Whether or not this is a fair assessment, rental cars are one area in the travel world where I have found no value with elite status. The reason for this is that your elite status only benefits you when you book through the company directly. While this isn’t that bizarre of a policy, the rate differentials between the companies themselves and third-party sites like Costco and Priceline are astounding! Using the same dates and details, a two-day weekend rental on Priceline cost $40 total; booking through the company directly cost $123 total.
My Wasted Status
Rental car agencies seem to have given up on the leisure traveler and instead go after business travelers whose companies are less concerned about the best deal and more interested in convenience. By holding the American Express Platinum card for instance, I am granted Elite status with National which allows me to walk down the Emerald Aisle and select a car when I arrive to the agency. The cost for this privilege? Over 3X what I would pay using a third party site.
My Favorite Third-Party Perks
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, we most frequently use Priceline which is specifically valuable as a mobile app offering deals not otherwise available online. Using the app, you can book and cancel reservations as often as you like without financial commitment or penalty. I will often book a rental car months in advance, only to re-book the same itinerary as I find cheaper rates (cancelling my previous one afterward) at no cost. It ensures that I am receiving the best deal by the time I rent. If you are feeling committal, their Express Deals offer even better rates if you’re willing to pay in full at the time of booking. The only downfall with Priceline is that the agencies will charge you a fee for any additional drivers on your reservation at the time of pickup. Alternatively, Costco offers rental cars at comparable discounted fares that include an additional driver on the reservation. To make this reservation however, you’ll need your computer and Costco card to be successful.
When you rent a car, the sales person may try to trick you with the question: Basic or Premium Coverage? The answer, if applicable, is “I’m declining all coverage and will use my own insurance policy.” But there’s a couple of things to be aware of when making this decision. Namely, trucks are typically excluded; so if you’re renting a truck, grab the coverage. And if you’re being offered a free upgrade to a truck, decline it. The other hidden detail is the term “Loss of Use.” Rental car companies use this term to describe that if you wreck a vehicle, they will charge you for the loss of revenue they would have otherwise received from renting out that vehicle while it was in the repair shop. Sound hard to prove? It is – and you better believe they are coming after you for a handsome sum. By the way, your personal auto insurance policy doesn’t cover this either. So grab the basic coverage when in doubt, and let your auto insurance cover what the premium package offers instead.
Sapphire Reserve Benefit
We still carry the Chase Sapphire Reserve card despite the fact that we barely use it. However, what makes it special is that it offers PRIMARY auto insurance including Loss of Use coverage for the card holder when that card is used to pay for a rental car in full. The CSR card costs $150/year after easily obtained credits, and therefore this excellent coverage costs only $12.50/month. Depending on how often you rent, you may find this to be a significant discount on the same coverage sold by the agency. And because it is primary insurance, you do not need to involve your own insurance company in the event of an incident!
Cut to the Chase
When it comes to rental cars, I would advocate for using a third party app to book exactly what you want at a low rate rather than hoping you will score an upgrade on “base pricing” using elite status privileges. Nothing will give you more satisfaction and relief than knowing exactly what you are getting before you arrive to the front counter, and that you got it at the lowest possible rate.