How to skip the long rental car line — and increase the odds you actually get a vehicle

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In case you haven’t heard, there’s a bit of a rental car apocalypse going on right now. The short version of that story is due a convergence of factors mostly related to the pandemic, car rental fleets have shrunk while travel demand has once again surged.

It was always true that it’s worth the extra step of joining a car rental program before your trip in order to potentially skip the car rental desk line. That has saved me time at pick-up counters more times than I can count — especially in popular leisure car rental spots like Las Vegas, Orlando, Honolulu, Miami, etc…

But now, it’s an absolutely essential step to consider. With a shortage of cars available to rent, it’s entirely possible that there won’t be one waiting for you at all at the end of a long line.

Recently, I rented a car with Hertz from the Orlando International Airport (MCO) for a weekend at Disney World. When we went down to the rental car pick-up area in Terminal A of that airport I was immediately grateful that I was not going to have to wait in the extremely long car rental lines. Talking to some folks toward the front of some of the lines revealed they had just spent close to two hours of their vacation standing in a line to (hopefully) pick up a car.

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And while the longest lines that snaked for one to two hours were for the budget car rental companies such as Dollar and Sixt, most of the car rental companies at the airport had significant lines. This included my company of choice, Hertz.

We often rent with Hertz because of the four-hour grace period afforded with The Platinum Card® from American Express, (enrollment required) but it’s now the ability to skip the pick-up line that is especially clutch.

Related: What to do if you can’t get a rental car

Anyone who is a member of Hertz’s free Gold Plus Rewards program and rents a midsize or larger vehicle at one of the 30 locations that have a Gold Choice aisle can skip the line and counter and simply glance at a board that is typically in the parking garage. That board will direct you to a certain parking stall, a given aisle (Gold, President’s Circle of Five Star), or it could tell you to see the desk.

I’ve had the dreaded “see desk” message before on occasion when a credit card on the account has expired or similar — but the desk in the garage often has a much shorter wait than the primary line inside. And the vast majority of the time, the board just tells me where to go within the garage to get the car. The keys for the cars are all waiting inside and you just show your ID to the gate attendant on the way out of the garage, where they will print your rental car agreement for you.

An added perk of picking the car from an aisle is being able to look at them and select one of the nicer, newer options on the row. On our recent Orlando trip, the first car we considered smelled awful and had over 30,000 miles on it. But just two cars over, we were able to select a newer option with just a couple thousand miles on it.

Even if the Hertz location you are using isn’t one of the 30 with a dedicated aisle, you can still use a shorter check-in line simply by being a member of its Gold Plus Rewards program. That’s how I saved an hour picking up a car rental in Honolulu a few years ago even though that location doesn’t have dedicated aisles in the car rental garage.

Related: Why renting a car is tough in 2021

The Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program is how my family usually skips car rental lines, but it is not the only car rental program that offers this feature. Most — though not all — car rental companies have some equivalent of a skip-the-line option for members renting eligible cars at their busier locations.

  • Avis Preferred allows you to head to your car and then just drive off at Avis Preferred pick-up locations.
  • Budget Fastbreak is an express rental car service.
  • Dollar Express allows you to skip the line and go straight to your car in the lot.
  • Enterprise doesn’t offer a skip-the-line feature the way Avis and Hertz do, but there may be an expedited line for its Enterprise Plus members.
  • Hertz Gold Plus Rewards is a fantastic way to either head straight to your car or access a shorter line at the counter. Also know that within that program, Hertz Five Star membership is available to those with United Silver or Gold status and Hertz President’s Circle membership is available to those with United Platinum or higher status or those with a United Club Card.
  • National Emerald Club allows those who reserve a midsized or large vehicle to head to the Emerald Aisle and just select their car and go.
  • Silvercar allows you to pick up your car with its app, though keep in mind the locations are now off-airport.
  • Thrifty Blue Chip usually allows you to either go straight to the lot or an express counter service line.

Some car rental companies, like Payless, don’t have a way to skip the counter line. This not only means you can’t personally get to your car faster, but neither can anyone else, making it potentially very slow going.

Be careful if you rent via a third-party site because you may not always be able to add your car rental membership number, and thus may end up in a long pick-up line. Also keep in mind if you need something special, like child safety seats, you may end up in some sort of line. For that, and other reasons, it might be a good idea to travel with your own. Here some of our favorite car seats for travel.

Related: How to status match your car rental elite status

Even if it costs you a little more, it makes sense this year to ensure you have signed up for a relevant car rental program, fully completed your profile and double-check that your car rental member number is attached to your reservation. This can save you time, help you earn a free rental and increase the odds that a car is available for you when it’s time for you to start your trip.

Here are some other tips for ensuring your car rental is as smooth as possible:

  • 5 steps to the perfect car rental
  • How to save on rental cars
  • Credit cards that offer elite status for car rentals
  • What to do if you can’t get a rental car

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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