Here's a little test. Think of all the car rental advertisements you've seen in the last few weeks on TV or in the newspapers.
Try to remember some of the great discount deals that were offered on daily or weekly rentals. Take your time. Good memory counts. (You can even cheat if you have one of the printed ads handy.)
Now, look in your wallet or your mailbox. Chances are, if you're a member of an airline frequent-flier program, VIP club, automobile association or credit union, you've been sent at least one "discount" card that allegedly qualifies you for an even better deal on your next rental car.
OK, ready? Now, go down and try to get that great rental deal.
More often than not, you may not find the deal you thought you had been promised. Cars at discount prices are--like many cheap airline seats--subject to availability.
And the discount prices are usually subject--of course--to an interesting number of additional restrictions that limit the real discounts on rates or mileage fees even if the car is indeed available.
Trying to find a true discount on a rental car can often be as hard as finding the black queen in a game of three-card Monty.
A case in point:
Recently I flew from Indianapolis to La Guardia Airport in New York, landing on a Saturday morning. Before leaving Indiana I had reserved a subcompact through Hertz for the weekend, and had asked for the special discount weekend rate. I was quoted $38.96 a day, with 100 free miles a day.
By comparison, the New York rates are about as high as you can get, and almost double what you'd have to pay in other cities. The same car rented on a weekend rate in Los Angeles is quoted at $23.96 a day. In Chicago, it's only $19.96.
But I thought I could better the quoted rate. A few days before I had made the reservation I received a discount card from the California motor club to which I belong.
I also carried with me other discount coupons I had received as a result of my membership in airline frequent-flier programs.
And, because I was a member of the Hertz "Number One" club I was told that I qualified for "express" service. What that means is no waiting in long lines at the airport--you simply get on the Hertz shuttle bus, present your credit card and driver's license, sign the rental agreement and proceed directly to your car.
I approached the Hertz desk near the baggage claim at La Guardia. I asked if they had my reservation. They didn't.
"But I have express service," I reminded them. The agent laughed. "It's not working today," she said. "This is New York."
They advised me to get on the Hertz shuttle bus anyway. When I got to the rental car parking lot I was forced to stand in a long line of angry customers.
Fifteen minutes later, when it was my turn, I gave the counter agent my name. She found my reservation. But the rate I had been quoted was nowhere to be found. I was told the car would cost $52 a day!
I insisted I had a reservation for a $38.96 rate. The agent looked again, and found it. "Yes," she said, "it will cost you $38.96."
Now, I was ready to deal. I pulled out my airline club discount card.
The agent was clearly unimpressed. "I'm sorry, that only works on our regular 'affordable' daily rate of $52, and your discount will only bring it down to $42 a day."
I then tried my auto-club card. The agent shook her head again. "No," she said, "that discount card only applies if you rent a larger car during the week, and it's only a 5% discount."
It was beginning to look as if someone were doing a revival of "The Out of Towners" and I was being auditioned for the Jack Lemmon role.
I had no choice. If I wanted a car for the weekend, the cheapest rate would be $38.96.
Did I want to buy the collision damage waiver? It was $8.95 a day. My own insurance already covered me, so I declined.
How about the personal accident insurance at $4.95 a day? I declined again.
And finally, did I wish to buy "personal effects coverage" at $1.25 a day. Again, as my own insurance policies covered me, I declined.
I was now sure that the most they were going to get from me was $38.96 a day.
"And where will you be returning the car?" the agent asked.
"I'll drop it off at one of your locations in Manhattan when I return," I said.
The agent shook her head again. "No, the car must be returned to the airport. If you return it to Manhattan the daily rate changes to $52. If you rent the car here, you have to return it here. This is New York."
I reluctantly agreed to return the car to the airport.
Now it was time to decide what car I wanted to rent. "I'll give you the car with the lowest mileage," the agent offered. The winner: a Ford Escort with only 6,535 miles.
After 20 minutes of waiting and 10 minutes of futile negotiations, I had received one consolation: at least it would be an almost new car.