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Today, TPG Contributor Jason Steele looks at strategies for renting cars that can fit the whole family without breaking the budget.

When I travel by myself, I have a simple formula for choosing which size rental car to reserve: I pick the smallest and least expensive car available. Rental car agencies rarely stock sub-compact cars, so if I decline the offers to pay for an upgrade, I often end up with a compact or mid-size four door car anyways. Otherwise, I’m happy to enjoy the improved fuel economy and ease of parking that comes with a subcompact.

When I travel with my family, however, the equation becomes much more complex. Our family of four can squeeze into most rental cars just fine, so long as we travel light. On the other hand, we plan some trips with our children’s grandparents, and that requires more room. Sadly, reserving larger vehicles for a reasonable price can be challenging. In fact, I often find the rental price of a mini-van or a three-row SUV to be more than double the rate of an economy car!

Here are some quotes from Expedia for a one week rental in Denver this winter.

Here are some quotes from Expedia for a one week rental in Denver this winter.

Why renting a minivan is like booking a business class award

When trying to rent a mini-van, look for loyalty program awards, as they can offer tremendous value when redeeming points for larger vehicles. The compact car from my example above is a Chevy Cruze, which has a retail price of $17,520. The Dodge Grand Caravan minivan pictured above retails for $20,595 (only about 17% more), yet at best it costs over 100% more to rent, (and often much, much more).

Compare that to the cost of a rental car award with the Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program. A weekend rental award for one day (compact to premium size) costs 550 points, but a specialty vehicle (which includes minivans) is only 50% more. So this is kind of like redeeming 50% more miles for a business class ticket that normally sells for over double the price of economy class.

I recently purchased some Hertz Gold Plus Reward points during the Daily Getaways from American Express and the U.S. Travel Association. By redeeming these points for minivan rentals, I’m getting the most value possible per point, just like you do when redeeming miles for business class airline ticket awards.

Another program that offers awards for larger vehicles is the National Car Rental Emerald Club program. Executive Elite members can use their free rental credits for for any car class except trucks and exotic vehicles, so minivans and full-size SUVs are fair game. Although this is a great benefit, reaching this status requires 25 paid rentals or 85 paid rental days in a calendar year. However, one year of Emerald Club Executive status comes with World Elite MasterCards like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus or Citi AAdvantage Executive.

Unfortunately, other rental car loyalty programs offer rewards in the form of full-size vehicles or smaller, or tie rewards to the rental price of the vehicle, kind of like a revenue based frequent flier program.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Using points and miles directly for rental cars

Most airline, hotel, and credit card reward programs offer some option to use your points and miles for car rentals. While having the option is useful, there are several problems with these types of awards. First, they return poor value per point or mile redeemed (usually only one cent or less). Reward travel enthusiasts typically strive to get at least two cents of value per point or mile; otherwise they’re better off earning miles with their credit cards in a fixed value rewards program such as Capital One Venture Rewards or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus.

Second, these awards tie the amount of miles or points needed to the price of the rental, so families can still end up paying more than double the cost of a sedan in order to rent a minivan or standard sized SUV. Finally, your credit card’s collision damage waiver will not cover a car rental just because you presented it when you were required to in case of damages. You actually have to pay for your rental car with the credit card, otherwise you’ll need to rely on your personal car insurance or purchase insurance from the car rental company. This is not an issue with Capital One Venture Rewards or the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, since you pay with your credit card, and later receive a separate statement credit.

If you do choose to rent with points or miles, the best option is the Chase Ultimate Rewards program using points from the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, or Ink Plus cards. With any of those cards, Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for travel (including car rentals) at 1.25 cents apiece.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Other family strategies

I grew up in a family of five, and most of the time we ended up renting standard four-door cars and squeezing myself and my sisters in the back. As my sisters and I got older, it wasn’t very comfortable, but it got us from the airport to the hotel and on short trips to nearby tourist attractions. In cases like this, when a family can fit into a five passenger car, but would prefer something larger, there are a few options.

Recently, I spoke to a business traveler who is a member of National Car Rental’s Emerald program, which allows Executive members to pick their own car from the “Emerald Aisle.” He was lamenting the fact that when he rented with National during busy times, all that was left for him were minivans. Despite (or perhaps because of) the high rate charged to reserve them, it appears that minivans are not in high demand, and are usually available to those who actually want one.

So while I wouldn’t plan a trip for six or seven people and count on a minivan being available, the Emerald Aisle strategy would make perfect sense for parties of five. Emerald Executive status is a free benefit of the American Express Platinum card. Status is also available from MilePoint Premium memberships, and via a status match.

Another strategy for five people is to try your luck with a mid-sized SUV, which sometimes cost less than minivans. For example, National lists their standard sized SUV as a “Hyundai Santa Fe or similar,” but only guarantees seating for seven if you reserve a full sized SUV.  The Santa Fe actually seats seven, but other cars in its class like the current Jeep Grand Cherokee only seat five. To improve your odds of receiving a seven passenger mid-sized SUV, try calling the rental car location and speaking to a supervisor. You can ask them which vehicles they stock, and see if they have any way of reserving a specific type of vehicle for you. They might tell you that there’s nothing that they can do, but it can’t hurt to try.

The Hyundai Santa Fe is classified as a mid-sized SUV, but it seats 7.

The Hyundai Santa Fe is classified as a mid-sized SUV, but it seats 7.

When renting a car, you should always keep an eye out for coupons, some of which can offer two class car upgrades. Just be sure to check the vehicle class details for each company to see what counts as a mini-van or a full-size SUV if you have to have a seven passenger vehicle.

Finally, the disproportionate pricing of mini-vans and 7 passenger SUVs seems to encourage families to rent two compact cars instead of one larger vehicle. This might be worth considering for two reasons. First, you could try to get a free or reasonably priced upgrade to a larger vehicle when you arrive, which is often an option. But if that doesn’t work, renting two economy vehicles might end up using about as much gas as a standard size SUV, while giving the family an option to split up for a day if they need to. Needless to say, this strategy works best in places where you won’t have to pay for parking.

Conclusions

I’m waiting for a smart rental car agency to win over families by offering similar rates for minivans and mid-sized cars, since they cost about the same amount anyways. Until then, travelers will have to use every trick in the book to find rental cars that fit both their families and their budgets.

If you’re interested in learning more about family travel strategies, Jason Steele and other gurus will be speaking at the Family Travel for Real Life seminar on August 23, 2014 in Sterling, VA (near IAD). Check the link for more details.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Dan’s the Man

    Use priceline.com’s “Name your own price”

    Also don’t be scared about no name car rentals. I got a minivan for $19 a day at MIA this past winter from Payless. It was great renting with them. No line at the counter and at MIA there’s no shuttle anyway you just take the MIA Mover to car rental counters so it’s not like it’s a shuttle that doesn’t run as often as the big guys.

  • John

    Hotwire.com is the best for locked in rates, and don’t forget about Priceline.com, too. I can typically get a mini-van on priceline for about the cost of a mid-sized full price, and since they only rent cars that are at the airport, does it really matter if you are renting from national versus hertz versus budget if they are all at the same lot?

  • Santastico

    On family vacation (2 adults and 2 kids plus lots of luggage) I usually have different strategies. First, I always decline any type of insurance since I use the Premium Car Rental Protection from my Amex Platinum, which at $24.95 per rent (not per day) is a piece of mind for me. Then I do the following:
    1) I always book a standard or full size SUV higher using my Costco membership. In my experience Costco’s prices are fantastic. I just got a 7 day standard SUV rent in Kauai for $230 all taxes included with Alamo which was the best price I could find in any website.

    2) I also book a mid size car with National using whatever coupons I find to make the reservation cheaper. Since I have Emerald Executive through my Amex Platinum I can go to the Executive Aisle and see if a SUV or Mini Van is available. In that case I pay the mid size rental price but get a bigger car. If that is the case, I go to my phone and cancel the Costco reservation.

    In sum, by having a reservation of the specific car I want through Costco I hedge myself in case I cannot get the car I want at National.

  • TR

    So I understand how the car class upgrades would work for compact, economy, midsize/intermediate, standard, fullsize, but is there a set order when it comes to SUVs, luxury cars, minivans, and convertibles?

  • http://www.theonion.com/articles/bro-youre-a-god-among-bros,11333/ Brover Norquist

    The Chase UR mall often has ridiculously cheap rental car rates, that’s been my go-to lately for mini-vans.

  • Wow

    You schlep your “2 kids plus lots of luggage” to the Emerald Aisle not knowing if you’ll find what you want? Then load everything and everyone back up and re-board the rental bus/tram (perhaps having to go all the way back to the terminal) if there isn’t an SUV or minivan, and somehow get to the Alamo lot? You must have a very patient family.

  • PY

    I have the World Elite Mastercard from US Airways. This allows an automatic status into Avis First. All you have to do is call Avis up and ask to talk to the right person to register you. Avis First allows you a free class upgrade “when available” and skipping the lines going straight to the car.

  • Santastico

    In most of the airports we go on vacation all airlines are located on the same area. I won’t follow this strategy if I have to load all our stuff in a National bus to then find out they do not have what I want. Also, you can always call when you are waiting for your luggage and ask what is available in the Executive Aisle. Last, National has an app that in some locations you can see a live view of the Executive Aisle from your phone so you can see what cars are available. Also, National and Alamo (almost 100% of my Costco reservations) belong to the same company so their aisles are usually next to each other.

  • Sheila

    We recently had a very expensive lesson. My husband and I thought we had a minivan reserved online to pickup at the airport in Amsterdam. We arrived there only to discover that they don’t a van for us. They never have vans in their lot. My husband and dad went to different rental agencies in search for a van to take 6 of us around the country. Found one but it cost us $800 for 5 days. My advice is to call the rental agencies to make sure they have one. Online is not always accurate.

  • Justin

    The AMEX Platinum deals with Avis have been great for us lately. We just had a car for a week in San Francisco (crossover SUV) and it was around $20/day.

  • Jim

    I have often found vans too expensive and had to resort to just driving on vacations! Schlepping 5 people and luggage around airports and rental cars is difficult. Especially if you need car seats.

    Once we left our car seats behind thinking we didn’t need them, only to have to rent 3 of them at Hertz. They are as expensive as the car itself! Be sure to check the car seat laws of the state(s) you are traveling to!!

  • Mary

    Like Santastico, I would suggest checking out wholesale clubs’ travel sites. I always check BJs Travel when booking cars. It has saved me hundreds of dollars on a weekly rental over typical travel sites. I also check out prices a week before travel, as I’ve seen prices drop significantly as you get closer to the date of travel.

  • Jorgenson

    Hi Justin, I have the Amex Plat/Avis Preferred. Where is the deal for rentals in San Fran, all I’m finding is $70 a day? Thanks

  • Wow

    Gotcha – I like the strategy

  • Justin

    Hi Jorgenson,

    We rented from 5/23-5/30 and it was $153.77 for time & mileage. It was for an intermediate SUV. There was a 10 percent discount on top of the weekly rate. It may have been based on the week we were renting though.

  • Ben Price

    Why not just get a Virtuoso Advisor to handle the whole thing for you (at the lowest rates available for the best product)? Not a sales pitch – just being honest. Rental cars can be annoying. Have an advisor take care of it for you.

  • Dan’s the Man

    Yeah sometimes they are much cheaper than regular rates. Also if you pay with points you get the 20% discount.

  • Santastico

    Sorry, I meant all car rentals are on the same location (not airlines). Also, my experience when booking through Costco is that depending on the demand on the dates I will need the car prices go down a lot as you get closer to the dates. For my last reservation in Hawaii the price went down 3 times since I first made the reservation.

  • REL

    US folks – can we slightly change our viewpoints. Cars are SIGNIFICANTLY bigger vs. in the past – so a Maxima, Impala, Camry, etc. have more interior space vs. a small SUV and maybe bigger trunk capacity.
    Good idea to stop going with big and conserve a little bit of gas as unless exceeding 5 people or simply fat passengers no reason a large sedan wouldn’t work in most situations.

  • Jorgenson

    Oh ok I see… Wow that’s a great rate for San Fran, usually really expensive in the Bay area. The best I am getting for Avis is $143 for a 1 day Avis rental for December 2014. Gonna look elsewhere.

  • http://www.jasonsteele.com/ Jason Steele

    I love it. Costco is like getting a coupon, and the Emerald Aisle strategy is a great way to combine two pieces of advice. Lots of really constructive comments here.

  • mike

    I recently rented an Avis car through a United Airlines email 2000 mile bonus offer. The link to Avis automatically inputted the coupon codes for the bonus. However, Avis did not give the bonus and still refuses after many emails looking into the issue. The reason Avis is giving is that there was no coupon code on the reservation at the time it was made. But -> it was automatically filled in at the time the reservation was made using the United email link. Any suggestions?

  • Santastico

    There is no way you can fit the same stuff on a Camry, Maxima or Impala trunk when compared to a standard SUV trunk . I am not even comparing volume but just the way trunks are designed in both type of cars. For example, I rented a Grand Cherokee and was able to load the trunk with luggage, cooler, body surf board, etc.. I know the cooler and board would not fit on a car trunk just because of the size of them. Also, SUVs are higher than cars from the ground and most of them are 4×4, so in my Hawaii trip that made a huge difference where we drove in off road trails and a Impala or Camry would never be able to do that. Last, not sure where the gas conservation is coming from. All cars you described have 6 cylinder engines the same that are on a standard SUV. Thus, not sure how do you save much more gas in driving any of those cars.

  • Jumo

    that may depend on where (in your case Amsterdam) and what company. I recently rented a minivan from BWI through Chase UR portal with Thrifty for only 5000 points a day. when I got there and got my paperwork and walked down to the parking lot. I did not see any minivan. When I talked to an agent she said, “oh you are the minivan. here it is” the minivan was parked in the lane (not in a parking space) and still had water beads from a fresh car wash. and when I got in it had the Hertz Never lost nav system… so they must have borrowed it from Hertz to just to fill my reservation.

  • Brian

    I have an AMEX Platinum. Where can you find these deals you mention?

  • Brian

    In the article, you mention that Emerald Executive status is a benefit of the AMEX Platinum card. I’m an AMEX Platinum cardholder, but I don’t see the benefit mentioned anywhere on the AMEX site at the link you supplied. Can you be more specific where it states this and how to obtain Emerald Executive status as a cardholder?

  • http://gotravelzing.com/ Jeff Broman

    I always find Costco to have the best rates. Now they include a second driver for no charge which is nice. I will have to check the Chase UR to see how it compares.

    FYI – There are two versions of the Santa Fe. A 5 Passenger and a 6/7 Passenger.

  • http://www.jasonsteele.com/ Jason Steele
  • Brian

    It only works for some airports in the US, but Fox Rental Cars is usually half the price of any other service. You might have to work a little harder to get to them (for example, 2 shuttles instead of 1 at ONT), but the savings are worth it. Their fleet is pretty small too, so even doing the cheapest res will usually land you a full size.

    Addirionally in Kuauai you can “rent a wreck” at Island Cars LLC for cheaper than the name brands.

    Island Cars LLC
    2983 Aukele St
    Lihue, HI 96766
    (808) 246-6000

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/island-cars-llc-lihue-3?ref=yelp-android

  • shonuffharlem

    Contact United Airlines customer service, it refelcts poorly on them. Contact your State’s Attorney general and the FTC.

  • Mr. Cool

    @Jason Steele
    -how can i check online how many points i need for a hertz rental please?
    -i was told by the hertz rep that i could only check by phone. correct?
    thanks

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