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A Business Traveler Vents His Rental Car Road Rage

While planning trips can be tedious, at least the reservation process is modernized. Unless, of course, you are renting a car.

"If I were you, I'd take the full protection," a Budget agent in the San Jose, Calif., airport said. Then she advised me to upgrade to a larger vehicle, take the fuel option and rent a GPS. Never mind that I had my Garmin sitting on the counter between us.

I don't mean to pick on Budget. The practice of upselling customers has become a staple of the category. It's one of many factors that makes renting a car so frustrating. While the rest of the travel industry has evolved into the online era, rental-car agencies remain stuck in 1985--or worse. In those days, you could walk to your car at all but the biggest airports. Now there's a bus or tram to take before standing in line for a car that will likely have 25,000 miles on it. Or isn't the size you requested. Or isn't there at all.

Neil Abrams, an industry consultant and spokesperson, explains that agencies are often more interested in the resale value of their fleet than in divining their customers' preferences. "Sometimes they do better selling off their cars than renting them," he says. On the other hand, they fear alienating consumers by holding them to strict pickup and drop-off times, like a restaurant that books tables only once a night just in case their 7 p.m. reservations arrive at 5 or 9. Illogical?

"The model works for the industry," Abrams insists. "It may not work as well for the consumer."

Uh, no. But I did use one of those interminable shuttle rides to jot down some ways my rental experience could be improved. If someone wants to take it from here, I'll be a loyal customer.

1. Let me choose my car on the internet. I hate surprises when I travel, and one of the most unpleasant is showing up with a reservation for a compact and being given a minivan "at no extra charge." Thanks, but I don't feel like driving a minivan through the streets of Boston. Give me the option to lock in to a specific car--not just a category--from my laptop or iPhone. (I'd even prepay so you'll know I'll show up.) Then it's up to you to get it ready for me.

2. While you're at it, organize cars on your website based on attributes other than size. I prefer mine as new as possible, big or small. Some people want a particular color, or back-seat legroom or good gas mileage. There must be software that allows you to display available cars in real time by a range of specific criteria so we can prioritize.

3. Charge me to cancel my reservation. I'll have to sacrifice flexibility, but most other aspects of my travel day are etched in stone anyway. This way, you'll know when I'm coming and can prepare for what you know I want. And with income from me guaranteed, I'm hoping you won't make your agents give me the hard sell.

Bruce Schoenfeld is the wine and spirits editor of Travel + Leisure as well as an award-winning author and television writer. His wine-, food- and travel-writing has appeared in publications such as Gourmet and Food & Wine.

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This article was originally published in the August 2011 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Rental Road Rage.

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