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Price Isn’t Everything When Renting a Car

Whether you’re traveling for business or leisure, price isn’t everything when you rent a car. Quite a few other important factors influence your choice of rental company and car model.

Airport convenience

More often than not, you’ll start and end your rental at an airport. Clearly, then, on those trips, you’ll want to rent from a company with an office at or near your destination airport(s). The best of all possible worlds are those small airports (like Medford, Oregon; my home airport) where rental counters are a few feet from the baggage conveyor and the cars are parked right outside the terminal. But at a mega-airport, you have to settle for a rental desk adjacent to baggage claim, a reasonably convenient lot, and either an easy walk or frequent shuttle service to and from the terminals.

I’m especially partial to rental companies that provide some sort of “fast track” rental system where you can bypass the rental desk entirely and instead proceed directly from the arrivals terminal to your car. The completed contract is hanging from the rear-view mirror when you get there—all you do is put your bags in the trunk, drive to the gate, show your ID, and hit the road. You don’t have to wait in line and hassle with the contract details; the company’s computer has all your data stored and automatically generates your contract each time you rent. Slick.

City convenience

Of course, on other trips, you may want to take a shuttle to your hotel or the residence of a relative or friend and rent the car a day or two later. Or, you may want to rent off-airport to avoid the horrendous extra fees that some airports pile onto car rental base rates. On that sort of trip, you’ll want a rental company with offices in major hotels and in residential and commercial areas.

Regional and national networks

If your driving is confined to a single metro area, nationwide networks aren’t important. But if you’re driving between cities—or visiting several states—you’ll want a company with good coverage everywhere you’re going. That way, if you have any car problems, you can exchange vehicles quickly, keep to your schedule, and let the rental company worry about fixing the car.

Driving limitations

Business or leisure trips can often require you to drive outside the state in which you rent your car. Unfortunately, some companies place geographical limits on where you can drive—or at least where you can drive without having to pay more than the advertised rate. Sure, you might get away with violating those restrictions, but that’s a risky gamble: If anything goes wrong outside the permitted driving area, you’ve violated the contract and are potentially subject to significant penalties. Also, some companies use GPS to keep track of where you drive. Better rent from a company that doesn’t impose such limits.

Rent it here, drop it there

Occasionally, you might want to pick up a car at one airport and return it at another. Some companies allow no-charge returns to different locations within the same state. So you could, for example, start the rental in Los Angeles, do business in Bakersfield and Fresno—or drive through Yosemite and play some golf in Monterey—and end your trip in San Francisco, paying the same rate you’d pay to return the car in Los Angeles.

Additional drivers

If you’re on a business trip, you may want to alternate driving with a colleague; on vacation, chances are you’ll want to share some of the driving chores with your spouse or other family member. Some rental companies sock you with stiff additional driver charges for spouses or business associates; others don’t.

Car model

In my experience, the biggest mistake travelers make when renting cars is to be too chintzy in the model they select. Unless you’re just running local errands, you’ll probably spend many hours in the car. Unfortunately, rear seats in economy and compact cars don’t provide full-size people enough legroom, and almost no cars are really comfortable for more than two people per row. Whether on business or vacation, a travel party of three or more adults requires at least an intermediate model—and maybe even a full-size car. With more than four sizable travelers, consider a vehicle with three seat rows: a wagon, SUV, or minivan. Look for a rental company with a good selection of models with adequate room.

Gasoline policy

The least expensive way to deal with gasoline in a rental car is to rent the car with a full tank and return it with a full tank. So you’ll want to rent from a company that offers that option. If you’re late for your flight home, you might decide to return the car less than full, in which case you’ll pay a stiff per-gallon price for refueling. But that would be your choice—on most trips, just take the time to top off the tank just before you return the car.

Optional extras

I’ve become a big fan of GPS navigation systems when I’m driving in unfamiliar areas. They’re really much more convenient than using maps—especially if you’re traveling alone and have to keep pulling over to the side of the road to check your progress. Unless I know the territory well, I’m happy to pay the extra fee for a good GPS system.

I also like the idea of satellite radio. In all too many parts of the country, local radio is a wasteland of talk and music I have no interest in hearing. Satellite provides a tremendous range of choices—news, sports, talk, and more varieties of music than you knew existed. That’s another extra-fee option that may be worth the price, especially on extended trips in unfamiliar areas.

If you have a child in your travel party, a safety seat is imperative. If you don’t take it with you as baggage, make sure your rental company can provide one.
Depending on what kind of trip you’re taking, you might need a ski rack, bicycle rack, or some other specialized equipment. Make sure your rental company can provide whatever you need.

In sum

“People aren’t interested in anything but price,” say many travel industry mavens. “Not so,” counter others; “you get what you pay for.” Those two contrasting bits of conventional wisdom about travel buying represent the two extremes of the spectrum. And, as with so many generalizations, neither is wholly right or wholly wrong.

As far as I can tell, air travel comes closer to the “price is everything” model, while hotel accommodations tend more toward the “pay for what you want” mode. And rental cars are somewhere in the middle: Sure, price is important, but you have to balance it against a long list of convenience factors.

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