By Ben Popken March 13, 2007
A former manager in the Enterprise fleet sales division has a guilty conscience to unload at your feet. 9 tips, 5 pages of insider info about how the car rental game really works. Car rental insurance is a scam, but you can flip the script and use if to your advantage. Prices are liquid, and depending on the day of the week and how you butter your agent in certain ways, you can get a good deal. Despite the commercial with the brown-paper-wrapped car, Enterprise employees hate picking you up and dropping you off.
Don’t use the tips that require lying. They’re just there so you know how the game works.
The flagellation begins, inside…
I sat down wanting to send you a quick list of ways customers can get the upper hand at the Enterprise rental counter, but I know entirely too much about this business to make this brief. In more than six years of employ with ERAC I worked as a grunt (“management trainee”), assistant and branch manager, and finally a manager in the fleet sales division. I know every sad angle of the rental car business and I think people should be educated about some of the games that go on behind the counter. This list is truly the tip of the iceberg; I left the company because I had some misgivings about corporate policies toward customers and employees, but needless to say I picked up a lot of information along the way. I assure you every bit of this is accurate as of February when I left my post, minor details may have changed but I highly doubt it.
Now, Confessions from the Enterprise rental counter:
1. Enterprise doesn’t have any set prices. That rate you got when you called in was either the full retail rate, or the first number that popped into the agent’s head. There are three main categories of rentals: personal (retail), corporate, and insurance, but on every single contract that goes out the agent manually types out how much you pay per day and he has authority to make it pretty much whatever he thinks you should pay. When an employee makes a reservation it’s critical to key in the rate quoted so the branch knows what to charge the customer when she comes in otherwise nobody would know what to charge. A good branch manager trains his employees to adjust the price as needed to keep the lot sitting tight, that means making some way-too-cheap deals when there are too many cars around. It also means someone walking in saying they need a car no matter the price, that customer might get charged twice what he would have paid just asking for a car.
2. By now everyone knows that you don’t need that extra rental insurance but just like service contracts at Best Buy, you can negotiate the daily rate of your rental down by agreeing to add all the insurance (we call it “full boat” when some poor soul gets soaked for all of the extra protections–damage waiver, personal accident insurance, and supplemental liability: the trifecta of consumer stupidity). One of the lines that I used to use was, “For just a few bucks a day you got a million dollars of coverage.” True, but the full million dollar payout from the supplemental liability doesn’t come due unless you die. Gruesomely. Nothing says you can’t initial the “decline” box instead once your contract is printed, thereby declining the insurance and paying only your lower rate.
3. Managers are the ones responsible for how much insurance (usually called “waiver”) their branch sells–frontline agents (“manager trainees”) aren’t commissioned, they just look a lot better on paper if they sell lots of waiver, this is also how they get promoted. The branch manager or assistant manager will be just as likely–if not more so–to drop the daily rate in order to sell you his pricey insurance package.
If you want to secure a really low daily rate but stay on that employee’s good site (i.e. so you can get the same deal again and again), take your rental by any Enterprise in the region the next day and remove the extra coverage, you can take that coverage off at any time but if you pay for one day’s coverage the person that sold you the waiver still gets credit for the sale and you get the cheaper daily rate for the rest of your rental, win-win.
4. This is the big money tip: Most of Enterprise’s business comes from insurance replacement rentals. Insurance customers pay a lot less and all insurance contracts have unlimited miles. The only substantial difference between a retail deal and an insurance deal (other than price) is that insurance clients are billed in a calendar day instead of a 24-hour clock, this means you can return a car anytime until closing and you’re still charged the day’s rate (conversely, if you have the car at 8am you may as well keep it until 6). If you’re going on a long vacation this can save you a fortune: that minivan that cost you $69.99 per day retail goes for $37.99 if your car is in the body shop and Allstate is footing the bill, the SUV we roll for $109 per day retail is $50.99 if you’re renting because some State Farm customer smashed up your car. The daily rates vary by geography. Insurance rates are negotiated for each region, but they are usually around half of daily retail rates.
Here’s how to get that insurance rate on your next rental: Call for a reservation, say your car was totaled and you need a replacement; your insurance company is cutting you a check for $25.00 per day flat so you need something for under $25. Tell the agent that your insurance company is State Farm, or Farmers, or someone big–the big insurance companies have the best rates (rates will vary a few dollars from company to company). You’ll need your own proof of insurance when you come in but don’t that needs to match what you say here, nobody cares and people utilize different insurance companies for all kinds of reasons (you were hit by another company’s insured is probably the main reason). The important thing is that the insurance company is cutting you a check so you’re responsible for this rental, you’ll bring your own credit card, you don’t even know who your adjuster was (if you know the name of a local adjustor you can use it, Enterprise’s computer will show the adjustor’s name but nobody’s going to check, State Farm uses regional teams for their claims so for State Farm you could say “State Farm Team number something, I forget the exact number.”).
The agent hates these calls–the cheapest car on his books is more than your lousy $25 allowance. In this case he is supposed to give you ‘standard insurance rates’ which are midway between what a big insurance company pays and retail, but in this instance he’ll usually just source you to State Farm’s bargain prices because it’s not worth his time. He should offer you an economy or compact for somewhere around the $25. Stick to your guns: you absolutely have to keep under your $25. He can work that price to come to exactly $25 after tax (or close, if not just call another branch). By now you’re locked into the insurance company’s rates and he knows you’re cheap: if you want an upgrade now is the time: “well I did have a Taurus, my adjustor mentioned I should be able to get something
like that for $29.99, can we just do that instead? I can’t really afford it but I think I need the space for my kids.” Remember to be as nice as possible, if the agent likes you he’ll make the deal even if he has to go out of his way to get your car (hint: mentioning you might need supplemental insurance can work wonders to seal the deal, see above).
Daily insurance rates are flexible per region and carrier, in my region which was a major Southern metropolitan area daily rates start around $21.99 for the economy, $23.99 compact, $27.99 mid, $30.99 full, $40.99 premium. Minivans start around $37.99, SUVs around $50.99, Luxury is rare on insurance deals but starts around $49.99. This is the bare minimum insurance replacement cost, rates are generally higher in the East and Northeast, a touch lower in the Midwest, and a lot higher on the West coast. Adjust your figures up or down depending on your geography, call two or three branches and you’ll have a good idea of all the rates in your region.
5. Enterprise runs the “weekend specials” because there are loads of spare cars on weekends. Airport and tourist-heavy places won’t have much for you, but neighborhood branches will be “sitting fat” (way too many cars) 40 out of 52 weeks of every year, a branch that has zero cars on the lot can pull a car from another nearby store that certainly will have too many. Weekends are hard on insurance adjustors’ numbers so they push the body shops to get all their jobs done by Friday evening, therefore a ton of rental returns come in on Fridays. Prices for the weekends are especially flexible, entirely dependent on how many cars there are in the area. I usually told my employees to roll a car at ANY price just get it off my books–having a car unrented over the weekend is murder on your branch’s numbers, the more expensive the car the more we need to get it off the books for that weekend. If you want the premium car for $14.99 a day and I have one, I’ll roll it (only caveat being you have to add my extra insurance if you want that price _and_ unlimited miles…plenty of locations are open on Saturday just stop by and remove the insurance tomorrow but keep your lower price). Enterprise corporate really frowns on cutting the rate and adding insurance but it’s a great tool to clear out the lot on Friday afternoon.
6. For the best weekend deal call up on Friday sometime before 2pm and say, “I have all my info, drivers license and credit card, can I get a rental all setup so I don’t have to do anything but sign the ticket when I come in?” This is GOLD because now the agent can pre-write your ticket and get that car off his books before the 2pm count (if a car is unrented at 2pm, it counts against the branch for that day so he’ll write your ticket before 2:00 and then the car can sit there all day for all he cares). Have your rate in mind and ask for it–don’t be afraid to make your own price! If there is a car available, you’ll get that car. If you still can’t get the rate you want, casually mention you probably need the extra insurance. He’ll write the contract now, then you initial the “decline” boxes when you come for the car (so you changed your mind). The contract is already written; he can go back and take off the waiver with just a couple keystrokes, it’ll probably cheese him off but you’ll get your lower rate and not pay for the insurance.
7. What if you’re traveling to a far away city and don’t want to use the insurance replacement method? Call ERES at 1-800-Rent-a-Car and tell them you’re a State Farm adjustor from [whatever city you’re from]. Your wife/mom/dad/whoever is going to be needing a car in [whatever city you’re going to]. Here’s some jargon for you, say: “I can’t exactly send the reservation over on ARMS [the automatic reservation system, which would make State Farm pay the bill] can you help me get her setup with my rates?” Insurance adjustors are treated like royalty at Enterprise, they’ll bend over backwards to make you happy.
Any insurance company will do, adjustors are the top of the customer pyramid. A little more jargon to help you look like you know what you’re talking about: Ecar is economy, Ccar is compact, Scar is midsize, Fcar is full, P-car is the premium, then SUVs and Minivans are usually just referred to as SUVs and Minivans, an adjustor probably wouldn’t ask for a luxury but that’s an Lcar. So you would say, “My wife is in Buffalo this weekend I need to get her something close to an F-car, pickup Friday evening drop off Monday, can you get that set up for me? Also, you guys are so good to us, my wife really has to get to her mom’s house, can you maybe note on the reservation this is an adjustor’s wife and she’s really in a hurry so they know to take care of her?” When she shows up at the branch they’re going to give her the best car they’ve got, probably a free upgrade if there is a spare one around, and send her on her way without any hassle about extra insurance (remember, she’s married to a state farm adjustor, she certainly knows not to take the extra coverage). It’s a courtesy for one region to help out another region’s adjustors when they pass through since adjustors refer the bulk of Enterprise’s business.
8. Enterprise has what they call “ESQI,” like car dealers each branch is rated on how many customers rate our service as 5/5 on the phone surveys. Anything less than 5 is the same as zero. Managers have to answer for this number like you can’t believe, so next time you forget to fill the tank or you bring a car back a few hours late, say there was some problem with the car–it smelled smoky, wasn’t running right, anything that says you’re not entirely happy with your experience. Most people just turn the car in and go; you’d be amazed what you can get away with just so the manager makes you “extremely satisfied.” I’d happily waive up to a full day’s rental charges if I think that’s needed to keep you happy, a grunt doesn’t have much stake in the ESQI but he has the authority to do the same. Policy depends on the branch, but it’s pretty standard to allow any rep to waive up to a day’s rental (or a tank of gas, something equivalent) without even asking if they thought it was necessary to get me a 5/5.
9. One final note: employees truly will give you a better deal the better mood they’re in. All employees universally hate ‘the ride,’ where we have to pick up a customer and drive them back to the shop. If you make us pick you up, even if you’re really close, we won’t be so happy to serve you as if you’d walked in. Set the deal up on the phone and if you can get a ride in, do it. It seems small but every little bit helps, the agent is holding all the cards until your contract gets signed, you’re already getting a way too cheap deal on his car–give the guy a break if you can get a ride in just as easily.
— BEN POPKEN