Pros: very low rates
Cons: older cars; franchisees may surprise you with massive surcharges
On a recent trip to Oakland, California, I rented a car from Payless Auto Rental. It was quite an experience!!
Unlike the big nationals like Avis, Hertz, and Alamo, Payless (and most notably Enterprise) is a franchise, and the SFO and OAK franchises have the same owner, Acceleron Corp. Franchises tend to be more conservative about surcharges than the national companies, because each franchisee owns their own cars; the person behind the counter at Avis doesn't care your bumper is scratched, because they just fill out paperwork and let someone else deal with it. It's not their own car. They're not as protective of it. At a franchise if the bumper gets scratched, the employees know their boss will be upset about it. Franchises can also vary widely in service and reputation; nationally, Payless has common marketing, insurance, forms, and reservations, but other business practices depend on individual franchisees. Take that into consideration when forming general conclusions about a company.
My rate: Using Orbitz, Payless offered the lowest weekly rate of $90.99 (plus taxes) for an economy car. The next lowest rate was on the order of $150.
Picking up my car: Oakland's airport runs a shuttle coach to a common rental car center. From there, you pick up a phone and call payless which runs a shuttle to their office at the Holiday Inn. If I knew about it, I could have taken the Holiday Inn's shuttle directly from the airport and saved a half hour.
The Payless counter is a small office in the Holiday Inn. they had one person working behind the desk. When I got to the hotel there were another three renters in line in front of me, so I was in line for about 45 minutes.
Insurance: I always decline the insurance when I rent cars. Usually this only requires you to "initial here." Payless, however, requires you to present an insurance card to decline insurance. Technically this is required by California law, but it's rarely enforced. The insurance required is not collision (which covers their car), but liability (which covers your driving). I did not have my insurance paperwork with me, but luckily I knew where I filed it and my roommate was home and was able to fax it to the hotel desk, otherwise liability insurance would have cost $90 for the week.
Other restrictions: I was told to carefully inspect the car for damage before taking it. I was also told that they track the car with GPS, and unlimited miles applied to California only. So if I drove it out of state I would be charged $1/mile from Oakland. (The story about one unfortunate 3,000 mile trip even made international news: http://tinyurl.com/yuo4h)
The car: I got a two-door Suzuki Swift. It was clean and shiny. The odometer showed 64000 miles.
Problems: I noticed the key flexing a little after the first day - it was a little old. Then the second day I parked in a meter spot at the conference I was attending and holy cow! the key snapped in the trunk lock. I called payless and they said they would need a few hours to get out there with a replacement key from San Francisco which was about 90 minutes away. I said I'd try to fix the key myself and they said that would be good. So, I borrowed some pliers and extracted the key from the lock. There was a mechanic next door who said there's a good locksmith down the street. It was about a mile walk but it was sunny and warm. The friendly master locksmith carefully duplicated the broken key. It was a little tricky he used calipers to individually read the notches before stamping them. He also noticed a uneven wear and adjusted the notches accordingly. He put the broken key into an attractive little pouch. Nice service for $8.
I was a little short of cash so I gave him $6 and an IOU for $2. When I went to pay in the full the next day, the rear-view mirror fell off its mount as I turned a corner. Luckily I had some chewing gum which helped tack the mirror to the mount to keep it from falling off again.
Returning my car: Returning the car there were two extremely irate renters in line in front of me upset about various things. After they left I handed the friendly counter agent (must be part-owner if he sticks around through that much abuse) my broken key and asked if he could reimburse me $8 for the nice key I had made. He said no, and if I didn't give him the new key he would have to charge me $75 for the broken key. I said okay I'll keep the key I paid for and leave the dispute up to the credit card people. He left to call his manager, and when he came back he said the charge would be $150 if I only returned the broken key. I suggested $250 but he insisted on $150. Should be okay I called the credit card company and they said it'll be okay they'll take care of it.
Will I rent again: Yes! But next time in Oakland I'll buy all the insurance and have some fun with the car.
My suggestion: Rent from payless, but read the rules and fine print both when you reserve and pick up, research the individual franchise, call from the plane to verify your reservation and rate especially if your flight is delayed, bring your personal auto insurance paperwork, inspect and inform of damage before you drive off the lot, check the tires for tread, photocopy your rental agreement and charge slip before returning the car, and don't be afraid to be overcautious.