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In the summer of 2021, rental car companies seemed caught off guard by the sudden recovery in rental car demand. Rental companies had downsized their fleets and staff to make it through the worst of the pandemic downturn. Then, rather suddenly, travelers started taking to the road once again, and incredibly long lines at rental car centers became common.
Unfortunately, we aren't quite through the worst crunch of the rental car recovery. Hertz's average American fleet size was still 34% smaller in fall 2021 than in fall 2019, and Hertz can't make up that 200,000-vehicle difference overnight. Add in staffing shortages and the upcoming holidays, and conditions are ripe for long wait times to become a serious problem once again.
In fact, online rental car booking service AutoSlash saw a 65% increase in its rental car bookings for Thanksgiving 2021 compared with 2019. And rental cars in popular tourist destinations like Kauai, Hawaii, have been booked solid ahead of the 2021 holidays, according to AutoSlash.
No one wants to delay the start of their vacation or trip to visit friends and family by waiting in line at a rental car center. Here are our top tips for how to avoid long lines at rental car counters.
5 ways to avoid long lines when renting a car
If you want to be among the many who cruise past the check-in counter to grab their keys and go, be sure to:
1. Sign up for rental car loyalty programs
For some rental car companies, skipping the line is as easy as signing up for the company's loyalty program. For example, Hertz Gold Plus Rewards members can skip the counter and pick their car from the lot at most major airports.
AutoSlash provides a detailed list of programs that allow you to skip the counter just by signing up for the loyalty program. However, not all major brands give members this option. You'll want to avoid companies that require all renters to pick up keys from the counter.
Note that it's not enough just to sign up for a program. Make sure to complete the critical step of adding your loyalty number when you book your rental car. Even when booking a rental car through a third party like Priceline, you can enter your rewards number. The extra effort is worth the time saved at the counter.
» Learn more: 10 tips to rent a car cheap
2. Get rental car elite status through credit cards or airline/hotel elite status
An even better way to skip the long lines at the airport rental car center is by having elite status with a rental car company. You may already have access to rental car elite status through a credit card or leveraging your existing airline or hotel elite status.
For example, cardholders of The Platinum Card® from American Express can enroll to get Avis Preferred, National Car Rental Emerald Club and special elite-like perks when renting through Hertz. Terms apply.
IHG Rewards Spire Elite members can enroll to get Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Five Star elite status. Five Star status comes with perks like free upgrades, bonus points and no additional driver fee for your spouse or domestic partner.
3. Check in online before arriving
Some rental car companies allow you to skip the counter by checking in online before arriving at the rental location. For example, for select Alamo locations, you can use the free Skip the Counter option to check in, submit your payment and accept the rental agreement, all online. Once at the rental location, you can pick up your vehicle from the lot.
4. Rent at an off-airport location
It may seem counterintuitive as a time-saving measure to rent from an off-airport location. But renting from these locales may be able to save you both money and time.
"You can avoid many of the taxes and fees rental companies charge at the airport," says Jonathan Weinberg, CEO and founder of AutoSlash. "And it can even be a more convenient option since you can avoid the lines and airport shuttle buses by taking a cab or rideshare to a nearby local office."
Plus, an analysis by NerdWallet revealed that car rentals booked at a downtown location were $126 cheaper, on average, than the equivalent airport rental.
Savvy renters can even save time on the return by booking a one-way rental at an off-airport site and returning the car to an airport location. Just make sure to factor in the wait time and the cost of the extra transportation to the off-airport location.
5. Use a peer-to-peer car rental service
Another way to skip the long rental car pickup lines is to not rent a car through a traditional rental car company. Instead, you can rent a car through a car rental alternative, like Turo, and arrange to pick the car up from the airport.
Turo even has agreements with around a dozen airports to allow for seamless pickup and drop-off.
If you want to avoid long lines when renting a car
Most rental car companies offer so many ways to avoid long lines at their check-in counters that it's a wonder there are lines at all. At many airports, rental car companies allow loyalty program members to skip the counter just by including their number in the reservation. Other rental companies let renters check in online to avoid the counter.
Outside-the-box ways to avoid long lines at rental car centers — and potentially save money — include renting from off-airport locations or from peer-to-peer rental car services. Keep this all in mind the next time you book a rental car and enjoy the stress-free process.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card