Car rentals – The end of loyalty

Renting cars has always been a hit or miss situation. As a 30-year Avis member I was loyal to the company, renting their cars for hundreds of business trips over this time period. But that loyalty all ended when on a trip to Kauai, they sent me a $350 cleaning bill for returning a minivan with sand on the floor and back. It was one of those situations where the car was checked in fine, but three weeks later I received the bill. The sand could easily have been vacuumed up in about 15 minutes, but Avis said they had to take it out of service for 3 days. I argued with the CEO’s office and their VP of Customer Service, and when they saw I was a columnist for a San Diego newspaper and for, they told me they’d eliminate the charge, but requested I not write a column.

I never committed to not write about my experience, and once the charges were dropped, I investigated into whether my experience was an isolated one or perhaps a pattern. That’s when I found others had similar complaints at this location. So I wrote a column to share my experience and findings. The next time I booked with Avis, I discovered they revoked the special discount code I had been using for years, supplied by a client. In addition, they reported to the client that I was using their code. When I contacted Avis, I was told it was done in retribution for my column. All of this was initiated by one of their executives out of spite.

Now when I travel, I  use Costco to book my rental. Costco has a very convenient website that provide rates of all major rental companies, that makes it easy to compare. And the rates among the different companies vary wildly, so I choose based on rates and no longer on brand. I’ve found that the rates are substantially lower than using any of my business discount codes for Hertz or Avis. Costco also allows you to put in your loyalty number to get the same services. You can access the rates without being a Costco member, but you need to be a member to book.

I also discovered that it pays to keep checking as you get closer to when you’re traveling. On a recent trip to Oahu I made a reservation on Costco for a minivan at the same time I made the airline reservation, about 6 months in advance. I got a $700 rate for 8 days with all taxes from Alamo. That seemed quite high, but Avis was even higher, over $1000. A few weeks before the trip I checked Costco again and the rates dropped in half, $320 on Alamo and $425 on Avis.

What I’ve learned is none of these companies value loyalty. The loyalty memberships these companies have used to keep us coming back are worthless, as Costco rates are usually less expensive than renting directly (unless you’re with a large company that gets special rates). Rental car companies actually make the airlines look good in comparison when it comes to rewarding their best customers.

by Phil Baker