Sorting Out Those Frequent Driver Rewards

When Randy Rogers took his two teenage sons down to the Florida Keys from Fort Lauderdale, the boys insisted on tooling around in a convertible. No problem. Rogers, who is co-owner of the Kenny Rogers Roasters chain and brother of the country singer, had become a frequent user of Alamo Rent-A-Car on his many trips to visit the company's restaurants around the country. So he had earned enough points to entertain his kids in a snazzy Mustang ragtop during their vacation--free of charge.

If you rent cars regularly, signing on for a frequent-renter program could be worth your while. Just as airlines and hotel chains offer frequent-flier miles and credit toward free stays, car rental companies are trying to build customer loyalty with their own brands of frequent-user schemes. The rewards include free rentals, upgrades, faster and better service, bonus air miles, and hotel points.

Compared with the airlines, though, rental-car companies are less generous to faithful clients. Only Alamo, Budget, and Payless give repeat customers credit toward free driving days, in addition to priority service at busy locations. And these freebies are hard to earn. To qualify for a free day in an intermediate Alamo car, you must pile up 1,500 points a year. You earn one point for every dollar you spend on a rental and two points per dollar on rentals of three days or more. Budget Rent A Car and Payless Car Rental give you a free driving day for less: four paid rentals of any duration. Payless offers other awards, such as a card you can use for $25 worth of gas at Mobil stations after chalking up 10 paid rentals, or a $75 check you can apply toward a room at Marriott hotels after 25 paid rentals.

Frequent renters can also add to their car-rental credit through special promotions offered by credit-card companies. For example, American Express gives cardholders the option of using their credit-card points to earn free driving days with Hertz, Budget, or National.

The larger rental companies say they'd rather save their best customers time than give away freebies. Hertz, Avis, and National each charge $50 a year for membership in their frequent-user plans, which focus on speedier service for business travelers. "Our customers are saying to us: `Get me out of the car-rental lot as fast as you can,"' says Janet Smyth, Hertz's vice-president for advertising and marketing. "When they get faster service, their loyalty goes way up." Hertz habitues, for example, bypass lines at the rental counters in major airports and take a shuttle directly to the lot, where an electronic board indicates their name and the location of the car. Inside the car, they'll find a preprinted rental agreement based on reservation details and stored data, cutting out time-consuming paperwork. Hertz even warms up the cars ahead of time in frigid weather.

Sounds good, but are these fast-track programs worth $50 a year? "For people who value their time very highly, it's probably worth the surcharge," says Ed Perkins, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. However, no-fee companies such as Alamo and Budget also make the rental process quicker for clients who have rented a car five times or more within a year.

HOTEL POINTS. You don't have to be a frequent customer to get extra benefits from your car rentals. Most rental companies will pamper all clients with extra frequent-flier miles and hotel points, even if renters already benefit from a corporate discount. For example, anyone who is a member of a frequent- flier program can earn bonus miles by picking up a car from an affiliated rental company 24 hours before or after a flight. To rake up additional hotel points, all you usually have to do is rent a car during your stay at one of the partner hotels.

If price is your primary concern, a frequent-renter program may not be much help. With rental companies charging widely differing rates in different regions, being locked into a frequent-user program means you may not always get the lowest price in a given market. By sticking to one company, "you could wind up paying significantly more than if you shopped around for the cheapest rate," says Perkins. That may be true, but a free ride in a convertible on a warm, sunny day can be hard to resist.

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