Your Money: With Uber and Lyft Nearby, Rental Cars May Be Ripe for a Comeuppance


3. The wait once there is also totally unpredictable, and when you get to the counter you will endure Faustian refueling options and a scary insurance upsell. That’s “hate-selling,” as the folks at the travel news and research company Skift have memorably termed it. If you are a loyalty program member and can go straight to your car, lucky you. But beware of confused drivers while you wander the lanes looking for your vehicle.

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Passengers at Los Angeles International Airport waiting for Uber drivers, an alternative to cabs and rental cars.

Credit
Monica Almeida for The New York Times

4. You will inspect the car’s exterior carefully, and it won’t be easy in the dark or the rain or the snow — or all three simultaneously. Don’t skip this step. If you do, you may spend months trying to keep the car company from charging you for damage you didn’t cause.

5. Perhaps now you will head back to the terminal to pick up your family and luggage and car seat, because who wants to move that whole scene via airport train or bus? You will install the car seat at the curb near arrivals, while cars inch around you, horns honking, and the toddler wails and the cops get irritated because you’re taking too long.

6. Or maybe you’re traveling solo. Much easier. Or so it seems until you get to the toll plaza, where there are no humans and you can’t use cash or credit cards. Did the car rental company tell you whether you have a transponder or how the system works? No. What does it cost? Hmm. Is it working? Later, you’ll find that if you used a toll transponder once, for a single $2 toll over a three-day rental at Hertz or Avis, you’ll be charged a usage fee for all three days on top of the toll. Oh, and you probably won’t get your toll bill for days or weeks afterward, because that comes separately, though you may be able to look up its status by typing a reservation number into a third-party website somewhere. So good luck getting your expenses done quickly.

7. You dodged the refuel upsell, so good for you. But now comes the range anxiety. Is there a gas station near the airport? Will I have time to find it at the crack of dawn and refuel? Will the rental company notice if I drove 12 miles after refueling? They might at Thrifty, where the company demands receipts.

8. Return the car. And read the receipt really, really carefully, since the insurance charges you declined loudly so as to avoid this very moment (because you’ve been to this rodeo before) will sometimes show up anyway. You will not be able to get them removed without waiting in a line somewhere else while the countdown clock to your flight ticks away and you worry about the length of the security line.

9. Repeat steps 1 through 3, except this time heading back to the terminal buildings.

Or here’s another alternative: You can press a button on your phone when you get off the plane, climb into a Lyft or Uber and go.

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Travelers navigating one of the many steps involved in renting a car from Hertz at Los Angeles International Airport.

Credit
Monica Almeida for The New York Times

This won’t be a real choice on many trips. You don’t want to install that car seat in multiple Lyfts on a weeklong vacation. Plus, Uber is not helpful in most rural areas and can get expensive if you’re going long distances each day. And there can be less rental-car hassle at smaller airports.

But in an increasing number of areas and situations, the Lyft and Uber experience for both business and leisure travelers is simply worlds better than turning to a rental car. It’s superior to taxis, too, since they are generally harder to call or hail than a Lyft or Uber vehicle unless you’re at an airport. Plus, not having a rental car means no parking fees or tickets and no distracted driving while trying to hear Waze spit out directions in unfamiliar environments while you dodge trucks and watch for bikers darting about.

How do you figure out which ground transportation option will work best for you? It isn’t always easy, since you want to be sure you can hail Lyft or Uber wherever you are, in any random destination.

The companies are trying to reduce this range concern by allowing people to book rides in advance. That way, you won’t have to wonder whether a car will be near you 12 miles from the center of Orlando when you push a button at 6 p.m. on a Thursday. Lyft will give you a firm price quote, which may include a surge premium if it thinks one will be warranted based on historical data. Uber won’t lock the price in until right before your trip.

Given all this, I feel genuinely bad for rental car company executives. Airports and municipalities practically legislate pain into the process, since they generally decide where the companies can set up shop.

But the whole experience doesn’t have to be like this. Silvercar, a newer rental company with a fleet of Audi A4s, operates just outside many airport properties but will come pick you up and may even leave your car waiting in the airport short-term parking lot. There is no paper rental agreement, and you open the car with your phone. Toll transponders cost nothing, and fuel refills upon return are a flat $5 plus the (non-marked-up) market price of the gas.

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The Hertz counter at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday.

Credit
Monica Almeida for The New York Times

For this, you might pay $65 or so a day, which most likely represents a premium over a generic midsize car from Enterprise (but could be comparable to what higher-priced operators like Hertz may charge). First-timers at Silvercar, however, qualify for a $39 daily rate if they are not renting in New York City. Silvercar’s chief executive, Luke Schneider, figures that there are plenty more people who will eventually throw up their hands at the alternatives and sample his offering.

“If I have to go through a whole lot of brain damage to get a rental car, maybe service is valuable to me,” he said.

I had hoped to inspire a vociferous response from the likes of Hertz (which also owns Dollar, Thrifty and Advantage) and Avis (which owns Budget). But Hertz wouldn’t talk when I shared my initial thoughts about this column, and Avis didn’t even reply to my messages. I was particularly pointed in my inquiries about charging a per-day fee for toll transponders on days when people aren’t even using them, but they did not bite. And really, how can you defend the indefensible?

Enterprise charges the fee only on days that you actually roll through a toll plaza. “It was a more customer-friendly approach,” said Lisa Martini, a spokeswoman.

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Hertz advertised a service in which, for $34, an employee would drive customers to their terminal after they returned their rental car.

Hertz is trying to up its game, adding digital booking agreements and electronic receipts in recent months. But then I got a recent hate-selling email urging me to avoid “worries” and “hassles” by letting an employee drive me back from the Hertz lot to the terminal for $34. “That’s gouging,” said Silvercar’s Mr. Schneider.

I take no special pleasure in pushing the Lyft or Uber button. These companies barreled into cities without regard for local regulations, made light of important insurance issues and have taken their cars offline or threatened to in places like Austin, Tex., when they don’t like the local rules.

But when they’re up against competitors that inspire only sweaty sighs of relief when you’re done with them, it’s not really a fair fight. “Rental car companies have such an aggressive, non-customer-friendly form of selling a product,” said Jason Clampet, Skift co-founder. “So it has a lot of people cheering for them to get their comeuppance.”

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