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How to Walk Away From the Car Rental Counter With the Right Vehicle for a Summer Adventure

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author photo by Chris O'Neill August 2017

About five years ago, I got into a yearly routine of taking summer trips into the western United States -- a ritual that led to me eventually moving from Pennsylvania to Utah. I'd fly out with friends, we'd rent a car, we'd drive as far as we possibly could in a week and then we'd return the car at the car rental agency in a new city and fly home. Being among the snobbiest of car snobs, I tried my hardest on each trip to get a vehicle at the rental counter that I deemed appropriate for driving through the rugged and picturesque western landscapes.

Some of these transactions were more successful than others, and I ultimately learned a good amount about navigating the rental counter in the process. With many likely getting ready to embark on their own summer adventures, I thought I'd share some tips I've developed on how to walk away from the rental counter with the keys to a vehicle well-suited for exploration.

Denver International Airport Hyundai Tucson

Denver International Airport

My first experience west of the Mississippi was on a trip to Denver, Colorado. This was also my first experience renting a car, and I managed to drive away with a pretty favorable outcome. There were four big lessons I learned this go-around:

  • The idea that you can't rent a car if you're under 25 is a myth. Being under 25 myself at this time, I just had to pay a small 'under-age' fee.

  • Rental car companies have downright insane vehicle classification categories. As far as Enterprise is concerned, a Nissan Altima is considered 'full-size,' while a cloth-interior Maxima is considered 'Premium' and a front-wheel-drive Audi A3 is referred to as 'Elite.' These categorizations make absolutely no sense. Do your best to ignore them and instead speak to the rental agent using actual vehicle makes and model names to ensure that you don't drive away in a 'Super Premium Full Size Luxury' Hyundai Tucson.

  • Car rental agents aren't car people. Don't be afraid to tell them no or ask for a different vehicle. Having scanned the lot, I asked the agent for one of the all-new third-generation Ford Escapes I had spotted in the line. The agent perked right up and said he had one for me that "even has navigation." I walked outside, only to watch the lot attendant pull up in an older-generation Escape. On top of that, the 'navigation' the agent spoke of turned out to be a big aftermarket screen drilled into the dashboard. Frustrated, I politely asked the attendant if there was any way I could instead take one of the new Escapes, taking care to point directly to the vehicle I wanted on the lot. It turned out this was no problem, and a few minutes later I was on my way in a brand new 2013 Ford Escape with satellite radio and fewer than 1,000 miles on the odometer.

  • Confirm the amount of the final bill. It's up to you to inquire about any added costs that might come as a result of your arrangement -- otherwise, you might be in for a surprise.

Denver International Airport Toyota 4Runner

Helena Regional Airport

A year later, on a trip across Wyoming and Colorado, I opted to fly into Helena, Montana because none of the rental car companies around Yellowstone would do a one-way rental. Here, I micro-managed the whole process and ended up with an off-road-ready Toyota 4Runner. Tips I learned here:

  • If needed, confirm ahead of time that both your starting and ending points will accept one-way rentals.

  • Call ahead and make a friend. I called the Hertz counter before my trip and made friends with an agent there. He informed me that their location often had Toyota 4Runners in its fleet, and he even offered to hold one for me. I don't think I would have gotten this kind of service at a bigger airport, so sometimes it pays to fly into smaller cities -- just make sure ahead of time that the agencies at the location can serve your needs.

 Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Jeep Grand Cherokee

 Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

This time, things didn't go so well. The plan here was to rent a vehicle in Phoenix and spend the next week exploring Southern Utah while making our way up to Salt Lake City. A busy, hectic airport in a busy, hectic city made for a chaotic rental experience.

  • Know ahead of time what you'll accept and what you won't, and be prepared to make concessions. In search of another 4Runner or a Jeep, I lost count of how many times I was offered a Chevy Equinox, which I was assured was 'pretty much the same' as a 4Runner. As a result of this, I ended up waiting a couple of days before picking a vehicle with the hopes that a better selection would become available.

  • Pay attention to the badges. We finally managed to acquire a Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. Its California plates should have been a dead giveaway, though, as I would later realize this was no 'ordinary' Grand Cherokee: this one was rear-wheel drive. Nonetheless, we went through with our plan to take it to Moab, and it wasn't terrible on the lone off-road trail we ventured down.

Chances are, you aren't as crazy as me, and you'll be far more reasonable than I was in these scenarios when it comes to picking up your rental car. Nonetheless, in an industry that deals primarily with an indifferent customer base made up of business travelers -- and one that places so much priority on short transaction times -- it pays to come prepared.

If nothing else, remember to be specific. The car rental agent might not be a car enthusiast like you. By being specific, you get what you want and you give the agent the ability to meet your needs -- and the chance to earn your business in the future. Hopefully, these tips can help you navigate these situations and drive away with a rental that adds a little more authenticity to your summer adventures.

Chris O'Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
How to Walk Away From the Car Rental Counter With the Right Vehicle for a Summer Adventure - Autotrader