Something astounding happened to me recently at the car rental counter of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
I was picking up a rental car, and an agent offered me supplemental insurance. When I declined it, she didn’t flinch.
She told me that I could upgrade from my reserved midsize if I liked. She mentioned something about a prepaid gas option, but only in passing. I said no thanks to all, and she handed me the contract to initial and sign, then the keys. And that was it.
Renting a car isn’t as easy as just reserving it and picking it up anymore. It has become a test of wills, a faceoff wrapped in tension. Before getting the keys, you must withstand a barrage of pitches for insurance that you may not need, upgrades that you may not want and gas that you may not use. Your good sense will be questioned. Scare tactics are now fair game.
A week before the fairy-tale outcome in Seattle, I’d picked up a car in Las Vegas. It was late, the line was long, and half the agents were on video monitors via satellite. I got a live person. After I handed him my license and credit card, it seemed that I would soon drive off on my way. I just had to answer a couple of simple questions.
First, did I want the standard insurance, the premium insurance or the super-premium insurance? The agent never mentioned the word “supplemental.” He never offered an explanation of the differences between these insurance categories. Nor any prices. He suggested that “most people” went with premium. He’d just put me down for that.
Wait, what? I felt as if I’d just been fleeced, and I wasn’t even at a casino yet.
“Um, no thanks,” I said.
You could almost hear his gears jam.
“What do you mean? Most people do the premium,” he offered as further lack of any need for explanation.
“I’d like to waive any kind of supplemental insurance,” I said clearly, slowly and at an elevated volume, hoping that there were cameras somewhere.
“We don’t recommend that,” he responded.
My strategy in such conflicts — and this was becoming a conflict — is to be diplomatic. But it was 11 p.m. I was hungry. I was tired. So this was all the diplomacy I could muster:
“I don’t care.”
“Ohhhhhhh-kayyyyyy,” the agent said. He sounded more disappointed in me than upset. I could get over that.
The mood lightened. Good news! I had qualified for an upgrade! Instead of the compact that I’d reserved and that was all I needed, he was going to get me in something better!
He showed me a picture of what a compact might look like, though, really, I knew. He said it was small and not very powerful, certainly not suitable for cruising the Strip. (I considered asking why the company offered them if that was true, but refrained.)
He flipped over the sheet and showed me a photo of the souped-up muscle car I had “qualified” for. He explained that it was bigger, more attractive, more appropriate for sitting in a garage at a fancy casino. It would hold more luggage, and it would probably get about the same gas mileage as that poor sickly compact.
There was silence.
There was a little bit of staring.
The next words were going to have to come from him, because my diplomacy was spent.
“Of course, the question is the price difference,” he said.
I gave a half-hearted nod without interrupting my dead-eyed gaze.
“Oh! It’ll only be an extra $80,” he said, as if I’d won something. He didn’t say whether that was per day or for the two days I would be there, which I had reserved for $66, total.
“No thanks,” I said. The “thanks” hurt my tongue a little.
More disappointment from him. But I got out of there in a compact for $66.
Then there are my two tales from Denver.
The first was in June 2010. The agent took a dire tone with me when she saw that I’d reserved a midsize car. She asked what I intended to do while I was in Colorado.
My plan was to drive into Rocky Mountain National Park — on paved roads, nothing crazy — and then over to Aspen for a few days.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. She told me that such a puny car probably couldn’t handle the altitude and might leave me stranded and in danger.
She gave the distinct impression that she might not even rent me a midsize.
“People have died,” she said with a degree of gravity that was just, well, sort of hilarious.
“Because they didn’t upgrade their rental car?” I asked.
The speed with which she changed the subject suggested that she thought the way I’d put it just made it sound dumb. She was persistent, though. Or I was weak. She offered me a good deal on an SUV. I took it.
As we drove through the mountains, I saw a lot of midsize cars. Some compacts and economy cars, even. No one seemed dead.
Then this summer, I went back to Denver on my way to Vail. I reserved an SUV and wondered how the agent would try to “upgrade” me from that.
This time, no upgrade harangue. This guy wanted to talk about the weather.
I told him that I wasn’t interested in supplemental insurance. He explained to me that if I didn’t buy it, and the vehicle was damaged, I’d be responsible for the rental price during repairs, even if the damage wasn’t my fault, but caused by someone — or something — else.
“There’s a lot of hail in Vail,” he said.
I thought it was an intricate setup for a cheesy punch line. But he was serious.
A policy would run me an extra $65 for the duration of my rental. This was a great deal, he told me.
“So $65 to protect me against the possibility that it might hail?” My question was rhetorical. I took my chances.
He suggested that I park in garages when possible.
There was hardly a cloud in the sky my whole stay.
In Nashville, it was all about the prepaid gas option. I’ve never understood the prepaid gas option. You get an admittedly decent per-gallon price with the agreement that you’ll buy a full tank, whether you need it or not?
To make this worthwhile, you have to plan to run out of gas just as you drive onto the return lot. Otherwise, you’re donating whatever gas you left in the tank to them. It’s a great deal if you’re terrible at math.
The agent in Nashville offered me the option, and I turned it down before she’d finished explaining it.
Wait, she insisted, we’ve started a new option where you can decide whether to take advantage of this when you return the car!
I asked her to explain it again. Then a third time. I can opt to prepay . . . afterward?
“Exactly!” she insisted.
It made no sense, but I couldn’t figure out what the downside was. So I agreed.
When it came time to return the car, I had more than three-quarters of a tank. So I topped it off, electing not to take advantage of the fabulous offer. I was almost disappointed.
As the return agent was checking in the car, he seemed confused.
“It looks like the tank is full, but you prepaid?”
No! I explained to him about the fancy new option and how I’d made the other agent explain it three times.
I tried to stay calm.
“Why would we offer something like that?” he asked.
He had an excellent point. While I tried to figure out how to respond to that level of honesty, he said that he’d delete the charge.
Back in Seattle, I walked away from the counter feeling good that I’d gotten what I’d asked for and hadn’t had to get into any verbal warfare to avoid paying more than the agreed-upon amount. I made a mental note of which company it was so that I could direct more of my business to it in the future.
Then I noticed something. The agent was walking away from the counter, too.
There wasn’t some new customer-friendly fiat. She hadn’t sized me up as a scrappy combatant who wouldn’t succumb to corporate shenanigans.
I’d gotten off easy because I was the only thing standing between her and the end of her shift.
Webster is a Washington Post copy editor.