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 companies -- just using different names, logos, color themes, uniforms and pricing schemes.
Lots of Car Rental Counters -- But Only Three Car Rental Companies
While it seems like there is 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 three major companies. Here is how it falls out:
- Avis owns Budget and Zipcar
- Hertz owns Advantage, Dollar and Thrifty
- Enterprise owns Alamo and National
All told, these three companies own 94% of the car rental industry in America.
To avoid antitrust concerns based on its acquisition of Dollar and Thrifty, Hertz is likely to complete the sale of Advantage to an investor group later this year. Before that happens, though, Hertz will convert all of its foreign Advantage locations to the Hertz brand, so the concentration of ownership will not be reduced by as much as one might think, on a global basis at least.
All of 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 -- they are all the same three companies.
The First 10 Minutes of Your Car Rental
Other Players, Other Options
Despite the near hegemony the three 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, including information on available locations and a little bit about the companies where appropriate.
Ace Rent A Car
- Available at more than 100 locations in the United States, as well as in 16 other countries.
- In 2011, J.D. Power ranked Ace as the top rental car company for customer satisfaction. Unfortunately, Ace's ranking plummeted the following year, 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; more than 3,000 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 16 other countries.
- Buyer beware: customer reviews aren't always complimentary.
Payless Car Rental
- About 40 locations in the US, 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 (for example, in Pennsylvania, a couple of locations are operated out of Ace Hardware stores).
E-Z Rent-A-Car: A few dozen locations worldwide
Sixt: Germany-based agency with locations in more than 100 countries (but only a small handful in the U.S.)
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.
Discount Car Rental Deals
To Find Competition, You Have to Look for It
Not only are your true options limited by the small number of companies "competing" mostly against themselves -- in addition, various marketing partnerships make it tough even to see all the prices from all the players in one place.
For example, not everyone notices when doing routine rental car searches that not all car rental companies show up on all booking engines. This is because marketing partnerships between the major booking companies and the car rental companies work to exclude certain rental car companies from certain Web sites. More specifically, Expedia does not always include Avis-owned companies (Avis and Budget), and Orbitz often passes on Enterprise-owned companies (Alamo, Enterprise and National).
So when you search on one of these sites for a rental car, there well may be far better prices available at your location -- but you can't see them. Go ahead, test it for yourself; do a search on a regular booking site, then compare it to what you can get on Priceline, which shows the greatest number of companies in almost all cases. You will find subtle differences based on where you do your searches, so it is always a good idea to check in more than one place.
It is worth noting that many car rental companies pay high concession fees to the airports that give them privileged access to the main car rental locations -- leaving the smaller players to lease lots that are hopefully within a reasonable distance of the airport. Nonetheless, the mere presence of those smaller players, even off-airport, does tend to push prices down -- that is, unless you are searching on a site on which those smaller players do not appear.
This is why when I went to the rental car counter in Indianapolis myself recently, the agent I spoke to was almost shocked at the price I was paying, especially as compared to the other people standing in the same line with me. This was wholly because I did my searches on a site that shows as many options as possible -- and as a result got a far better price than the other folks who had done much more limited searches.
To solve this problem, at least when researching prices, use a third-party site like Priceline, Hotwire, Kayak or CarRentals.com to see the most options and prices.
Once you've done this, it is worth checking the Web site of whichever car rental company seems to be the cheapest based on your other searches; you may find coupon codes or other discounts there that you won't see elsewhere.
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When a Rental Rate is Not the Rental Rate
Finally, 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 (obviously he did not search one of the more inclusive sites, ouch), for which the final price came to $329.61 -- a price you would have expected to be for nine or 10 days on the evidence. 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.
Car Rental Hidden Costs
No. 1 Tactic for Beating the Rental Car Biz
As I have written numerous times in different contexts over the past 15 years, the best 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, Advantage, Fox, Enterprise, Thrifty, Sixt, Alamo, Budget, Dollar, E-Z Rent-A-Car, National, Hertz and Avis, 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 94 percent of the car prices you will be quoted are for cars from the same 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.