the primary renter can earn miles for any car rental. So if you’re traveling with another miles earner, you should volunteer to be the driver so you can receive miles.

Alternately, you can join a rental company’s own loyalty program. You can earn points toward free rentals and receive perks like car-class upgrades and faster pickup. If you want the perks but prefer to earn miles, you can add your designated airline to your member profile and automatically receive miles when you present your frequent renter number.

The frequent flyer surcharge

Unlike other mileage partners, car rental companies charge a “Frequent Flyer Tax Recovery Surcharge” for renters who wish to earn miles. The companies add this fee to offset the excise tax car companies pay when purchasing miles from airlines. The surcharge isn’t hefty; you’ll pay 50 cents per rental day, up to a maximum of two dollars per rental.

If you earn 50 miles per day for a one- to four-day rental, you’re essentially buying the miles at a price of one cent per mile. You get an even better rate if you earn 500 miles per rental; the maximum surcharge of two dollars translates to a per-mile price of less than half a cent.

Sure, it would be better to get the miles for free. But as miles are currently valued around 1.5 cents per mile, you’re buying car rental miles at a competitive rate. So you shouldn’t let the surcharge deter you from earning miles for car rentals.

A few hundred miles may sound too small to bother about, but you might regret that thought when you find yourself just shy of an award threshold. So the next time you find yourself at the rental counter, consider handing over your frequent flyer card. A few cents is worth it for a future free flight.

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