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Rental Car Bells and Whistles

If you are a gray-haired or perhaps salt-and-pepper business traveler, you’ll remember the days when Hertz, Avis, and, to a lesser extent, National had a lock on the in-airport rental car real estate. Your options were simple and convenient if not premium-priced. Now Budget, Thrifty, Dollar, Alamo, and even the suburban stalwart Enterprise have wiggled their way into airports across the country.

This increase in competition has meant that the rental car companies have studied their marketing textbooks and are driving home premium services and features as points of differentiation. The following is a primer on premium services — express service and loyalty programs — and premium features such as in-car navigation and emergency road assistance. In a future installment of Transit Authority, we will follow up with a guide to the services offered by each company.

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Express Service and Loyalty Programs

Express service programs are designed to get you in and out of the rental car center as quickly as possible. Loyalty programs are designed to keep you coming back.

The express service and loyalty programs fall into five benefit categories. Some companies offer multi-level programs so the distinction between an express service program and a loyalty program may not be clear cut.

Benefits include:

  • Express pick-up service: This service lets you bypass the counter and go directly to your car. This is a big time saver. Currently, this is only offered by Advantage, Avis, Budget, Hertz, and National.
  • Express check in: The rental car company maintains your profile (name, address, credit card number, drivers license information, and rental history) and preferences (insurance options, car class, and premium services) on file, speeding up the check-in process.
  • Express counter check in: A dedicated counter service designed to expedite check in for loyalty program members. Some companies, at select locations, also have self-serve express check-in kiosks where you can pick up your paperwork and proceed directly to your car.
  • Express return: Allows you to avoid checking out at a counter; you’ll either drop your contract in a drop box (remember to fill in mileage and fuel levels) and get your receipt in the mail, or be met by a representative with a handheld computer that processes your receipt immediately.
  • Loyalty programs: Offering frequent flier miles or points in other partner programs; you will be charged a nominal 5-7 cents per rental day frequent flier tax recovery surcharge for this service. Hertz charges a frequent flier surcharge of 50 cents per day up to a maximum of $2 per rental. Some companies have their own frequent renter programs that allow you to earn credit toward free rentals.

Other Features and Services

The following table details which rental car agencies offer which premium features; the features themselves are discussed following the table.

Feature Offered By
Emergency road assistance Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National
Cell phone rental Budget, Dollar
In-car GPS navigation Avis, Hertz
Satellite radio Avis, Hertz

Emergency Road Assistance

This service provides a toll-free number for you to call if your rental car needs service while you’re traveling, or if you need emergency help. If your rental car company doesn’t offer this service or charges, remember to bring along your AAA membership card, if you have one.

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Cell Phone Rental

A few rental companies offer the option to rent in-car cell phones. There is typically a low daily fee and high per-minute fees — plus applicable usage taxes. You’ll also need to leave a credit card deposit.

In-Car GPS Navigation

In-car navigation systems use satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) technology to identify exactly where you are at any time. A dashboard-mounted display shows you how to get wherever you are going, via either visual map displays or voice commands. This is useful if you’re driving through an unfamiliar and difficult-to-navigate area. Avis recently announced its nationwide rollout of its service.

Satellite Radio

Satellite radio offers hundreds of channels of music, sports, news, and entertainment, delivered via the XM or Sirius satellite services. Many channels are commercial free, and they stay available no matter where you drive. This is a popular feature if you’re traveling long distances by car.