Published November 30, 2011
Don't like to wait at the rental car counter? Who does? But with the holiday season approaching you could see longer lines, and longer waits.
But there just may be something you can do to all but eliminate any hassle at the rental counter, and get on your way quickly and easily.
Many business travelers are familiar with the frequent renter programs offered by the major car rental companies. There's the Hertz #1 Club, Avis Preferred, and National Emerald Club just to name a few. These programs offer varying levels of benefits which often include express checkout, upgrades, discounts, and the ability to earn credits toward free rentals.
What many people don't realize is that even if you only rent from a particular company once a year, it may still pay to sign up for their loyalty program. It takes only a couple of minutes to sign up on-line by entering your driver's license, credit card, vital stats and rental preferences. A little extra effort now may mean the difference between driving off the rental lot in less than five minutes, or enduring a long line and a slow agent trying to input all your information into their computer system.
All of the frequent renter programs offer free membership, with the exception of Hertz #1 Gold Club (their standard #1 Club is free), but you can join for free (normally $60) until Dec. 15. Like Avis Preferred and National Emerald Club, Hertz #1 Gold Club level is the key to convenience.
When you book on-line with your membership ID, you'll be able to skip the counter at all the major airports and head right to your car. Typically with Hertz and Avis, your name will appear on an electronic board directing you to the location where your car will be waiting. Your rental contract will be in the car along with the keys. Just load up, drive to the exit booth, flash your driver’s license, and you’re off. A sub-five minute exit is not unheard of. Try to avoid the stares of the envious vacationers waiting on line at the rental counter as you drive off.
National’s Emerald Club is a bit different, but offers a choice of vehicle which the others usually don’t. After signing up on-line and booking with your membership number, you may still have to stop at the counter on your first rental to sign a “master rental agreement”. From there on out, you’ll walk to a row that corresponds with your reserved car class, pick any car from that row, and drive to the exit gate (flashing your license as you leave).
Additionally, as an Emerald Club member, when you reserve a mid-size car at most major airport locations, you get access to the “Emerald Aisle.” While not quite as exotic as the land of leprechauns, the Emerald Aisle is worth a visit, since it contains not just basic midsize cars but often a selection from a few nicer car classes, from full-sizes to minivans and even small SUVs.
Many of the value brands offer similar programs designed to speed you on your way, but they are not all created equal. Dollar Express and Thrifty’s Blue Chip program are fairly similar, as both brands have the same corporate parent. While not quite as efficient as the previously mentioned programs, they can still be time savers. You enter all your information on-line when you join the program. An hour or two before your scheduled arrival, the rental location processes your rental agreement. When you show up, all you have to do is sign the already-completed paperwork and go.
Most major airport locations have dedicated express counters or at least a priority line. Some locations have even started following in the Hertz #1 Club Gold style, posting your name on a board with a pre-assigned car in a designated parking stall.
Alamo offers their Insiders program. At major airport locations, you'll see their trademark self-serve rental kiosks. Even at busy locations, there's rarely a line for the kiosks. To use the kiosk, you need to check-in online prior to picking up the car, which involves filling out your personal information in an online form. Alamo Insiders makes this process much easier; since your information is already stored in their systems, you can go straight to a kiosk, get your rental agreement, and head for your car. If you're renting from a location without a kiosk, Insiders members usually have access to a special, faster line, and having your information on file greatly speeds up the rental process once you're at the counter.
Enterprise’s Plus program offers slightly faster checkout. Dedicated Enterprise Plus lines at busier locations may help you get to the front of the line faster, but once you're at the counter, it doesn't really help much. Enterprise is known for lengthy transactions, and the bulk of the time spent isn't on data entry but rather negotiating with you for upgrades, coverage, and fuel. So, Enterprise Plus may shave a minute or two off your rental, but it's still going to be a bit before you’re driving off the lot, and you'll be just as worn out from the lengthy insurance spiels and intensive vehicle walk-around as any other Enterprise customer.
Lastly, keep in mind that even if you haven’t planned ahead and signed up for one of the programs mentioned, many rental companies will allow you to check in on-line beforehand. While you’ll still have to stop at the counter, it will still save you some time since the agent will not have to re-key a lot of your information. A minute saved is minute earned as they say.
Jonathan Weinberg is the founder and CEO of AutoSlash.com, a website that automatically applies discounts, and re-books your rental if rates drop.