My recent rental car experience was like 90 miles of rough road.
When I arrived to pick up the car, there was no car, despite a reservation. I eventually got a car, but it got a flat tire, so the car was towed 70 miles so I could pick up another car. (Why it was 70 miles when there were locations nearby, I still don't know.)
When I dropped off the second car, I was overcharged. I also paid for insurance I didn't need. (Before you begin to speculate about my intelligence, I can explain.)
To help make sense of my experience, I spoke with my friend Lily La (no relation to me), who spent two years working at a national car rental company. With her help, here are some pearls of car rental wisdom:
Don't assume you'll pick up your car swiftly and go. Even though I made a reservation, there was no car waiting for me when I arrived. (This "Seinfeld" clip sums up the situation well.)
An employee drove me to another location to pick up the car. From the roundabout route, I suspect he got lost. From start to end, it took about 90 minutes to get the car.
La explains that at her former company, a reservation doesn't guarantee that the car of your choosing will await you. Reservations are used for planning, but forces such as supply and demand can affect what you get, where you get it and when.
If you're looking for a quicker pickup and have some flexibility, get your car earlier in the week and near the beginning of the day when fewer people are picking up and dropping off cars, La says.
If one is nearby, get your car at the airport. Many airport car rental locations are open 24 hours and have automated facilities. Keep in mind that renting a car at the airport may be more expensive because of facility charges and taxes.
Know what your car insurance covers
You may be pressured to buy rental car insurance. Besides getting customers to upgrade, La recalls that she was strongly encouraged to sell insurance. Before you consider additional coverage, ask your auto insurance company (before you take your trip) what kind of coverage your policy has.
Some credit cards provide insurance as well, although it's often secondary, so check yours.
I neglected to check with my insurance or credit card companies. When an employee asked whether I wanted basic or comprehensive coverage, I tried to decline both. She asked me the name of my insurance company, then told me the company didn't cover rental cars.
By the time I called my insurance company and confirmed that I had liability coverage but not comprehensive, I had already paid for four days of basic coverage. Had I known, I would not have taken the extra insurance.
Check your car carefully before you take possession of it
Don't just look for dings and dents, and do take pictures of any damage you see on the car. Two hours into my road trip, I noticed that one of the car's mudflaps had become dislodged. Even at fairly low speeds, I could hear the flap rubbing against the tire.
Had I been more careful, I could have gotten this fixed before my trip or chosen a different car. Fortunately for me, a friend was able to secure the mudflap in place.
Check your final bill
When I saw my bill (my partner returned the car for me), I was charged about $3 more a day than the quote in my reservation. A manager I spoke with explained that I was likely charged for the car that I returned rather than the car I drove off with.
Because of the flat tire, I had to exchange my original car for another car, which happened to be a tier higher than my mine. (It was the only one available.)
Dissatisfied? Let others know
I called the car rental company to fix the extra charge on my bill. An employee assured me it would be taken care of. I checked my credit card a week later: no refund.
I asked an assistant manager to refund the insurance charges I was misled into buying. He called my insurance company and defended the extra coverage. After I argued with him for a few minutes, he agreed to refund three of the four days of coverage.
Frustrated with these encounters, I turned to Yelp.
I left a one-star review with my gripes. A couple of days later, someone from the company's social media team responded, asking me to email with more information.
A couple days after I responded, a branch manager called and refunded the remaining day of insurance and fixed the overcharge as well. He sounded happy to do it too.