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In the last few years I have rented from every major rental car agency: Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, National/Alamo, etc.

I notice that in every single case when I get there it is a scramble to "find" me a car. Often they do not have the car type I "reserved" and offer me some other kind of car. Also, I notice that on the rental agreement, there is no registration number for the car, it only has the car type ("full size" or whatever).

I gather from all this that when I "reserve" a car, nothing is being reserved at all and all the cars are just in a pool. When a renter gets there they just give them what is in the pool and if the pool lacks the car wanted then the "reservation" is simply ignored.

For example, lets say the agency location only has one full size car left and I arrive with no reservation and ask for a full size car they will give it to me. Now, let's say somebody with a reservation arrives an hour later, his reservation doesn't matter, because I already got the last full size, so he is screwed, even though he had a "reservation".

So, the upshot is: should I just stop bothering to make reservations and show up since it appears to have no benefit to make a reservation?

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    I don't understand the question. When you reserve a car, you always seem to get one, even if it may not be the exact car you want. If you don't reserve one, surely you're more likely to risk being in a situation where they simply tell you they don't have a car for you and send you away? – Zach Lipton Sep 5 '17 at 15:36
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    No benefit of reservation? Did you compare prices of walk-in rent and reservation? – Neusser Sep 5 '17 at 15:44
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    The reservation secures the price. If you walk in and there are no compacts left, you won't be paying the compact price. – Calchas Sep 5 '17 at 16:09
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    @ZachLipton Definitely not the case. I recently reserved a car from Enterprise and was told on arrival "Sorry, we have no cars." – called2voyage Sep 5 '17 at 20:37
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When you reserve (say) a compact car, they may give you a larger or better car but they will generally only charge you the lower price (unless they get you to agree to an "upgrade" it's on them). I once got a convertible for compact price, for example. If you just show up at their door they have no incentive to discount the cars they may have available and may charge a higher price than the one you get by shopping around. If you enjoy haggling maybe this is a feature, but I like to get in and out.

So if you care about the cost, it's a benefit. Even if you don't care about cost, they are obligated to give you some kind of vehicle and not just tell you that their cars are all rented.

With some rental companies you can apparently save time- avoiding the desk and associated queue (and potential up-selling spiels) entirely by reserving in advance with their loyalty program.

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    @Calchas Cool. I would likely be at least mildly irritated by that- the gas mileage on that thing was probably miserable and it would be hard to park in an underground garage or parallel park in a city. Sometimes I plan to drive a couple thousand km on that compact unlimited mileage car and it starts to add up, especially in places with expensive gasoline/petrol. – Spehro Pefhany Sep 5 '17 at 16:10
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    @Calchas Note that sometimes the reverse happens - my mother once got a twelve-seater bus when she was on a business trip and didn't need to carry any passengers at all, just herself and a small bag. She was not happy, because parking that was not fun. – Michael Lugo Sep 5 '17 at 17:39
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    One time I raised holy hell that they gave me an Impala not the Geo I requested. We worked it out and I drove the Impala a different office which had a Geo. it was a matter of 18MPG vs 35... and I was about to circumnavigate the American west. . – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 5 '17 at 18:29
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    One time I had a compact reserved, when I went to pick it up they inevitably offered an upgrade to an SUV for just a few dollars a day. After I declined they said I was getting the SUV anyways because it was all they had on the lot. – stannius Sep 5 '17 at 19:08
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    @called2voyage Without getting too into semantics, I think you have an argument that they did not measure up to reasonable expectations in your particular experience. The guy showing up without a reservation has no such argument. – Spehro Pefhany Sep 5 '17 at 21:26
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NO. You should still reserve the vehicle as that information is used in fleet management. And no, the walk-in should not get the last type in any category if there are pending reservations, so no, the reservations are not 'ignored'.*

The reason for your experiences is that rental inventory for any particular station is just less predictable than other travel related resources, such as airlines or hotels.

They aren't out to get you and the situation isn't mis-managed. If 5 patrons fail to return their Full Sized cars in time, there are downstream consequences. Actually, you should be getting an upgrade in most of these cases.

The best thing to do is join the loyalty program and, when possible, input your flight information. These cars are pre-staged so you can just walk up an go. This is my experience with all the major agencies.

*Be aware that car rental stations have a lot more autonomy then airline stations so, sure, the rental Agent can give away the last car with little controls to prevent this.

Source: personal and work experience.

  • I've only rented a car twice. Neither time did I get what I wanted, and both times I had to pay the full price for the unwanted "upgrade". So this is very much not my experience. This was with two different agencies in Western countries. – l0b0 Sep 5 '17 at 20:13
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    @l0b0 :( Then you got scammed or didn't understand the Upgrade 'offer'. You should insist on the original price even if they have to upgrade you. – Johns-305 Sep 5 '17 at 20:27
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    @l0b0 Well, no, they agreed to rent you a car at a specific price. What happened to you is not at all uncommon. They're probably trained to at least try to upsell the customer. You can still insist on the agreed price. – Johns-305 Sep 5 '17 at 20:44
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The experience you have is quite common. There was time when I reserved car every week for an entire year, so I got quite familiar with the process and managers at two rental car locations here. I also have rented cars in over 25 countries on 4 continents (all but Oceania and Antarctica).

This does not always happen but it seem very common in North America. Even if they seem to be scrambling, your reservation actually did something. It made sure that they expect to have the right number of cars on location. They also know they can get away with giving you a larger car and few people will complain. So what they do given your reservation is to ask for other locations to send a car over ahead of time. What happens is that they also count on cars schedule to return usually within a grace period of a few hours. However people often return cars late, possibly at a later date. Most car contracts - if not all - are written so that you just get charged more at the same rental rate should you decide to keep it longer. Most contracts do not even as for people to call ahead of time if they wish to keep the car longer. This is what causes the most scrambling.

At that point the accommodate your with a different type of car or get one from another location. Many times I has driven by the rental company to the other location having already done the paperwork and just hopped into a car at a different starting point.

As a no-reservation walk-in, you are only offered cars available in the category they are. Some places will call other locations at that point but if they can simply say they are out of cars and send you away. In the end, if you get a car, you will be asked to pay for the price corresponding to its category.

Reservations often come with additional services such as free pickup. The process can be faster too if they collect your information ahead of time. Some places are so efficient that they only give you the keys when you pickup, others require a signature (or more).

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Oh, always make a reservation.

First, you can typically get a much lower rent. The company has a "rack rate" and they discount from there. You think when a traveller limps up to the last open agency on a rainy night at Chicago/Midway, he gets a deep discount? Not on your nelly.

Second, they only upgrade you. They never (or almost never) give you a worse car than the one you agreed to -- and you always pay the lower rate.

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Besides all the other reasons given here, a reservation saves time. If you're a member of the rewards program at a rental car company like Hertz or Avis, they're setup at many airports to allow you to go directly to the parking lot, look for your name on a sign, choose whichever car you want from a particular row (in some cases, they still assign you a particular car, but you often get to choose now), and go straight to the exit, where an attendant will check your ID and give you the rental contract. This is much faster than waiting in line at the counter and you have more choices.

Even if this service is not available at your location, a reservation usually means they have all your personal information and have prepared all the paperwork in advance and have the keys waiting for you, which will make the process faster than trying to start from scratch at the counter.

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    In my experience, Hertz assigns you a car unless you have a higher level of status, while National lets you choose from anything on the 'Emerald Aisle' (if you're reserved at least a mid-size.) My most amusing experience with this was at the Kona airport. They asked which car I wanted from the 5 cars on the aisle. All 5 of them were grey Altimas. It was hard to resist laughing and saying, "I'll take the grey Altima." – reirab Sep 5 '17 at 21:02
  • In my experience, the prepared paperwork is there, but does not speed things up (as in: it often still takes half an hour to complete the paperwork and prevent them from adding yet another upgrade/feature/insurance beyond what was pre-agreed). – Hagen von Eitzen Sep 6 '17 at 11:37
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If you are willing to pay 3* the price you usually get to pay after a bit of deal hunting then go on, stop booking cars in advance :-)

Also, it helps having a guaranteed minimum car level; i.e. I booked a Focus with Hertz, they only had smaller cars left and gave me a droptop Mustang for the same price....

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