Car rental is the opposite of service

I don’t rent cars a whole lot, but for six years I had a job where I traveled a lot, about 6 times a year, and I needed cars most places I went. I worked in NYC, and the other offices were in DC, LA, Oakland, Boulder, Austin, and Raleigh, only DC was realistically a place where I could use cabs and public transport. So let’s say i rented cars about 30 times in that time period, and of course we’ve done it roughly yearly since, for family vacations. Here is a typical check-in conversation at the rental car counter:


Agent: Hi. I see you’ve rented a very small car. I could get you a much bigger car for only a few dollars more per day [inflected like it’s a question].

Matt: No thanks, it’s just me and I’m here to do work for an environmental group, so it’s personally important to me and important to the company that I use less fuel during my visit.

Agent: I see. [making a show of tapping on the keyboard and grimacing at the screen] Well, it looks like we’re out of the smaller cars, so I’ll have to get you a bigger car for the same price as the smaller car.

Like, OK. You already knew that, didn’t you? It’s just your job to try to trick me into paying more than I need to. You make a little extra if the upsell works, and your manager probably nags you if you don’t ask.

This happened pretty reliably every time. I’m not sure there was ever a time it didn’t happen. I think they just don’t have the smaller cars–it’s advertising, trying to act like there’s a lower rate, because there always is, anyway. Then they upsell you the bigger car, insurance you don’t need, etc. They all do it, so it’s like the opposite of competition, and if one of them didn’t do it, hardly anyone would notice, so why bother? Mind you, I was a member of their frequent whatever club, so there were in fact incentives to treating me like I’m not an idiot, but I guess that doesn’t pay off, or maybe 90% of rentals are made by people who are members of every club.

So yesterday, 20+ years later, I ran into the 21st century, internet-sucks version of this. Shortly before my trip, I got an email from Avis saying I could check in early and save time at the rental counter. Now, I don’t spend a lot of time at the rental counter. Most of the time is usually spent waiting for every other customer, who, it seems, take much longer than I do to get that conversation over with. But I tried it anyway. It asked for full demographic information, all the insurance questions (I don’t need it, so I said no to everything), the gas question, and the the toll-paying radio thing question. I answered them all and sent them in.

So you’re all familiar with this from going to the doctor, lately, where they ask you to answer all the check-in questions before you get there, then ask them all again when you arrive anyway, and then ask you half of them when you’re in the exam room with the assistant, and then half of those again when the doctor arrives. Yes, the check-in agent started asking me all those questions again.

Agent: I see you have a smaller car; I could get you the next size up for just $8 more per–

Matt: No, thank you.

Agent: You haven’t signed up for the LDW. I can get that for you for $12 a day. Can I interest–

Matt: I already answered all the insurance questions in the pre-check-in thing I did online this morning.

Agent: I only see name, address, phone number. What about the gas, did you want to buy that ahead of time? What about the toll-paying device?

Matt: I already answered those questions, and I know it’s all in the system because I got an email this afternoon trying to scare me about my decision not to select the insurance.

Agent: [doesn’t answer, but stops asking questions. Assigns a car that has the toll-paying thing and puts the gas on the bill.]

I have no idea if the car is the size I booked or not, because the rest of our interaction was conducted in silence and completed quickly. So the people behind me in line can be grateful for my irritation, I guess.

By the way, the total cost of the reservation is going to be $737, on a five-day rental advertised as $60/day, so the cost is double the advertised price even though I bought extras (the toll thing and the gas) that totaled about $130. That is, unstated charges–taxes, fees, whatever they are–totaled about 40% of the overall cost. What would it have been with any insurance?

This is nothing other than bullshit. There’s nothing we can do about it, but I do think it’s fair to be a little rude about it to the desk agents, even though they don’t make the rules. They don’t have to lie, but they do, so it’s OK to make them feel a little pain over it.

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