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I’ll admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for National Car Rental, as it was one of the first to allow travelers to pick their own car rather than being assigned one at random. I’ve also thought their commercials — featuring actors Patrick Stewart and Patrick Warburton — were pretty funny. But here at The Points Guy, we’re all about travel rewards, and the company’s Emerald Club program provides many opportunities to make your rentals more rewarding.

In today’s post, we’ll take an in-depth look at National so you can make the most of your car rentals this summer.

In This Post

Basics of 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).

National says that its Emerald Club 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 car. When you’re arriving at an airport with no Emerald Aisle, you can use the app to select a vehicle based on its year, make, model, color and even its mileage. You then just visit the counter to pick up your keys, and the app will hold that specific car for you 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.)

As far as rewards go, you’ll earn 1 rental credit for every qualified car rental. Seven of these credits will then get you one free day in up to a midsize car. In other words, rent seven times, get a free rental day. Since this scheme offers rewards based on the number of rentals you’ve made — not the price or number of days you’ve rented — this is a great program for travelers who make numerous short rentals.

Other benefits of basic Emerald Club membership include:

  • No second driver fees — 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.
  • Priority service — At locations without Emerald Aisle access — including Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean — members get expedited service.

You can unlock additional perks by earning elite status with National.

Emerald Club Executive Status

You’ll receive National Emerald Club Executive status if you complete 12 paid rentals or 40 paid rental days in a calendar year. This status is also granted to holders of any World Elite Mastercard. To be upgraded to this status, call a Mastercard travel advisor at 1-855-802-1387. For more on this perk, read my post comparing the World Elite vs. World Mastercard programs.

Popular travel rewards card that are part of the Mastercard World Elite program include:

  • Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard — $99 annual fee, waived the first year; earns 2x miles on American Airlines purchases, at gas stations and at restaurants, offers a first bag checked free
  • Citi Executive AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard — $450 annual fee; includes Admirals Club membership, earns 2x miles on American Airlines purchases
  • Citi Prestige Card — $450 annual fee; earns 5x points on air travel and at restaurants and 3x points on hotels and cruise lines, up to $250 in travel credits each year, a 4th Night Free on hotel stays
  • Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard$99 annual fee, waived the first year; earns double miles on all Hawaiian Airlines purchases and 2x miles on gas, dining and grocery store purchases, limited time offer of 60,000 miles after $2,000 spent within the first 90 days

You can also receive National Emerald Club Executive status if you hold The Platinum Card® from American Express, and this privilege is even extended to authorized users on the card. For more information, read my post on Credit Cards That Offer Elite Status for Car Rentals.

Additional benefits of Emerald Club Executive status include:

  • Executive area access — Full-size and above cars at the midsize rate
  • Free rental days after just six rentals (~15% faster) — Valid for up to 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 (~30% faster) — Valid for any car class except trucks or exotic vehicles.
  • Private airport delivery — If you are arriving by private aircraft at a small airport in the US or Canada, they’ll have a car waiting for you.

Earning Other Points and Miles

Instead of earning credits toward free car rentals, members can earn frequent flyer miles and hotel points from about two dozen different programs, including several US carriers and many foreign airlines as well as hotels like Radisson Rewards and Hilton Honors. 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.

That said, if you want to earn points or miles with a partner, simply log in to your Emerald Club account, navigate to your profile, click on Rewards Preferences, and select the program in which you’d like to earn.

Earning Credit Card Rewards

Certain cards — like the Sapphire Preferred — offer bonus points and primary car rental coverage.

As when renting a car from any company, the key to earning the most rewards is choosing the right credit card. The following cards offer bonus points for all car rentals purchased directly:

Note that some cards — including the Sapphire Reserve and Sapphire Preferred — also offer primary car rental coverage, which will cover any loss, theft or damage to a rental without you needing to file a claim with your personal insurance company. This can offer great peace of mind when renting a car for your upcoming trip.

Tips for Maximizing National Rentals

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, you 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. You can also find some of these on National’s specials page.

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 rentals of 8-11 days count as two. Then if you rent from 12-15 days, you’ll earn three credits and 16-19 days will get you four credits. Generally speaking, 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 seven days. They also only cover the base rate; you’re still responsible for additional taxes, fees and surcharges.

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 can be combined, but again, you’re limited to only seven free rental days in a row one a single reservation.

5. Consider Premier selection vehicles — If you want to rent something exotic, National offers its Premier selection for an additional fee at select 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 has featured cars like Corvettes and Maseratis. Like an airline’s first-class buy-up offers, this is a point-of-sale program, and the upgrade fee doesn’t relate to the price of the car that you already reserved. In other words, the total amount you’ll actually pay is lower if you upgrade from subcompact than it would be if you upgrade from a midsize. However, 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 — at an added fee.

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 pay with the one you’ve just opened as you work 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.

7. Consider using AutoSlash — Even though you must book directly with National to utilize the agency’s loyalty program, there are still tools at your disposal to drop the price of your rental car. One of our favorites here at TPG is AutoSlash. Once you’ve booked your (refundable) car rental with National, submit your reservation details to AutoSlash, and the site will track the rental for price drops.

You can learn more about how you can save money with AutoSlash in this podcast episode of Talking Points where Brian Kelly sat down with the CEO.

Bottom Line

National Car rental is much more than the snazzy ads you see on TV, as its Emerald Club offers a variety of ways to make your rentals easier and more rewarding. With the company’s popular One, Two, Free promotion likely launching in the next couple of months and the ease of picking up Executive status, hopefully this guide will help you maximize your National rentals this summer and beyond.

Featured photo by Becker Bredel/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

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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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