For those who go to great lengths to choose the perfect vacation spot and a hotel that offers everything from a pillow menu to a flawless view, it can be somewhat dispiriting to arrive at the car rental lot and slide behind the wheel of a generic four-door sedan.
But car rental companies such as Hertz, Alamo and others are beginning to reach out to choosy travelers, offering a wider selection of wheels and features such as GPS navigation systems and satellite radio -- in other words, cars that their customers might actually want to drive. They are also scrambling to stand out on the service front, updating their Web sites to make booking easier and offering ways to expedite one of the most frustrating and lengthy aspects of renting a car: the pickup process.
No doubt many travelers make decisions on car rentals based on price. But as the Internet makes big price differences a rarity -- at least when comparing discount or premium brands -- companies are looking for other ways to attract new customers. When it comes to car choice, Hertz has been a trailblazer, most recently by introducing a Fun Collection aimed at travelers who want a less-predictable car selection. In popular vacation destinations in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii and Nevada, renters will find options such as the Ford Mustang, Mazda Miata, Toyota Solara and Chrysler PT Cruiser, as well as SUVs such as the Ford Escape XLT Sport, Jeep Wrangler and Hummer H3.
Renting a snazzier set of wheels generally costs more -- Hertz's weekend rate for a PT Cruiser at Miami airport is about $70 a day, versus $50 a day for a standard midsize car such as a Toyota Corolla. But Frank Camacho, staff vice president of marketing for Hertz, said he expected some customers would pay more for two reasons: either to try out a model they are considering buying or to take a spin in a car that is sexier than the minivan in the garage at home. Hertz's Fun Collection was inspired by the success of its Prestige Collection, a line of luxury cars introduced in 2001 and expanded last October to include options such as the Audi A6, Hummer H2 and Land Rover LR3.
But customers with deep pockets aren't Hertz's only target. The company is also reaching out to price-conscious travelers with its "brand and model reservability" program, which lets members of its No. 1 Club reserve a specific make and model when renting a midsize, full-size or sporty car (though only for weekend or weekly rentals). The main appeal of this program is being able to reserve a car customers are already comfortable driving. "After the taxing activities of air travel," Camacho said, "it's kind of nice to have the familiarity of knowing where the headlight switch is and how the windshield wipers work."
Membership in Hertz's No. 1 Club is free and gives access to express lanes at airport pickup counters -- another perk the industry is dangling these days. In order to bypass the counter entirely, customers have to join Hertz's No. 1 Club Gold (which costs $50 annually), but other companies such as Alamo, Avis, Budget and Thrifty offer membership programs that provide this benefit for free (sign up is available online). Customers can't go straight to their car at all locations, but membership usually lets them use an express line.
Alamo's online check-in feature, started last July, offers counter bypass service. Regardless of where reservations are made, customers can go to Alamo's Web site later and enter their driver's license and credit card information, verify choices about options such as insurance, and print a rental agreement. Then they can go straight to the lot, pick a car from the category reserved and show their license and credit card to the gate agent before driving away.
Alamo also allows customers to prepay for the rental if they book at Alamo.com, in exchange for a 15 percent discount on the base rate (but not optional charges, taxes or fees). The catch: Alamo charges $5 if a prepaid reservation is canceled, or $10 if a customer cancels within 24 hours of pickup time (or they don't show up at all).
While representatives from other car rental companies said they are watching Alamo's prepay experiment, so far no one else has introduced a similar deal. But everyone is jumping on the same bandwagon when it comes to technology innovations inside their cars, as GPS navigation systems and satellite radio are options even discount brands offer, at least in some vehicles.
Enterprise is the latest company to roll out an in-car navigation system, with plans to offer portable GPS devices at 100 U.S. airports by the end of next month, at a cost of $7.95 a day. Dollar, Thrifty, Alamo, National, Avis and Hertz all charge about $10 a day for their GPS navigation systems, mostly available in North America, though Hertz began offering its NeverLost technology in Europe last November (for $12 per day).
Car rental company executives say these navigation systems are becoming more popular, especially as more people get used to having them in their cars and depend on voice directions or an onscreen map to tell them how to get from point A to point B.
Satellite radio, on the other hand, is still a bit of a novelty, but it's becoming a standard feature in some higher-end cars and an option in some midrange vehicles, which means travelers hitting the open road don't have to endure the frustration of searching through static to find a station. The two companies delivering satellite radio, Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Radio, each offer more than 125 channels, which are mostly free of commercials and do not disappear when driving far from civilization.
For instance, Hertz includes Sirius Satellite Radio with cars in its Prestige and Fun Collections, but charges $3 a day in less expensive rentals. Dollar, Thrifty, Avis, National and Alamo offer satellite radio in some newer or luxury vehicles for free, but it's generally not available in less expensive cars.
Despite the appeal of all these bells and whistles, some analysts are skeptical that a large number of customers will pay for them. "Every one of these services involve incremental costs, so a customer who's used to paying $20 a day to rent a car is not about to spend $7 or $10 a day to rent a GPS system," said Neil Abrams, president of the Abrams Consulting Group, which follows the car rental industry.
"The majority of leisure travelers are still very, very price sensitive," Abrams said, adding that service is another factor that may sway renters toward a particular brand. But with customers making reservations on the Web and bypassing the pickup counter, the move toward more self service may be the real change car rental companies are embracing.