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13 Dirty Secrets of the Restaurant Business

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
July 12, 2017
Lonely Planet - Venice, Veneto, Italy
Lonely Planet
Every restaurant has its own, um, special way of doing things. Unfortunately, some of the most common practices, even in average-to-good kitchens, can be shocking. Over the years, Budget Travel has checked in with chefs, waitstaff, and other food pros—sometimes on condition of anonymity—to bring you the lowdown on the dirty business of making diners' dreams come true.

1. DON'T FILL UP ON BREAD

Your mother was right, but not for the reason she thought. Waitstaff confess that the bread in your basket may have been around the block a time or two. Yep. What doesn't get eaten often goes back to the kitchen, then may get dumped into some other unwitting diners' basket, making it a breeding ground for bacteria.

2. IGNORE THE MUSIC

Sure, the inspiring strains of "We Built This City" make you feel like Superman, leading you to order the entire chile shrimp platter all for yourself. But that's exactly why the restaurant is blasting music: It makes you order more food, eat faster, and leave sooner. Forewarned is forearmed: Tune out the music while you're ordering, and enjoy conversation and a moderate eating pace.

3. NEVER BE THE LAST CUSTOMER 

Closing time can mean old food, tipsy kitchen and waitstaff, surly service, and some dude may already be mopping the floor.

4. DON'T BE RUDE

Yes, this is a broad mandate, but we know you're up to the challenge. Think about it: Your cook, your waiter, and other restaurant workers hold the fate of your evening (first date, engagement, Dad's birthday, best friend's 12 months of sobriety) in their hands. If you have legitimate problems, by all means voice them—courteously. But think twice before sending food back (which, fairly or unfairly, often makes the cook angry with your waiter), telling the bartender that the owner is a friend of yours (fyi, the bartender may hate the owner), or asking questions that reek of stinginess ("Would it be possible for the three of us to share a cup of soup?"). While reports of waitstaff spitting on the food of pesky customers are greatly exaggerated, being not only the best-informed diner but also the nicest will always yield better results.

5. AVOID DIRTY BATHROOMS

There is typically a strong correlation between the condition of a restaurant's bathrooms and the cleanliness of its kitchen. Sure, there will be a sign admonishing employees to wash their hands, but is there fresh soap? Is the floor clean? The trashcan in good repair and not overflowing? Red flags in the lavatory mean red flags in the kitchen and you have every right to decline your table and move on.

6. AVOID DRINK GARNISHES

This is a bit of a shocker to those of us who don't think twice before asking for extra olives, twist of lemon or lime, etc. But it turns out those garnishes may have been sitting in an unrefrigerated bar tray for hours or more. Seasoned restaurant workers suggest that whether you prefer your martini shaken or stirred, ask for no olives. And if you want lemon or lime, ask for a slice on the side and squeeze the juice into your drink yourself.

7. ENJOY YOUR MEAT MEDIUM OR RARE

Wait. What? While the USDA recommends that meat be cooked to a proper internal temperature to avoid potentially harmful bacteria, you may be better off ordering it a bit rare. Turns out cooks confess that they sometimes reserve the oldest meat for customers who prefer it well done—those extra minutes of cooking, not to mention the slightly charred exterior, can mask the tired quality of old meat.

8. ORDER YOUR FISH FRESH

A nice piece of salmon served with rice and asparagus? Great. Pasta tossed with pieces of fish? Danger, Will Robinson! Same goes for seafood soup. As with well-done meat, cooks sometimes mask the flavor of old fish by mixing it with other ingredients—and the practice is more widespread than you might think.

9. DON'T EAT OUT ON HOLIDAYS

Ever take Mom out for what you hoped would be a special Mother's Day brunch only to find that the waitstaff was inattentive, the food was mediocre, and the entire experience underwhelming? Unfortunately, that's what eating out on holidays often means. Especially on days when restaurants are packed—like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day—the pros recommend you cook up a treat at home instead.

10. NEVER EAT "ALL YOU CAN EAT"

Buffets are notoriously unreliable at keeping food at safe temperatures—and you just have to belly up to the table for a minute or two to notice how many hands are touching, or grazing, or hovering over your meal. We love hotel's complimentary breakfast buffets as much as the next traveler, but we suggest that you arrive early and dig into the freshest, untouched stuff on the spread.

11. SAY "NAY" TO THE TRAY

If you're a recovering fast-food junkie (guilty), you already know that the plastic trays that your food is served on are absolutely crawling with micro-organisms. If you must order fast food (and we beg you to be a little more adventurous, especially when representing the U.S. abroad), ask for it in a bag, even if you intend to consume it on the premises.

12. MAKE YOUR OWN COFFEE

Ever ended a dinner out with a nice cup of "decaf" only to find yourself tossing and turning all night long? Or did you ask for a big mug of regular and end up falling asleep on the metro? Sorry. Restaurants are notoriously careless with the caffeine vs. regular setup, especially as the night wears on. If you want a jolt of caffeine, order an espresso, which is made cup-by-cup.

13. PACK YOUR OWN LEFTOVERS

Trust us, that time you murmured, "I could have packed this better myself"?—you were right. Waitstaff is busy, cooks can't be bothered, and if you want the right stuff put into the right doggie bag (not to mention clean hands touching your uneaten morsels), don't rely on the busboy. Ask for the package and do it yourself.

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Travel Tips

What Other Countries Think of Americans

We've all seen "those" travelers: loud American tourists wearing bright clothing (and even brighter sneakers) and letting their kids run rampant everywhere from Italian piazzas to American national parks. We know you, a Budget Travel reader, would never behave like they do, have you ever wondered exactly what other countries think of us—travelers and non-travelers alike? We asked world traveler and Norwegian journalist René Zografos, author of Attractive Unattractive Americans: How the World Sees America, for some real talk about how foreign citizens view Americans. Read on for his honest answers and tips on what you must do—and NEVER do—to be a good ambassador for your country. Q. What would Americans be most surprised to hear regarding how other countries view us? A. "The positive: Americans are very popular. Many people I interviewed while I was writing Attractive Unattractive Americans asked me to say how grateful they are to the Americans for what their soldiers have done abroad to help people after hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. So on behalf of many people in the world: thank you, Americans! "The negative: Many people think that American pop culture is pretty shallow. And they hate American fast food: Not only because it’s causing diseases almost all over the world, but also because it kills local business for local farmers." Q. Which countries love American travelers most? A. "Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway—but to be honest, many countries in the world like American travelers because they know how to behave, are friendly, outgoing, and appreciate our planet. It’s the Americans who don’t travel that people have more problems with." Q. Which countries have a low opinion of American tourists? Why? A. "Southern Europe in general: Greece, France, and Italy. People think Americans are “sticky” and that they act like they know better and look down on other people. In the south of Europe, there is a quieter lifestyle that clashes with the American way. I’ve found the same views in some Asian countries like Thailand." Q. What are the top three ways to avoid being an “ugly American” overseas? A. "1) Take your time to blend in to other cultures. Eat local food, talk to local people, and immerse yourself in local customs... At a restaurant, enjoying the experience—leave your phones and tablets behind. 2) Don’t rush from one place to another. Take a deep breath and de-stress! 3) Listen to others with respect. Talk less. Remember: We are all equal." Q. Let's talk about clothing. Is there a rule of thumb that Americans can abide by so we blend in better overseas? A. "Americans are gear freaks. They have to have the best and have all the latest gadgets, and they like to show off to others. They walk around with the most expensive cameras, phones, and handbags. Have respect for other cultures' costumes when it comes to dress codes. Otherwise, Americans abroad dress quite well (and way better than many other countries!)." Q. What's one especially rude behavior that we should consciously try to avoid when traveling? A. "Talking loud for sure. No one really understands why Americans must stand in a square and shout at each other so everyone can hear them. It’s like: “I’m an American, so you all better listen!” Also: the way Americans polluting the world, buying and throwing things away without thinking of Mother Nature." Q. Finally, what suggestion do you have for American travelers who want to get the richest cultural experience possible? A. "Don’t bring so much stress with you. Don’t rush from one city to another. Stay longer in one place, and explore the surroundings there. Many Americans feel like they have to see everything in a few days. Paris one day, London the next…but can you really see Paris or London in one day? The greatest gift of traveling is getting to know new places and people in an authentic way—and to maybe even make some friends that will last your whole life."

Travel Tips

7 Lies Every Traveler Tells

Every travel-lover has done it: No matter how fulfilling, awe-inspiring, or “worth it” our trips are, we’ve told tiny half-truths about exactly how perfect everything was. Maybe you’re a workaholic who couldn’t stop checking email in a tropical paradise, or you’re part of a large family who embarked on a cross-country road trip…with mixed results. But when you gush to your friends back home, all they hear is the highlight reel…and none of the snafus. Why do we lie about our vacations? “With the rise of social media, many people feel compare themselves to their friends and families who post about their ‘amazing’ vacations online,” says clinical psychologist Roudabeh Rahbar, PsyD. “What many hide are the actual realities of travel, i.e., stress, fights, illness, or an overall bad time.” READ: "Read This Before You Rent a Car" Pair that with a limited number of vacation days to burn each year, and the heat is on to have a magical, Instagram-worthy time. But there’s good news: Budget Travel sourced advice from experts to help you avoid the travel snags you might be tempted to gloss over, so next time, you truly can have a dreamy, stress-free trip—no Pinocchio-style white lies necessary.  LIE NO. 1. TRAVELING IS RELAXING The Reality: You’re thrilled you were able to take a vacation, of course. But between running through the airport to make your connection, wrangling toddlers, driving in an unfamiliar place, or packing in as much sightseeing as possible…you’re exhausted. The Fix: First, resist the urge to create a schedule so strict it reminds you of the crazy-busy life you're trying to escape. "The unnecessary anxiety starts when you book a vacation and think you have to see everything and do everything," says family therapist Kimberley Clayton Blaine, MA, LMFT. "Leaving ample time in between activities allows you to taste the wonderful food and mingle with the culture and people around you without the hustle and bustle and stress." When you find yourself in a moment that should be blissful, but your mind is frenzied, try this trick from psychologist and author Susan Albers, PsyD: "Use your all of your senses. While walking on the beach, hold out your hand and name each of your senses as you make your hand into a fist. Thumb equals touch—the feel of sand on my toes. Pointer finger equals smell—ocean air. Middle finger equals sound—waves crashing. Ring finger equals taste—salty air. Pinky finger equals see—blue sky. Repeat wherever you are." READ: "Stupid Things Americans Do Overseas" Remember this maxim: “Things always go wrong.” Anticipate problems as best you can, but use setbacks as constructive learning experiences that will help you prepare for your next trip. “Perhaps, you’ll learn that you are less likely to have delays when you take the first flight out rather than the last,” says Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “Or to leave yourself a day between finishing up work and setting off on your trip so packing isn’t as rushed.” If you still find yourself freaking out? “Take deep breaths and focus on the moment,” says Rahbar. “Even when that can be difficult to do, try to focus on a happy memory or a pull up a picture on your phone that makes you smile." If that doesn't do the trick, put on your headphones for a few minutes: The beautifully designed mindfulness app Headspace offers short, guided meditations and a free "fear of flying" exercise, designed to calm you before you step onto an airplane, all delivered in a soothing British accent (free app and introductory exercises, subscriptions from $6.24 per month, headspace.com). LIE NO. 2. YOU STAYED "UNPLUGGED" The Reality: You brought your phone along to the pool, to the beach, on a hike, and on an expedition to explore temple ruins, sneaking peeks at your inbox (and Facebook and Instagram…) whenever you could get a signal. “Many people truly do want to unplug,” Rahbar says. “They are most likely embarrassed to admit how addicted and connected they are to the virtual world. Lying about unplugging goes along with how we lie about how much we drink or work out.” The Fix: Airplane mode. And not just when you’re cruising at 36,000 feet. “Put your phone on airplane mode during the day and plug in in the evening as you wind down from the day,” Rahbar says. “A lot of times when we have our phone on airplane mode, we forget to turn it back on. Or set time limits for yourself—i.e., one hour or two hours a day.” Workaholics, before you jet, loop in trustworthy coworkers ahead of time so they can take care of routine business, and tell them to avoid cc'ing you on group emails. “Be sure to put an away message on your email that tells coworkers when and under what circumstances you should be contacted,” Levine says. One example might be that you are only reachable via emails marked "urgent," and you'll only be checking your inbox for one hour at 9 p.m. each night in the time zone you're traveling to. The less available you appear, the less people will be inclined to bug you. LIE NO. 3. TRAVELING WITH YOUR PARTNER WAS ROMANTIC The Reality: You fought with your partner about decisions both big and small, from who’d get the window seat on the plane to which exotic food cart to track down. At times, it wasn’t pretty. And it definitely didn’t make you want to jump each other’s bones. The Fix: Talk about the trip beforehand, but go beyond discussing which airline and hotel to book. “To avoid unnecessary or unproductive fights…create a vision for your vacation and make a plan to fulfill it,” says Judith Wright, co-author of The Heart of the Fight. “Ask yourself: What is the purpose of our vacation? And become clear on why you are going. To ‘escape’ is not a sufficient reason. Great reasons include ‘to enhance my relationship with my partner,’ ‘to get more distance on my life,’ or to ‘restore or rejuvenate.’” READ: "The Revised Travel Ban Goes Into Effect" Then, Wright says, set concrete goals about “what you’ll talk about, how you’ll be with each other. What kind of experiences do you want to have together? What experiences do you want to have separately? There is nothing wrong with together time and alone time. Just be clear when setting goals and expectations.” LIE NO. 4. VACATIONS ARE GREAT FOR FAMILY BONDING The Reality: Your daughter spent the vacation with her nose buried in her Kindle, your son barely looked up from texting his girlfriend, and your partner spent every second she could get at the spa (a.k.a. away from you). Or, conversely, you spent so much time in close quarters that you longed for a solo vacation, sans the fam. The Fix: Treat trip planning like you’re a general in a war room. “Choose types of vacations that appeal to a range of interests and activity/energy levels,” Levine says. “For example, grandparents might want to book a stateroom in a ship within a ship on a large megaship that provides rock climbing walls and zip lines for kids. Make sure sleeping arrangements are appropriate for different ages, e.g., so an aging parent or young child can take a nap during the day or early risers aren’t paired with later risers.” A "coach" approach, using the word “team” to foster inclusiveness, can help too, says psychologist and travel-guide author Michael Brein, Ph.D. Tell the kids: “We are a team about to engage upon a great travel adventure." And if they misbehave: "We need to get along better and create a great travel environment that can maximize the experience for each and every one of us.” LIE NO. 5. YOU GOT A GREAT DEAL ON YOUR TRIP The Reality: After all the fees and surcharges, the fares and lodging ended up being more expensive than you’d have liked. You swear to do better next time. Or you didn’t realize your all-inclusive plan didn’t count the premium liquor as free. Or maybe you had the best intentions to save cash by skipping meals, then ended up starving and ordering room service at a markup. The Fix: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. No one can be a whiz at saving money every single time. Much of our favorite advice can be summed up in this article, by Budget Travel's Editor in Chief: 25 Best Money-Saving Travel Tips. A few more hints: Check Google Flights to ensure you're traveling at the least expensive times, to the least expensive airports. Look at the prices on the Google Flights map, and you might find that you can have the Caribbean vacation you want on a completely different, less expensive island than you had originally planned to visit. If you choose a low-cost airline, like Spirit or Frontier, make sure you understand what costs extra, like selecting your seat and reserving space for your bags at the airport rather than online beforehand. Sign up for email alerts from all the major airlines, AirfareWatchdog.com, and your favorite hotel companies, and follow them on social media too. You'll be among the first to hear about bargains, and the deals will find you. At resorts, always read the fine print for all-inclusive deals. At some properties, you can order a whole bottle of champagne up to your room, gratis. At others, they literally rope off the Johnnie Walker Black unless you’ve paid to upgrade your status. LIE NO. 6. YOU CAN'T WAIT TO GO BACK AGAIN The Reality: You borderline resented where you were, whether you had a rough brush with poison ivy and mosquitoes while trying find your inner outdoorswoman or had to dodge herds of sunburned tourists at the swim-up bar. Some people love visiting the same place over and over again, but this time, you’re certainly not one of them. The Fix: Don’t beat yourself up. Having not-so-positive experiences is crucial to becoming a true world traveler. “As we travel, and especially in the condensed space-time of travel, as we grow and learn from our experiences, we are ever more capable of making better and more rewarding travel decisions,” Brein says. And before you write off the experience completely, give the locale some credit: “Perhaps you only scraped the surface of a destination and want to dig more deeply or experience it more authentically,” Levine says. LIE NO. 7. DOWNTIME WAS FUNTIME The Reality: You were as bored as bored could be, whether you were by yourself on a solo trip or lounging next to your family on the beach for a week. The Fix: Maybe your trip was just too long—hey, it can happen. Or you know now that you'd prefer not to be alone if you can help it, and that's a good thing: “The hospitality industry has never been as welcoming of solo travelers (and their money), from reducing or eliminating single supplements on cruises to having long tables at restaurants," Levine says. "Also, the sharing economy has made it possible for solo travelers to live with locals—e.g., Homestay, Airbnb—share meals with them—Mealsharing, EatWith—and meet up with them as guides, e.g., ToursbyLocals.com, Context Travel.” And then there's the old-fashioned way to find a friend (and, no, we're not talking about Tinder tourism—not that there's anything wrong with that). "Even if you are shy, make efforts to engage other single people, hospitality staff, and even families," Levine says. "Most will go out of their way to engage a fellow traveler."

Travel Tips

The Revised Travel Ban Goes Into Effect

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court partially lifted preliminary injunctions from lower courts, upholding portions of section 2 of Executive Order 13780, which restricts entry into the U.S. by nationals of six countries for 90 days, and section 6 of the order, which restricts the entry of refugees into the U.S. for 120 days. This evening at 8pm EDT, the U.S. will begin implementing Executive Order worldwide, with important exceptions mandated by the Supreme Court. Under the Supreme Court’s ruling, nationals of the six countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) who have a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States” will be granted entry into the U.S. Today, the State Department, in a cable providing guidance to employees around the world, states that a “bona fide relationship” will be defined as a close family relationship, which will include only parent, spouse, children (including adult children), sons- and daughters-in-law or siblings, including step-siblings and step-parents. Under current State Department guidance, a “bona fide relationship” will not include grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, brothers- or sisters-in-law, cousins, or a fiance or fiancee. Family relationships and employment and other relationships with an “entity” in the U.S. must be documented. For most American travelers, the implementation of the Executive Order may have no direct personal impact at all. For nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen and their family and friends in the U.S., the implementation of the Executive Order and its effect on current travel, impending travel, and future visa applications is beyond Budget Travel's areas of expertise. We urge anyone who is concerned that they or a close friend or family member may be denied entry into the U.S. to consult an immigration attorney. And we urge every member of our Budget Travel audience to understand that the implementation of this Executive Order may have more wide-ranging effects than any of us can anticipate at this time: Along with your other essential travel gear, pack patience and compassion.

Road TripsTravel Tips

Read This Before You Rent a Car

Despite rising gas prices, 80 percent of U.S. families are planning a road trip this summer, up 10 percent from last year, a recent AAA survey found. But for many people, taking that dream road trip requires renting a car, which can be a stressful, confusing, and expensive process. The rental car industry is notorious for its array of sometimes confusing options for customers. Last year one in five car renters reported problems with their service, according to J.D. Power’s annual North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study. For consumers, the rental car counter can be treacherous. “Rental car agents are paid on commission, so they’re incentivized to try to upsell you for everything,” says Jonathan Weinberg, creator of AutoSlash.com, a service that tracks rental price changes to help get consumers the best deals. “If you ask whether you need something, they’re going to say yes.” Also, since many rental car companies are good at burying fees and surcharges in long rental agreements—you know, the paperwork you barely glance at before signing—the onus is on you to thoroughly research your options. Indeed, “when renting a car, it’s a ‘buyer beware’ transaction,” says Neil Abrams, president of the Abrams Consulting Group, which tracks the rental car industry. Follow these steps to drive down the costs on your next rental car and enjoy a cheaper, happier road trip. Bring your own transponder Going through a toll can bring unexpected fees when you use the rental car company’s transponder (e.g., E-ZPass, SunPass). “It varies by company, but usually you’re going to get charged a convenience fee of $5 a day starting on the first day that you use it,” says Weinberg. In other words, if you’re traveling for a week and go through a toll on the first day, you’ll get charged a $35 fee for the whole week regardless of whether you go through more tolls. READ: "15 Last Minute Weekend Escapes" Thus, you’ll want to use your own transponder on the trip. If you need to buy one, you can do so online or at some convenience stores like Publix, CVS or Walgreens. Don’t prepay for the car Many rental car companies give you the option to prepay for the rental in exchange for a reduced price, but there are some major caveats. For starters, you’re locking yourself into that price point, but rates often drop as the pickup date approaches—potentially below the prepay rate that you accepted earlier. If that happens and you try to re-book for the lower rate, you’ll get slapped with a cancellation fee of about $50, which could effectively negate the amount of money you’d save by rebooking. The good news is you can still reserve a vehicle without paying for it upfront; then, if the rate drops, you simply cancel and rebook. “Renting a car is not like booking a seat on a flight, where you’re stuck with the reservation,” says Mark Mannell, chief executive of CarRentalSavers.com. “There’s no penalty for cancelling and rebooking.” Don’t prepay for gas When you pick up the car, you’re given the option to pay ahead of time for the car company to refill the gas tank when you return the vehicle. However, you’ll save money by refilling the tank yourself for a couple reasons. First, “anything that’s left in the fuel tank that you bought is non-refundable if you opted to prepay for gas,” says Abrams. Also, when you prepay for gas, the rental company charges you the “local market rate” for the fuel but it’s often more expensive than gas stations that are just a few miles away. “Rental car companies aren’t gas stations,” says Abrams. “They provide fuel as an accommodation, and they charge a premium for it.” READ: "25 Most Beautiful Cities in America" To maximize your savings, use the free GasBuddy app (available on iPhone and Android) to find the cheapest station near the airport. When you return the car, take a photo of the fuel gauge in case the rental car company tries to charge you refueling fee later, advises Abrams. Take photos of pre-existing damage Many companies will provide an inspection report when you pick up the car, but you should still take photos of any pre-existing damage. (Many camera phones also let you time stamp pictures.) If there is pre-existing damage, make sure the rental agent records it in the agreement. Also, don’t forget to take photos when you return the car, says Mannell. Don’t automatically buy rental car insurance Insurance through the rental car company can cost up to $50 a day, depending on the plan you select, but you may already be covered through your existing car insurance, homeowner’s insurance, or credit card. Weinberg says most auto insurance policies include coverage for rental cars. Still, it’s good to check with your insurance company or credit card issuer ahead of time to make sure you’re covered. (NerdWallet.com, a credit card comparison website, has compiled a list of which cards include rental car insurance.) Look into renting from an off-airport location Airports often charge rental car companies airport concession fees, which the rental companies then pass on to customers. As a result, daily rates at off-airport stations can be up to $20 or $30 cheaper per day, so it’s wise to survey your options. Just make sure you factor in the cost of a taxi or Uber ride to the off-site location when comparing prices. After all, “if you’ll wind up paying $50 for a taxi, it may not be worth it,” says Abrams. Compare rates at independent agencies Avis, Hertz, and Enterprise are the three largest rental car companies, but there are a number of smaller agencies that offer competitive rates, such as Fox Rent a Car and Advantage. But you may have to make some concessions if you rent from one of these companies. “You’re not usually going to get newer car models at discount agencies,” says Weinberg. Also, a lot of independent agencies don’t have airport locations. One car rental agency you may want to research carefully is Payless. The Better Business Bureau recently issued a nationwide warning to consumers after having received more than 800 complaints about Payless in the past three years. (The BBB has given the company an F rating.) READ: Read This Before You Book a Vacation Rental Redeem discounts for premium memberships Rental car companies offer discounts to members of frequent flier programs and credit card holders; AAA, Costco, and BJ’s also offer members deals on rental cars. These discounts can often be combined with discount codes from the rental car company. For example, a full-size car rental from Hertz at Ronald Reagan National Airport was $281.85 in a recent search, but plugging in a AAA member discount code and a Hertz discount code dropped the rate to $201.90.

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