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Your Points, Miles & Loyalty Guide To National Car Rental

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Car rentals aren’t always as easy to maximize as hotel nights and airfare. To help you make the most of this travel expense, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele is taking a look at the major car rental companies and their loyalty programs. Below, he explains the ins and outs of National’s Emerald Club.

I’ll admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for National Car Rental, as it allows travelers to pick their own car rather than being assigned one at random. I also enjoy their commercials featuring actors Patrick Stewart and Patrick Warburton. In today’s post, I’ll take an in-depth look at its Emerald Club program as part of my series of Points, Miles & Loyalty Guides to major car rental companies.

About National Emerald Club

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National Car Rental is owned by Enterprise Holdings, which is also the parent company of Alamo and, of course, Enterprise. Under the Drive Alliance program, cars can be booked from any Enterprise location through NationalCar.com, and you’ll earn credits toward free rental days and elite status with National when renting from Enterprise, but not Alamo.

I spoke with Susan Madigan, director of brand marketing for National, who said that the program is designed to offer customers choice, speed and control. This means that all Emerald Club members get to bypass the counter — even without elite status — at 50-plus airports in the United States and Canada. You can see the list of airports locations that offer this service here. Also, when you book a midsize car, you can choose any car that’s midsize or above and only pay the price of a midsize. Even when you choose a compact or subcompact car, you may still be able to choose your own car from a selection of vehicles at many locations.

National offers a fairly advanced mobile app with a Virtual Emerald Aisle at locations with unsecured lots where the keys cannot be left in the card. So when you’re arriving at an airport where there’s no Emerald Aisle, you can use the app to select a vehicle based on its year, make, model, color and even its mileage. Then you just visit the counter to pick up your keys. You can use the app to reserve a specific car for 15 minutes. This doesn’t sound like a very long time, but remember that this is for small airports which typically have a rental car lot just outside of the terminal. That said, those with checked bags should probably wait until they have them before reserving a car.

Other benefits of basic Emerald Club membership include:

  • No second driver fees — So you never have to pay extra for a family member or business associate to be added to the contract.
  • One-click online reservations — Your profile information will automatically be applied, making it quick and easy to book travel.
  • Free rental days — Basic Emerald Club members earn one free rental car day for every seven rentals.
  • Priority service — At locations without Emerald Aisle access — including Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean — members get expedited service.

Emerald Club Executive Status

Renters receive Emerald elite status when they reach 12 paid rentals or 40 paid rental days in a calendar year. You can also receive Emerald Club Executive status upon request when you hold any WorldElite MasterCard, including the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard, the Citi Prestige Card and the Hawaiian Airlines card. In addition, all versions of The Platinum Card from American Express offer this status upon request. For more information, read TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen’s post, Credit Cards That Offer Rental Car Elite Status in 2015.

Additional benefits Emerald Club Executive status include:

  • Executive area access — Get full-size and above cars at the mid-size rate.
  • Free rental days after just six rentals — Valid for a full-size rental.
  • Guaranteed upgrades — When you reserve a midsize or above.

Emerald Club Executive Elite Status

Members earn Emerald Club Executive Elite status after 25 paid rentals or 85 paid rental days in a calendar year. Unfortunately, being granted Emerald Club Executive status from a credit card doesn’t get you any closer to reaching Executive Elite status.

Although Executive Elites rent from the same Executive Aisle as those with Executive status, additional benefits of this top-tier status include:

  • Guaranteed reservation — With 24 hours notice.
  • Free rental days after just five rentals — These days are valid for any car class except trucks or exotic vehicles.

Earning Points and Miles When Renting from National

Instead of earning credits toward free car rentals, members can earn frequent flyer miles and hotel points from about two dozen different programs, including most US carriers and many foreign airlines as well as Club Carlson and Hilton. National does include some small surcharges when earning miles for some programs. The problem is that the airline or hotel determines how many points or miles you’ll receive, and the amount of the surcharge that National charges is not disclosed until you make the reservation. So in general, it’s better to earn credit toward a free rental than to pay to earn miles at a questionable cost.

Earning Other Rewards When Renting from National

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers 2x points on car rentals, plus primary car insurance.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers 2x points on car rentals, plus primary car insurance.

When renting a car from any company, the key to earning the most rewards is choosing the right credit card.

The following cards offer 2x points for all car rentals purchased directly:

You can also earn double Ultimate Rewards points for all travel purchases — including car rentals — with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. In fact, this card also offers the advantage of primary rental car insurance. For more information on how important primary coverage is and which cards offer it, read TPG’s post, Credit Cards That Offer Primary Car Rental Coverage. In addition, you can earn 3x ThankYou points for travel from the Citi ThankYou Premier Card.

Tips for Maximizing National Rentals

Get the most out of your National car rental by knowing the tricks to the Emerald Club program.
Get the most out of your National car rental by knowing the tricks to the Emerald Club program. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

1. Save money on minivans and SUVs — One of the complaints that I’ve heard from business travelers about the National Emerald Aisle is that it’s full of minivans. But as a family traveler, I find this to be a great feature. Minivans and other three-row SUVs typically rent for much more than mid-size cars, but when you can find a these cars in the Emerald Aisle, only pay the mid-size rate. For more information, read my post, Rental Cars For Family Travel.

2. Use coupon codes — As with most rental car companies, you’ll get a much better rate when you use a coupon code or corporate code. These codes are available to employees of many major companies and members of large organizations.

3. Understand how free rentals work — To get the most out of the Emerald Club’s free rental program, you have to understand how it works. First, you get credit largely for the number of car rentals, not the number of days. Rentals of 1-7 days only count as one rental credit, but eight days count as two. This program rewards those who rent frequently for short periods rather than those who rent for longer. Finally, it’s important to know that free rental days can be combined, but only for up to three days.

4. One, Two, Free — Every year, National offers its popular One, Two, Free promotion which offers a free rental day after each two rentals of two days or more. This promotion usually lasts from mid-August through the end of January, and free days can be redeemed through mid-June. These free rental days are earned in addition to the normal rental days and are combinable, but again only three days in a row can be combined.

5. Premier selection vehicles — If you want to rent something exotic, National offers its Premier selection for an additional fee at 25 locations. This program is open to anyone (not just Emerald Club members or elites), and the price of the upgrade is displayed on the vehicle. For example, National is currently featuring Maseratis. Like an airline’s first-class buy-up offers, this is a point-of-sale program and the upgrade fee is relative to the price of the car that you already reserved. So you’ll actually pay less for the same vehicle if you upgrade from subcompact than if you upgrade from a mid-size, but availability is never guaranteed ahead of time.

Just note that many exotic and luxury vehicles are excluded from the rental car insurance offered by your credit card, but the optional American Express Premium Rental car insurance will cover many of these cars. For more information, check out my post, Choosing the Best Credit Card for Car Rental Insurance and read TPG’s post, Credit Cards That Offer Primary Car Rental Coverage.

6. Store multiple credit cards — National allows you to store multiple credit cards in its online profile, and you can choose between these cards as you wish. For example, you may wish to rent with a different card when traveling for business versus vacations. You can also choose the best card to maximize your credit card rewards, or one you’ve just signed up for and need to meet the sign-up bonus. The best part is that you don’t need to go to the counter to show them the card when you switch credit cards in your profile, as some companies make you do.

What are your favorite ways to maximize National car rentals?

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