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Why Thrifty Isn’t So Nifty

This weekend, I flew to Atlanta and picked up a rental car to drive almost three hours north to the Chickamauga area in North Georgia. My destination? A regional grassroots leadership development retreat organized by Fast Company readers and Company of Friends members living and working in Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia.

This weekend, I flew to Atlanta and picked up a rental car to drive almost three hours north to the Chickamauga area in North Georgia. My destination? A regional grassroots leadership development retreat organized by Fast Company readers and Company of Friends members living and working in Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia.

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When it comes to airlines and rental cars, I’m not much of a loyalist in Danielle and Alison‘s sense. I buy by price. While I belong to scads of frequent flier and driver — and sleeper — programs, I may miss out on some benefits available through those programs, but more often than not, I just want to get where I’m going as quickly as possible, and as inexpensively as possible.

This weekend, I split my flight legs between AirTrans and United, and I went with Thrifty for the rental. That’s where my trouble began.

I always check whether a rental car location is “in terminal” so I don’t end up taking a shuttle bus three miles away from the airport. The Atlanta airport Thrifty spot was supposedly in terminal but ended up being on a ring road, away from almost all of the rental car services.

When we got there, the car that had been assigned to me wasn’t in its spot, so I had to go inside and get reassigned. The guy at the counter gave me the keys to a white Stratus with Jersey plates parked just in front of the office. I threw my suitcase in the back, got out my directions to Hidden Hollow, and began driving.

About an hour up I-75 or so, the battery warning light turned on. “That’s odd,” I thought, and kept driving. I figured that because the engine was running, I’d charge the battery as I went if it were low. Then, the engine warning light turned on. Nothing seemed mechanically amiss with the car, so I began listening intently to the engine for warning noises and other indicators that something was going on.

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Everything checked out OK until just before exit 306, almost to Dalton. There was a chunka-chunka-chunk noise beneath the car, and the engine began revving and revving, all while losing acceleration. “Time to pull over,” I thought. I pulled off exit 306, around a bend, and into the parking lot of a Wendy’s near a truck stop and a gas station. Once I’d stopped, the car wouldn’t start again.

After checking in at the gas station to see where I could get car repair help if I needed to, I called Thrifty and was connected with Roadside Assistance. The agent who worked with me, Miko, was awesome. She said she’d get someone to bring me a new car — and to tow the old away. She told me they’d be there in an hour. And she told me that they wouldn’t charge me for the day. All I had to do was wait.

And wait. And wait. After almost two hours — giving the tow the benefit of the doubt — I called Miko back. She checked in and said they were on their way, just two miles away. And sure enough, before long, a Paso’s II flat-bed tow pulled in with an “almond” Stratus on its back. The driver — a nice fellow who greeted me with a “Doesn’t get better than this, eh?” — unloaded the new car, handed me the keys, and began handling the old car.

On the road again! Long story short, I’ve been thinking about this in terms of customer service and business travel. All in all, it wasn’t a bad experience. I didn’t lose much time. Miko was helpful. But there are downsides.

One downside is that I got a healthy sunburn. Because the battery was dead and the car wouldn’t start after I pulled over, I couldn’t sit in the sauna of a car without air conditioning for long. And because I didn’t want to miss the arrival of the tow so they knew which car was which, I didn’t feel like hanging out inside somewhere. So I sat outside by the car reading the Journal-Constitution and drinking a Jarritos. I’ve already begun to peel, and I hope it’s less red soon. That said, I’m thankful that I stopped when I did. Had I gone north much further, things on the side of the road would’ve thinned out substantially, and I might have lost cell-phone signal. I stopped in the right place; always try to pull over near a gas station or truck stop, even if you think you can go a little further.

The other downside is Thrifty’s end game. When I went to return the car yesterday, I was doubly disappointed by Thrifty. Not only should they not let a car that begs repair leave the lot, everything that’s happened should be reflected when I check back in. Customer records should be keyed by the customer and trip record, not the car-specific contract. Instead, when I dropped off the car, they had charged me for both days and had no indication that the car had changed. When I went inside to clear things up, the woman at the counter asked which manager I’d talked to. When I said I hadn’t, that Roadside Assistance had handled this, she said she had to check with a manager.

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In the end, they gave me the day’s rental back — a scant $23. They did not take off the taxes for that day, nor the insurance for that day, so I basically ended up paying full rental for almost three hours on the side of the road because of a broken-down Thrifty. Yet it’s interesting. While I will probably not rent from Thrifty in Atlanta again — the staff seems largely disgruntled — I will rent from Thrifty again.

Why? The breakdown seems an anomaly. Rental cars don’t break down. While I could be mad at Thrifty for renting a car that did break down — something they should never do — it’s such an outlier that I can’t quite pin the blame on the company. Besides, perhaps if I’d waited a couple of minutes, the car that had originally been assigned to me — which could’ve been getting refueled or washed — would’ve been ready and brought to its spot. Even though my Atlanta airport experience — on the front and back end — was less than impressive, my interaction with Miko in Roadside Assistance and the fella from Paso’s almost makes up for it. So the problem is Thrifty in Atlanta — local error — not Thrifty systemwide.

Yet I’m wondering about renting cars now:

  • Should you take the insurance they offer?
  • Should you pre-pay to fill the tank instead of getting gas before you return the car? (You pre-pay for the entire tank, not the gas you use, so you really do want to return the car empty.)
  • Why do they round up so drastically? I drove just over 200 miles over the two days, and I was charged for 300. Thrifty rounded up more than 80 miles!
  • What other car rental tactics, tips, and tricks do people have?

Let me know what you’ve learned, and I’ll share this with Donna Williams, author of our Transit Authority feature. Perhaps there’s a future column in this experience!