If you believe the accelerating hype from online travel marketers, the Web is a great place to drive home a car rental bargain.
Several companies have advertised Internet discounts of up to 20%, while Budget Rent a Car's new BidBudget feature (http://drive budget.com) invites online vacationers to compare rates and name the price they're willing to pay. The concept is similar to that of Priceline.com, which solicits bids for airline tickets and hotel rooms (car rentals are in the works).
But as I discovered during a recent test run of BidBudget and a handful of other online reservations systems, the car rental companies' complicated yield management policies can be just as exasperating as the airlines' versions. And using the phone can still be faster and cheaper than wielding a mouse--especially because the online systems I tried don't easily incorporate discounted rates that are widely available through AAA or the American Assn. of Retired Persons.
My goal: the lowest rental price on a compact car for a four-day weekend in Albuquerque. I checked rates late last month for arrival on Thursday, Aug. 26, returning the following Sunday, Aug. 29--just outside BidBudget's blackout period (which encompasses major holidays and much of the summer).
My plan: Get an overall pricing picture by comparing rates at a few online travel agencies, then see if I could do better by going to a car rental Web site, making a bid at Budget or phoning a toll-free reservations number.
My first destination was BreezeNet's Guide to Airport Rental Cars (http://www.bnm.com), an online reservation center that offers discounts with several rental agencies and a plethora of useful tips on everything from insurance to "additional driver" policies.
BreezeNet's design was cumbersome and time-consuming, but I eventually landed six quotes--from $30.99 per day at National to $42.29 per day at Alamo.
Yahoo! Travel (http://travel.yahoo.com) is an easy-to-navigate service that uses the same booking engine as Travelocity (www.travelocity.com). It took just two screens to fill out my dates and car size preference, and Yahoo! quickly spit back 11 choices ranging from $27.83 per day at National to $46.99 at Sears and Budget. So far, so good--though as I learned from clicking on a separate "car rental policy" icon, those prices didn't include taxes and fees of nearly 20%, plus a $2 per day "New Mexico surcharge."
Preview Travel's Carfinder (http: //www.previewtravel.com) searches major car rental agencies to find the "best rates available" at top U.S. and international airports. The results are displayed as daily, weekend and weekly rates, but Preview cautions that they are subject to change and may not be available when you try to make a reservation (sound familiar?).
Preview's Albuquerque snapshot showed a daily rate of $37.82 at Thrifty (but for a smaller economy car, not a compact) and a weekend rate of $41.99 at Alamo (again, for an economy car). But when I plugged in my actual travel dates, the results were even cheaper: from $27.83 for a compact at National to $32.99 at Avis and Hertz.
Next stop was National's own site (http://www.nationalcar.com). No dice: Despite icons for "E-rates" and "cybersaver" specials, the best price I could get--after more than five minutes' and five screens' worth of effort--was $30.99 per day.
Feeling lucky, I headed over to Budget (http://www.drivebudget .com). Alas, a posted "Hot Deals" Web rate of $29.99 per day had already expired, and I was quoted a price of $36.99 per day for the dates I planned to visit.
Compared with Priceline, the restrictions on Budget's new BidBudget program are nominal: no one-way rentals and a sprinkling of blackout dates. Budget promises a response within 24 hours, and winning bidders can even change their minds without financial penalty as long as they cancel their reservations at least 48 hours before their scheduled pickup time.
It only took a few hours for Budget to reject my bid of $25 per day. A higher bid of $29 per day came back 12 hours later: Budget had beat my price with a rate of $28.79 per day--but for a smaller economy model, not the compact I'd requested.
Finally, more than a day after I'd launched my online car quest, I called National's toll-free reservations number. In about two minutes, I learned I could get a compact in Albuquerque, using my AAA discount of 10%, for $26.93 per day--a buck cheaper than the lowest Internet price.
Electronic Explorer appears the second Sunday of every month. Laura Bly welcomes comments and questions; her e-mail address is LSBly@ aol.com.