It's a good thing I'm not a dog. Dog's are supposed to be loyal, and that's one thing I am not -- at least when it comes to chosing travel services. I am a budget traveler, through and through, and I make no apologies. In my opinion, smart people don't overpay for things, and I like to travel smart.
When it comes to rental cars, I often find myself avoiding the biggest names in the industry because, frankly, they stink when it comes to providing honest value for a rental car dollar. When it's my own money I'm spending, I tend to favor companies like Thrifty -- companies that seriously compete on the basis of price, not just on overblown marketing hyperbole and advertising.
And you know what...you don't really give up that much, but you can save big time.
I've rented from Thrifty dozens of times over the last few years, and here's a few of my thoughts and observations on how they stack up against the competition...
Your Coach Awaits...
Let's face it, most car rental companies today have young, well-maintained fleets. Thrifty is no exception. Most cars are Chryslers that are less than 2 years old. Once in a while, you'll get something else, but generally, it will be a Chrysler (or Dodge).
I call myself The World's Cheapest Traveler(tm), so of course I usually get compact cars when I'm traveling on my own dime. With Thrifty, that usually means a Dodge Neon. When the price difference is minimal (or I get a free upgrade), I get mid-sized vehicles like the Dodge Stratus.
My most recent Thrifty rental was a Dodge Neon with 3,000 miles on the odometer. That's pretty much typical of what I get with them. The highest mileage vehicle I've ever been given was a Stratus with 20,000 miles on it. Your mileage may vary...
One of the things I like about Thrifty is that they often have pickup trucks available. I like pickups. They're more fun to drive than sedans. Not all Thrifty locations have pickups, but quite a few do -- usually Dodge 1500s, although I've rented Ford F-150s at their Houston location and I've seen Chevy Silverados on their lot at other places.
As far as I know, Thrifty doesn't do any high-end luxury cars. No BMWs, no Jaguars, etc. Most cheap travelers (like me) won't usually care about this, but Hertz has lately been touting their lineup of super-premium rental cars, and I've got to admit, the prospect of cruising around town in a new X5 or Jag X-type is mighty tempting -- if you've got the disposable bucks that is.
Overall, good quality late-model Chryslers. Fine by me...
The Price is Right -- Most of the Time
You've heard it before, you'll hear it again! I call myself The World's Cheapest Traveler(tm), and you know what? It's true!
Needless to say, price is a factor very near and dear to my stingy heart. When I'm paying, price is the number one factor in deciding who I rent from.
When I rent from Thrifty it's usually because they offer me a far better rate than their competitors. I always shop rates -- there's just no sense in paying too much for a rental car that I'm just bumming around town in for a few days.
I don't always get the cheapest rates from Thrifty, but it happens often enough that I rent from them at least a few times every year. (Tip: Check Dollar and some of the regional companies, like Payless and Advantage -- they can often beat Thrifty.)
Most recently, I got a rate of $17.99 per day for a compact car at Washington Dulles Airport (IAD). For that area, this isn't just a cheap rate, it's an incredible rate. On top of it all, I was given a car that was spotlessly clean and had low mileage. Just try to beat that at Hertz or Avis -- you can't do it! That's why this cheap traveler often finds himself renting from Thrifty...
By the way, don't believe their spiel about saving money by pre-paying for a tank of gas. You'll be charged slightly more per gallon than local stations, regardless of claims to the contrary, and the charge is for a full tank. Think about it. How often do you truly let the tank go to empty. Not often. Chances are, you'll be returning it with at least 1/4 to 1/3 of a tank. On my last rental, I was told it would be $16.50 to pre-pay the gas on a Neon. The day I returned the car it had about 1/4 tank left. I topped off at a no-name gas station a few miles away -- total cost $8. Not a huge difference, but I'd rather have that extra $8.50 in my pocket instead of someone else's. Be cheap and be smart -- fill the tank and don't pay the "pre-paid gas" option.
Locations, Locations, Locations
One of things that you often give up when renting from Thrifty is the on-airport locations. Nowadays though that seems less important as more and more airports force all rental companies to use off-site lots. Even still, it seems to me that Thrifty is somewhat more likely on average to have the lots that are further from the airport. That's not always the case, but it seems to me that it often is.
At a couple of airports (notably Houston[IAH] and Salt Lake City[SLC]) the Thrifty locations are every bit as convenient as the biggest competitors. At some, they're only slightly less convenient (San Diego[SAN]), but at some airports, they're a little off the beaten path (Dulles[IAD], Minneapolis[MSP] -- both of which are in nearby hotel lobbies).
Surfing for Cars
I really like the clean, intuitive design of Thrifty's web site (www.thrifty.com). It's easy to check rates and make a reservation online.
I really only have two complaints about the site as a whole, and neither will affect most U.S. users in any serious way. First, there's no special "deals" page -- I like the sites that include info on current promotions, last-minute weekend deals, and similar sales and gimmicks that can save you money. Second, the site is not particularly friendly to an international audience. There's only one alternative language, and it's French, which seems bizarre to me since it's such an "also-ran" language in today's world economy. I would think they'd at least offer Spanish, which is the major language for most of the Americas (including the second-most used language in the United States), and at least one or two of the major Asian languages.
Service and the Edge
In general, I find Thrifty to be a little slower and a little less service-oriented than their bigger competitors. Part of this may be simply the price you pay to save some money. When I'm in truly cheap mode, I'll almost always put up with slightly less convenience in exchange for saving money.
Reserving through the web is easy and straightforward, but because you need to enter a credit card number, I usually prefer the added security of reserving by phone without providing credit card info.
I don't like Thrifty's automated phone reservations system. It's inflexible and it wastes my time. The phone reservations system is more extensively automated than other companies, and it is not particularly well implemented. For example, you must specify a car class (size). The system does not understand "best available rate", which is frankly, kind of dumb implementation for just about any travel related service. Cheapskates like me want to save money, but we're also after value, so if a mid-size car is about the same rate as a compact, we might upgrade. It's only after a live human eventually comes online that I can go back and review all the other rates. Of course this saves Thrifty absolutely nothing in terms of time over what it would take to just dump the silly automated system.
Thrifty often has smaller presence at airport locations, which translates into less frequent shuttle pick-up and drop-offs. When coupled with sometimes more distant locations, this can translate into significant delays. If you understand this, and budget for the occasional lags, you'll keep your blood pressure down to manageable levels. It helps to remember that Thrifty saves you money...
Pick-up and Return
Pick-up is not particularly fast unless you're a Blue Chip member -- more on that in a second. In general, Thrifty seems to me to be slightly slower on pick-up than other companies.
Thrifty is generally slower on returns than other rental companies. They don't seem to use the "roving return agents" like some of the bigger agencies use, so you often have to wait for agents to do the check-in manually. A return now takes me about 2 minutes at Avis, but about 10 at Thrifty. That makes a difference when you're in a hurry.
When I refer to "the edge", I'm talking about Thrifty's "Blue Chip" program. I recommend that anyone using Thrifty on more than a very occasional basis sign up as a Blue Chip member. Enrolling as a Blue Chip customer helps you in two ways: it speeds check-in when picking up cars, and it helps ensure that your rentals get accurately credited to your airline frequent flyer accounts.
Enrollment forms are available at Thrifty locations, or you can sign up via the web at www.thrifty.com. You'll be asked to provide information about yourself, including credit card data, and you'll be asked about general preferences -- like what kinds of insurance coverage you want by default.
Once you get your Blue Chip card, you'll be asked for the number when you make reservations, then when you pick up the car, most of the data is already in the agent's system so you don't have to waste time waiting for it to be typed in or to listen to spiels for insurance coverage. Check-in really is faster for Blue Chip customers.
I'll Be Back
I've rented from Thrifty quite a few times. I imagine I'll be renting quite a few more. I've never had a truly bad experience with them, although they could do quite a bit more in the area of customer service. Still, I get good rates on good quality cars, and that's really all I want to have to pay for. When I'm traveling on my dime, you can bet that this cheap traveler will consider Thrifty again!
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