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nov 29 2007

Confessions of a rental-car salesman

Alex Frankel recently did some undercover journalism by taking a job at Enterprise-Rent-A-Car. He reports on his stint as a counter clerk there—along with his brief gigs at a Gap clothing store, a Starbucks shop, and an Apple store—in his new book Punching In.

In the following Q&A;, Alex talks about Enterprise—plus his tips for booking a rental car with any company:

Q: Alex, Congrats on your new book. Why did you choose to work at Enterprise instead of one of the other rental car companies?

A: Enterprise is the biggest car rental company most people have never heard of, or don't know much about. The company is the largest recruiter of college graduates and an expanding behemoth of car rental. The way in which the company recruits and trains its employees is fascinating and well thought out.

Q: Alex, have you changed what you do and say at the rental car counter now that you know what goes on behind the scenes?

A: Absolutely. Here are a few things I now know: Rental car firms are one of the few parts of the travel industry in which one does not need to commit at all financially to secure a rental car reservation. This means that you, as a customer, can presumably make multiple reservations at multiple car firms for one particular trip. Additionally, most people don't realize this but you can almost always get a better rate by booking online. Walking up to a rental car counter is a great way to get the worst rates. Reservations are cheapest when done online. Also, many companies push for you, the customer, to sign up for insurance-oriented “products.” Insurance can be a good thing to add on, but in many cases people are covered by their credit card companies and existing car insurance policies. If you can, check on this before you rent a car and you may find you won't need to bother with the insurance and so-called damage waivers that are offered. Finally, if you can avoid interacting with a person at a rental car company you will often find that you have a better experience. More people should look into hourly rental cars [such as the newly-merged ZipCar and FlexCar services].

Q: What was one of the most surprising things you learned, not from the branding or labor standpoints, but from a consumer's perspective?

A: I believe you are referring to the car rental business here. Mostly related to the above. Most rental car consumers don't understand how rental car fleet management works and it's fairly interesting. When you reserve a vehicle, that vehicle is usually going to be delivered to the branch where you are renting just a bit before you get there. Often rental car companies don't have that car and they will try a lot of tactics to get you to rent another car—often up-selling customers to bigger cars. Customers should stick to their reservations and demand the cars they are promised.

[Thanks, Brad Tuttle, for your suggestion that we write about Alex's book.]

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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