Wait No More

Car-rental agencies are finally, cautiously rolling out high-tech time-saving solutions.

Online check-in and on-site kiosks have quickly revolutionized the way we get through airports and hotels. Renting a car, however, has remained a stubbornly retro experience. The companies do have their reasons: "We need to validate your driver's license, and we're giving you a $20,000 asset, not just renting you a seat or room," says Jerry Dow, chief marketing officer of Alamo/National parent Vanguard Car Rental USA Inc. But still. Mercifully, changes are afoot, though unfortunately no one company has all the answers. Each is addressing different problems, so you'll have to decide what's most important to you.

Pickup: Alamo and National are making the boldest moves, rolling out self-check-in kiosks at airport locations nationwide. The machines function much like the airlines', letting you skip the queue and print your own rental agreement. Better yet, you can do it in advance, online. Swipe or enter your driver's-license information, and the agency's computers automatically cross-check your data, just as a counter person would. The lot attendant checks your ID, scans the bar code on your printout, and off you go. By summer, Alamo will have kiosks in 80 cities, and National will have them in 70 locations.

In-car Conveniences: Several agencies are testing ways to let renters blow through highway toll plazas without opening their wallets. Dollar or Thrifty customers in Dallas pay $10 a day for unlimited passage on the North Texas Tollway Authority roads and bridges. The program relies on PlatePass technology, which recognizes vehicles' license plates without the need for a transponder on the windshield. Hertz, Avis, and Budget are deploying PlatePass in Texas, too, and E-Z Pass along the East Coast. Avis, for example, will rent you an E-Z Pass transponder for $1.50 a day, plus tolls.

Drop-off: Dollar and Thrifty are field-testing technologies that promise to eliminate the maddening wait for an attendant to read your gauges. An RFID device measures mileage and fuel data, which would let you simply grab your receipt and board the shuttle. Avis tested something similar; right now, it's focused instead on offering to email you a receipt so there's no wait for a paper copy. Behind the scenes, Dollar and Thrifty shuttle-bus dispatchers are even using GPS technology to ensure their vans are staggered properly. Now all you need to worry about is catching your flight. What took them so long?

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