Rental Car Customers Get Unwanted ‘Upgrades’

Feeling stuck with that SUV or luxury sedan in the driveway? Pity the car rental companies, which own many thousands of them.

Or pity their poor customers, who keep getting stuck with those gas-guzzlers when they try to rent smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

My brother, Patrick, who travels often for business, reported this phenomenon to me last December. He said he kept reserving small cars, only to be involuntarily “upgraded” to larger ones.

I shouldn’t admit this, but an upgrade like that changed my life.

It was about 10 years ago. Somehow, I ended up in a rented Buick LeSabre. I was afraid to drive the hulking thing for the first hundred miles, but slowly I settled in. By the end of the trip, I had developed a serious crush on that big boat of a car. It was like driving my living room around. Mmm. Comfy.

Shortly afterward I bought a used LeSabre. My peeps would have been no more astonished if I had shaved my head and joined a cult. For years, I had driven little Fords and Nissans. This was my first six-cylinder car and first automatic transmission –  and it was an upholstered tank. I loved it.

“Once you drive the big metal, you can’t go back,” my friend Bill warned.

But I have gone back, reluctantly, to a four-cylinder Subaru Outback. Oh, I like it fine. It’s a good car. Too good, really. The Buick was … well, it was sort of bad.

So, anyway. I’ve reformed. The Buick wasn’t really “me.” It was all a (premature) mid-life crisis. I’ve rediscovered my core values. I beg my friends and family to forgive me. I hope the media will respect our privacy at this difficult time so that we can heal. I’ll be entering rehab next week, etc.

And so I have been renting smaller cars. In Turkey I rented a smallish Pugeot (or maybe a Renault). Manual transmission, too.

We didn’t get much of a choice in Turkey, where the diesel fuel cost $8 a gallon, roughly. I think. It was sold in liters and we paid in lira. I commanded my sister Maryanne to figure it out, arguing that she must know some math because she is an engineer. And she came up with $8.

So no wonder the rental cars there are smallish, as they will be here when the rental companies figure out how to unload their SUVs and big sedans..

But, meanwhile, what if? What if I reserved a little car and the agent just insisted that I take some wide-ride Buick or SUV out of the lot. Would I really resist? Or would I take it somewhere, out behind some strip mall, where I could just, y’know … sit there.


4 thoughts on “Rental Car Customers Get Unwanted ‘Upgrades’

  1. Ryan

    Here’e what’s even better. I used to work for a major rental car company and this kind of situation was very common. The practice was to “ghost sell” the customer. What would happen is the customer would come in with a smaller car reservation. We would be out of smaller cars. A salesperson would tell the customer that the smaller car would be back in a half hour and apologize for the delay (there was no car coming back). Then the sales person would show the customer an SUV and offer it to them for only $10 more a day. If the customer said no, they were made to wait. After about 10 minutes the sales person would reapproach and then say how bad he felt for the customer and offer the car at $5 a day. If the customer said no then the customer would wait some more.
    The sales person would then “have a phone call” (no one on the line) and tell the customer that the car wasn’t coming back as expected and give the customer a larger car at no extra cost.

  2. Kate

    Ryan, that’s very englightening. I generally tend to distrust what rental car agents tell me but I didn’t know that they would go through such a dishonest routine on a regular basis. That’s horrifying- why do rental car companies feel the need to cheat their customers so much?
    And about the Buick LeSabre- back when gas was $1.50 a gallon, that was the best car I ever drove. I miss it…

  3. Rob

    Article reflects just one side of the truth. Most rental car company’s offer a free upgrade if the vehicle you have reserved is unavailable.

  4. Ryan

    Why do rental car companies feel the need to cheat their customers?
    I think they feel the need to make money. Renting a tux is like 3 or 4x more expensive than renting a car for a day. Car rental business is competitive and every dollar counts.
    The “ghost sale” thing is so common that it wouldn’t surprise me if all rental car companies used the term “ghost sale” for the practice.


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