Free upgrade at the car-rental counter? No thanks

Chicago Tribune July 27, 2008

Back in the good old days of getting 12 miles to the gallon without care, a free upgrade at the car-rental counter was great news.

With nothing but good fortune on your side, all the compact or economy cars would be gone and—voila!—that diminutive Chevy Cobalt became a hulking Chevy Trailblazer. And at the same price.

Obviously, such upgrades have become painfully unattractive since gas prices have broken the $4-per-gallon barrier. But that hasn’t stopped rental agencies from trying to put people who reserve smaller, fuel-efficient cars into the road albatrosses.

Industry experts say there are no hard numbers but plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that travelers often are facing the bad news at the rental counter that a lumbering gas guzzler awaits. One common technique is to offer free so-called upgrades even when smaller cars are on the lot because the smaller cars might appeal to a walk-in customer, while the larger ones often gather dust.

If that happens, the answer is to be firm.

“If you’re a customer, hold the line and say, ‘I have a reservation for a compact car, and I want that reservation,’ ” said Chris Brown, managing editor of Auto Rental News, a trade publication based in Torrance, Calif. “If you’re at the counter, don’t even think you’re being pressured.”

Other industry insiders suggest calling ahead even after making a reservation to ensure that the car is on hand and perhaps to establish a rapport with the employees.

The problem is rooted in an unprecedented industry shift, with demands rising for compact and economy vehicles. Though unfathomable not long ago, smaller cars now can be more expensive to rent than SUVs—as much as $100 more per week.

According to Texas-based Sabre Holdings, which owns several travel-based companies, including Travelocity, its bookings of economy cars were up nearly 17 percent through the first quarter of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007.

Michael Kane, president of Royal Oak, Mich.-based Vehicle Replacement Consulting Group, an industry consultant, said the shift toward smaller cars has trumped decades of precedent.

“Not wanting an upgrade to a bigger car with worse gas mileage has only reared its head in the last 60 days,” he said. “Unequivocally the whole thing has been turned on its head.”

The problem, he said, is that companies are struggling to meet the demand and that it can take up to a year for them to adjust their fleets. There will likely be more economy and hybrid cars available at rental counters next year, but for the next several months, the battle could be on.

But even that probably will backfire on rental companies at some point, Kane said: “Then gas will drop to $2.75, and everyone will be standing around the rental counter angry, wondering where their SUVs are.”

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