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Ultimate Guide to Choosing National Emerald Executive Aisle or Hertz Ultimate Choice President's Circle

July 26, 2019
13 min read
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When it's time to rent a set of wheels, we all want a nice (ideally fancy) ride that doesn't cost a fortune. Two major car rental programs have launched choose-your-own-vehicle programs in recent years. National's Emerald Executive Aisle was introduced in 2004, and Hertz's Ultimate Choice President's Circle was introduced in 2016. These programs give elite members the freedom to select a car, hop in and drive off the lot in a vehicle of their own choosing. There's excitement around the surprise that awaits you with each rental.

TPG wanted to know which program is best so the staff fanned out to 13 US airports over three months, May through July 2019. More than a dozen staffers compiled data on 621 cars by canvassing lots and checking license plates and odometers and recording car type, age and make. We crunched the numbers on your odds of landing a luxury vehicle, dug deep to understand which program offers fresher fleets and which tends to charge less for the privilege of self-selection.

Overall, National's program offered elite members the best value and selection, but there are nuances to consider. Below, we cover each point in detail, including a guide to securing elite status in both programs simply by holding the right credit cards.

Achieving status

To enjoy the opportunity to pick your own rental car from Emerald Executive Aisle and Ultimate Choice President's Circle, you need to reach a certain level of status with National and Hertz. You could do it the hard way, renting and spending your way to the top. Or, you could simply add two credit cards to your wallet.

Which cards offer free National Emerald Executive status?

Photo by Eric Helgas

Typically, National Emerald Executive status requires 12 paid rentals or 40 paid rental days in a calendar year. By holding any of the cards below, you'll be catapulted to that status level automatically, granting you access to the Emerald Executive Aisle at eligible airports in the US and Canada. Not only will this guarantee you a free upgrade when you reserve using the midsize rate, but you'll also be able to choose any car (full size and above) in the executive area and only pay the midsize rate at airports with an Emerald Aisle.

  • The Platinum Card® from American Express*
  • The Business Platinum Card® from American Express*
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve
  • Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card (no longer open to new applicants)

Other Emerald Executive perks include waived second-driver fees, a one car-class upgrade for rentals at participating locations in the UK, Ireland, France, Spain and Germany and faster earning toward free rental days.

*Enrollment required for select benefits.

Which cards offer free Hertz Gold Plus Rewards President's Circle status?

Earning Hertz's top-tier elite status generally requires you to complete 20+ rentals or spend $4,000 within a calendar year. The sensible route is to put one of the following cards in your wallet, which allows you to claim Hertz Gold Plus Rewards President's Circle status as soon as the card arrives in the mail.

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  • United Club Infinite Card
  • United Presidential Plus Card (no longer open to new applicants)

President's Circle members get one car-class upgrade and a 50% bonus on Gold Plus Rewards points on all qualified car rentals. At airport locations with Ultimate Choice, you'll be able to book a midsize-class vehicle or larger and have access to exclusive vehicles based on your status.

Delta's Diamond Medallion status helps out on car rentals, too (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

It's worth noting that top-tier President's Circle membership is also available to the following elite members of other travel programs. You'll need to consult the terms and conditions of these programs to implement your Hertz status upgrade.

Who offers more luxury car upgrades?

A dream for car renters everywhere is to pay for a modest, midsize car, show up and drive away in a luxury car. Although both programs stock their elite aisles with above-average vehicles, high-end automobiles are typically reserved for paid upgrades only. If it's a Land Rover, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz or Infiniti you're after, you're better off paying to guarantee that class of car.

Luxury cars seem to pull out of the lot more quickly than your average Chevrolet. It's possible that we undercounted them, as travelers showed up and grabbed the nicest cars they found. Several times during our research, we would see employees drop off a BMW or Volvo only to see it pull away minutes later.

We found that roughly 12% of the automobiles at Hertz Ultimate Choice locations were luxury class, while only ~2% of National Emerald Executive Aisle vehicles fit that bill. You're better off selecting Hertz if riding in a luxury car is of paramount importance, but realize that the odds aren't in your favor.

Who offers more new cars?

Of the 621 cars examined in our study, 252 were offered through Hertz and 369 through National. Nearly a quarter (21%) of Hertz Ultimate Choice vehicles were a year old, while 78% were the current model year.

Of the vehicles available through National's Emerald Executive Aisle, 12% were the prior model year, while 87% were the current model year.

If you're after the freshest fleet, choose National, but it's important to realize that both programs seem to offer vehicles that are two years old or newer.

What types of cars will I find?

Nearly half of all aisle selections at both Hertz and National are sedans. National offers a higher percentage of SUVs and trucks, while Hertz offers a higher percentage of coupes and minivans. If you're looking to drop the top, you're better off reserving a convertible from the outset, as this class of vehicle makes up less than 1% of each program's fleet.

We reached out to Hertz and National for comment on the US mix of vehicle types, but both companies relayed to TPG that such intel isn't publicly disclosed.

What makes/brands will I find?

A whopping 24 automobile brands were counted among the 621 cars we spotted. The top five brands at National were Nissan (37%), Ford (10%), Chevrolet (9%), Toyota (9%) and Dodge (9%). The top five brands at Hertz were Chevrolet (27%), Kia (12%), Dodge (12%), Ford (7%) and Chrysler (7%).

TPG contacted National and Hertz to find out if either published an official breakdown of brands. National provided the following: "Enterprise Holdings carries a diverse mix of makes and models from nearly all major vehicle manufacturers. Emerald Club members who reserve a midsize vehicle can choose any car on the Aisle, and 4 out of 5 get a free upgrade when they rent. Executive level Emerald Club members can access the Executive section of the Emerald Aisle, where they are guaranteed an upgrade to fullsize or above at the midsize rate."

National's Emerald Executive Aisle at Los Angeles International Airport (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Citing filings with the SEC, Hertz provided the following fleet composition breakdown by vehicle manufacturer: General Motors (24%), Nissan (20%), Fiat Chrysler Motor Company (19%), Kia (13%), Toyota (11%), Ford (11%), Hyundai (1%), other (5%). These figures align well overall with our findings from the company's Ultimate Choice President's Circle, though Nissan was notably absent from its choose-your-own-vehicle section.

How many miles will the car have on it?

TPG collected odometer readings for 155 Hertz cars (62% of the total) and 173 National cars (47% of the total). The vast majority of the cars in these self-select zones are under two years old, so it's no surprise that mileage was fairly low across the board. The Hertz cars we surveyed had an average mileage of 9,912, while National's fleet had an average odometer reading of 8,195.

Our data show that Hertz has older cars on average, but in general, the two companies are keeping their cars on the road for similar amounts of time.

Hertz President's Circle at Washington-Dulles airport (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

We reached out to both National and Hertz for added commentary on average vehicle age. National provided the following: "National is owned by Enterprise Holdings, which operates a rental fleet of 1.2 million vehicles across its three rental brands (National, Enterprise and Alamo). The average age of the EHI US rental fleet is 8 months."

Hertz offered the following: "During the year ended December 31, 2018, our approximate average holding period for a rental vehicle was 17 months in the US."

Which company is more expensive?

TPG ran mock single-day and weekly bookings during the period in which data was collected, and we found that National was cheaper across the board. To maintain a level playing field, no discount codes were entered for either company. Because both companies open up their selectable car zones to members who book midsize rates, we priced midsize cars on both websites. Our detailed findings are below, including taxes and fees, but excluding optional insurance.

Rental Car CompanyAverage Daily RateAverage Weekly Rate

We searched for these prices on the homepages of Hertz and National, but we do not recommend booking a rental car directly. Instead, always begin your rental car booking at AutoSlash.

The site works both as a place to find discounted rental-car prices and as an engine that continues to look for better prices on an existing reservation, whether booked through the site or not. If it finds a lower price, it will alert you via email and send you the new pricing information, so you can rebook your rental car. It is an amazing tool that continues to save TPG staffers hundreds of dollars on car rentals with little effort. You can also enter your Hertz or National membership numbers on resulting bookings, so you'll still earn credit toward free rental days. You can read more in our comprehensive AutoSlash review.

What about car rental insurance?

A Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is a supplemental insurance option that many car rental providers offer at pickup. However, it’s also a perk with built-in protection that comes with several credit cards. Rental car insurance typically runs between $8 and $18 per day, so it adds up quickly.

When you decline all of the car rental company’s insurance options and the coverage on your credit card is primary, any damage to the car will be covered by the credit card’s protection. This will not cost you a penny, nor will it affect your personal insurance premiums.

Hertz President's Circle garage at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (Photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy)

That being said, there are some country exclusions with certain credit cards; it also typically excludes luxury and off-road vehicles. It’s critical to note that CDW protection does not provide any liability coverage nor will it provide any medical coverage; both of these would fall to any personal policies you have, if applicable. Be sure to read your card’s benefits guide for all of the details.

You can read more on what cards TPG recommends for your car rentals in this guide. One of our favorites is the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which works out quite well because it's one of the few cards that includes National Emerald Executive status.

Bottom Line

National's Emerald Club counter at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (Photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy)

Not only is Emerald Executive status easier to achieve via a wider selection of credit cards, but National's select-your-car program impressed us on several fronts. It was cheaper, its fleet was newer and vehicles had fewer miles on average. I've also found National to offer exceptional customer service. Employees are generally friendly, adept and willing to help, particularly those who assist Emerald Executive customers.

Hertz came out ahead with a higher percentage of luxury cars, but not a high enough percentage that you can bank on getting one. Plus, most insurance policies attached to credit cards exclude luxury cars, so you'll want to think twice about renting one even if you find availability. Hertz also devalued its Gold Plus Rewards loyalty program this year with no prior notice, which means award redemptions cost up to 75% more.

Cards like the Amex Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve offer an elaborate set of perks that extend well beyond the bonus of free National Emerald Executive status, making it easier to justify having one (or both) in your wallet. Hertz Gold Plus Rewards President's Circle is only given as an amenity on one current card, the United Club Infinite Card. Unless you're an avid United flyer, it'll be more difficult to justify using one of your precious Chase 5/24 slots for this card.

Additional reporting by Zach Griff and TPG staff.

Post has been updated to include the years in which each program was introduced.

Featured image by 2019 Chevrolet Blazer (Photo courtesy of Chevrolet)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.