After a long day of travel to Indianapolis, Adam James, an IT professional from Oxnard, CA, endured all the upgrade pitches and gasoline option explanations at the airport Budget counter before the agent finally handed him his contract, saying, "You can go to the Avis lot to pick up your car."
Surprised, James went to the Avis lot -- and sure enough, there was his Budget rental car parked in the exact spot in the Avis lot the agent told him it would be.
Upon returning to the airport a few days later for his return flight, James found the Budget return lanes closed, but saw a sign that said to return the car to Avis. "I pulled in, and an Avis representative came out to meet me, inspected the car, gave me a receipt and said thanks," he recalls.
James asked if the Budget folks would be okay with this, and was assured they would be -- and having picked up the car from Avis, he decided it was okay to return it to Avis, and headed to the terminal to catch his flight.
So what was going on -- were the Avis employees giving their car rental counter neighbor Budget employees a bit of help? Did one company do all the inspections for everyone? And since the frequency of post-rental damage and other claims by rental companies is on the rise, is returning a car to someone other than the exact company from which you rented it something travelers need to worry about?
It turns out that these folks who appear to be working together are actually all working for the same company -- just using different names, logos, color themes, uniforms and pricing schemes.
Lots of Car Rental Counters -- But Only Three Car Rental Companies
While there seems to be a heap of competition along the bank of car rental counters at the airport, in truth most U.S. agencies are owned by one of a few major companies. Here is how it falls out:
- Avis owns Budget and Zipcar
- Hertz owns Dollar and Thrifty
- Enterprise owns Alamo and National
- Advantage owns E-Z Rent-A-Car
This means that when you walk into the rental car building at the airport and notice that a lot of the companies seem to share the same office spaces behind the counter, and the same pick-up areas, and the same lots, and the same drop-off personnel, now you know why -- there's actually much less competition than there appears to be.
Other Players, Other Options
Despite the near hegemony the big conglomerate agencies enjoy, there are some viable and attractive options for travelers who are willing to do a little research (more on this below) and poking around. Where you find additional rental car companies, you find increased competition, more choice and almost always lower prices. Here are some of the more widely available options.
Ace Rent A Car
- Available at more than 350 locations around the world.
- In 2011, J.D. Power ranked Ace as the top rental car company for customer satisfaction. Unfortunately, it hasn't maintained its high standing, but the company might still be worth a look if its rates are competitive where you're going.
- Despite the name, not limited to Europe; thousands of locations worldwide including several dozen locations in the U.S.
- Some locations are run on a franchise basis, so the service may vary from one to another.
Fox Rent A Car
- Available at dozens of locations in the U.S., as well as 20+ other countries.
- Buyer beware: customer reviews aren't always complimentary.
Payless Car Rental
- More than 100 locations in the U.S., with dozens more in 20+ countries
- Like Europcar, many locations are run on a franchise basis, so the manner in which they are run may vary. Additionally, some locations are not located in or near airports.
- Germany-based agency with 4,000+ locations in more than 100 countries
Additionally, there are local companies in many countries around the world that could also offer competitive rates if you know to look for them. Try searching on the country name and "car rental" to try to find them. A good guidebook will list them too.
One important caveat is that some of these companies may maintain "off-airport" lots, so it could take a little more effort to get to from the airport. That said, the mere presence of these companies near big airports can hold prices down at the other, on-airport rental companies, so you win on price and convenience in one shot.
When a Rental Rate is Not the Rental Rate
When pricing a rental, be sure you understand the "all-in" price, as opposed to the daily rate quote. On a recent car rental in San Francisco, Rick Rosenbladt, a teacher from New Brunswick, NJ, booked a four-day, $32.50-per-day rental, for which the final price came to $329.61 -- a price you would have expected to be for nine or 10 days. He purchased a few things you might not have to -- the Collision Damage Waiver, Personal Accident Insurance, Roadside Assistance Protection -- and then returned the car three-quarters of the way empty before a very early morning flight, which cost him another $50 -- but even without those, he still incurred nearly $60 in ancillary fees. To wit:
Concession Recovery Fee: $28.34
Airport Access Fee: $20
Tourism Fee: $3.71
County Business License Tax: $6.38
Then there was another $14.25 in sales tax, bringing the total fees and taxes to $72.68, well over the cost of two days' actual rental.
Why so many fees? Well, these are exceptionally popular with local legislators, who find they can pass fees on tourists and non-residents without much political fallout. So the next time you watch the Sun Bowl, know that if you've ever rented a car in El Paso, you probably paid for those teams to be able to attend.
No. 1 Tactic for Beating the Rental Car Biz
As I have written numerous times in different contexts over the past 15 years, my favorite place to get a great rental car price is Priceline. It posts prices for the majority of rental car companies; a recent Priceline search I did for a rental at SeaTac showed pricing for Payless, Fox, Enterprise, Thrifty, Sixt, Alamo, Budget, Dollar, E-Z Rent-A-Car, National, Hertz, Avis and Firefly, and included information showing that each one was "On Airport," which allowed true comparison by price without sacrificing convenience. And more importantly, Priceline's Name Your Own Price option is the best way to get the best price, bar none.
While blind booking on hotels with Priceline can be risky, with a car rental you are not surrendering quality in the least. If the vast majority of prices you will be quoted are for cars from the same handful of companies, in the same buildings and on the same airport lots, there clearly isn't much difference from one to the next. Rental cars are one travel essential where Gertrude Stein holds sway: a rental car is a rental car is a rental car.