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Car Rental Loyalty Programs: What You Need to Know

If you’re reading this, chances are good you are a member of a frequent flier program, even if it is simply to accumulate miles when you use a credit card. On the other hand, how many readers are members of frequent car rental programs? It’s a fair bet that audience is much smaller.

What’s the point, right? A car rental is one of the last things most travelers tend to, costs less than everything else you book, and would seem to inspire the least brand loyalty — an Aveo is an Aveo whether you get it from Enterprise, Hertz or the folks who try harder (not to mention all the other guys who try pretty hard, I guess, and often charge less).

Even the car rental companies themselves haven’t always been quite sure of the value of the programs. While frequent flier programs started showing up in 1981, Hertz was the first to join as a partner, but it wasn’t until 1987 that National introduced the first car rental program. Not long afterward, Hertz reversed their position on the programs, withdrawing from all partnerships in 1990. Hertz soon noticed a significant loss of market share, however, and quickly rejoined several programs; Hertz is a member of 20 programs today.

In an airline program, you can get valuable upgrades and free flights. With some car rental prices as low as $7 – $8 a day, why join a car rental program — to get a free day? The time you spend signing up is barely worth $7. But it might not be money you save. If gaining half an hour and losing half a headache on every trip sounds like a good idea, you might consider a car rental loyalty program.

By the time you reach the car rental pickup counter, I reckon you’ve already simmered in anywhere from 4 to 10 lines or waiting areas since you left your house — lines at check-in, security, your gate, the luggage carousel, and maybe even customs or the shuttle bus stop in the parking lot.

If someone promised you could skip that last counter, which can be one of the slowest and, once you deal with all the hardsells and upsells, one of the most uncomfortable and confusing experiences, would you take them up on it?

The #1 Reason to Join a Car Rental Loyalty Program

… as you may have deduced from the comments above, is shorter or non-existent lines — that is, line-cutting. The time you save may vary by airport or rental location; at some you will find automated kiosks that function almost identically to airline check-in kiosks. Using your loyalty card, you can print out your “ticket” — in this case a contract containing all your preferences — and head straight to the rental lot for your car, where you may even find the keys in the ignition. As you leave the rental lot, an attendant will usually check your contract, and you’re gone. In some cases, this could take you less than five minutes.

On a recent trip, Cruise Critic editor Carolyn Spencer Brown bypassed the rental counter entirely with a free Club level membership with Hertz. “We didn’t have to wait in line, we didn’t have to fill out any paperwork — we just jumped right in the car. It was great!”

At other locations you may find instead an elite access lane or counter much like those at airline check-in. You may still need to stop at the counter, but you’ll speed to the front of the line upon arrival. In most cases, your preferences are stored in your account, and the entire transaction is accelerated appreciably.

Goodbye Hardsell: Preferences on File

One of the most annoying parts of renting a car is stiff-arming insurance and refueling upsells at the rental counter. Even for veteran travelers, it’s rarely clear what you are signing away when you scribble your signature several times on your car rental contract. The language of the upsell makes it sound like you are doomed without it, and if you haven’t specifically checked with your auto insurance or credit card company (which we recommend — read more in Car Rental Hidden Costs), it’s hard to know how well you are actually covered. Same for refueling options; you know that refueling the tank yourself is the most affordable option, yet you hear the same pointless pitch every time.

To spare you the spiel and the time, most car rental loyalty programs store your preferences and apply them to every rental you make. No more upsells, checkboxes, initials or signatures — just the keys to the car, thanks.

Not only do you save time at the rental counter, but with all of your preferences already on file, subsequent bookings are faster as well, as you don’t have to fill in or restate all the same info with every rental.

Loyalty Card as Insurance Card

In addition to expedited check-ins, Chris Elliott sees his car rental loyalty card as an insurance policy against counter agent overzealousness or error. “Join the club … because your car rental company will give you the benefit of the doubt when you really screw up,” he writes. “For example, I’ve run up huge fuel charges and even used the car an extra day, but once I waved my preferred card (which I use less than once a year) all those charges suddenly disappear.”

What About Price?

Car rentals are yet another tractable travel commodity; the price is whatever you can get from the agent at the time. There may be any number of possible promotions in place — one for AARP members, one for AAA members, others for AAdvantage members. (It’s almost like there is some special discount to be found for anyone who can do their ABC’s.)

In practice, you can even be your own special constituency simply by asking at the time of booking: “Is this the best price I am eligible for?” I’ve used this tactic a few times, and was given the best deal available at the time, irrespective of age or association.

The upside to being a member is that discounts in the 5 to 20 percent range are almost routine for program members, and your negotiating position is greatly enhanced. On a recent trip, university professor Clifford Hughes inquired about any applicable discounts, and was asked if he was an AAA member. “No, but I am an Avis member,” he replied. The agent responded that he was eligible for the best discount currently on offer, which turned out to be identical to the AAA offer. He ended up renting his car for less than $7 a day.

Additional benefits may include waived additional driver charges for your spouse or domestic partner, discounts on child seat rentals, and e-mail and members-only discounts.

Free or Paid Programs?

Many car rental companies offer two membership tiers, one free and one paid. The primary difference appears to be expedited service; Hertz’s #1 Club Gold level, priced at $60 annually, boasts the following over the regular Club level: “Speed and Expedited Service — At over 40 of the world’s busiest airports, there’s no stopping at any counters. And, at over 1,000 locations around the world, simply go to the specially designated Gold counters, show your driver’s license and pick up your keys.”

However, accounts from several travelers seem to indicate that this level of service is available to regular Club members as well. Note that Brown’s hop-in-the-car experience mentioned above was as a free #1 Club member. I’m sure there are cases where the Gold membership will move you along faster, but it’s not clear that you really need it.

Not all rental companies offer multiple tiers. For example, Hertz and Budget do, while Avis and Enterprise do not. Although it might take only a few discounted rentals to recover your annual fee, paid programs may be best left for folks who travel heaps and are likely to have opportunity to use the same rental car company on multiple trips. They also work well for corporate travelers (especially when the company pays the tab for the fee).

For everyone else, being forced into using the same company may not seem so attractive when you find a much lower price at a competitor, which is not an uncommon occurrence. If you rent cars only a few times each year, opt for free programs. You can sign up right at the time of booking.

Which Car Rental Loyalty Program Is Best for You?

As with frequent flier programs, car rental loyalty programs don’t vary too greatly; your best approach is to take a look at which companies you use most often, and join those clubs.

In fact, airline partnerships may be a good way to decide which programs to join; you may be more likely to use a car rental compay that will put miles in your preferred airline account. Be sure to sign up for those.

As an aside, with respect to applying miles and rentals toward frequent flier partner programs, there is neither a penalty nor an exceptional benefit to joining a car rental program, as you’ll be able to apply rental miles to participating airline programs either way. You may qualify for bonus miles here and there, of course, which could be to your liking.

All told, the only disincentive to joining a free car rental loyalty program is the fact that you’ll need to carry the card while traveling to get all the benefits, along with the time it takes you to sign up. You’ll recover the sign-up time with the first line you avoid; talk about a return on investment.

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