Note:I was compensated by National Car Rental for this post. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
As the holidays approach and COVID-19 concerns continue to guide every step we take outside our homes, many households are discussing, debating, and strategizing how they might take a business or leisure trip safely.
Airlines are detailing their cleaning protocols and celebrating a recent study that found the risk of exposure to COVID-19 during air travel is low. Conversely, a recent study noted that consumers deemed car rentals to be the safest mode of transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To build on these studies and further reassure travelers that there’s no need to rush out on the road airlines, hotels and car rental companies are extending expiration dates on loyalty program benefits for those who must or choose to stay home. National Car Rental, for example, is extending its Emerald Club Program Free Days, previously expiring December 31, 2020, a full year, to December 31, 2021. And was the first car rental company to do so.
“Extending Emerald Club Program Free Days a full year will provide [members] with more opportunity to use the rewards that they’ve earned,” said Randal Narike, Executive Vice President, Global Mobility and Customer Experience at Enterprise Holdings. “We hope that this allows them the flexibility to rent a vehicle down the road for that much-anticipated business or leisure trip when they are comfortable and able.”
The Emerald Club is also rolling over any qualifying rentals and rental days above those needed to get the member to the next tier, giving the member a balance into the following year. Not an Emerald Club Member? You can sign up for free.
In many communities, car rental bookings are getting a boost now and into the holidays from both car owners and non-car owners who do not feel safe or comfortable using public transportation right now to travel to and from an airport. And many people feel safer being in a car by themselves now too for day trips, road trips and business travel.
The cleanliness promises and procedures car rental companies now offer make renting a car an appealing option. Staff has had time to be trained in the new systems and the programs have been road-tested.
In preparation for my holiday road trip, I took a close look at National Car Rental’s Complete Clean Pledge, which promises that each car is washed, vacuumed and sanitized according to CDC guidelines. The system lists 20 high-touch key area that are cleaned both inside and outside of cars.
The touch points listed for cleaning caught my attention.
Some I expected. Some I had not considered or been previously concerned about, but find myself pleased to see on the list.
And some made me rush down to the garage to do a good wipe down on parts of my own car.
Here is the list:
Door handles (interior and exterior)
Seat pockets and seat surfaces
Cupholders and cup holder compartments
Areas between seats, consoles and the seats and door
Even the savviest traveler can use a few new tricks each year, whether on the road for business or leisure.
So here are some of the expert tips I gathered for a recent CNBC Road Warrior piece.
Before the end of the year, take inventory of your frequent flier miles. Claim credit for any missing miles and decide if you can top off—with an extra flight, hotel stay or mile-generating purchase—accounts where you are close to getting elite status perks for the following year.
When shopping for new flight reservations, sign up for fare alerts, enlist helpers such as Kayak’s price forecasting tool and remember the “24-hour reservation requirement” put into effect in January 2012 by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The rule requires carriers to hold a flight reservation for 24 hours without payment, or allow a reservation to be canceled within 24 hours without penalty if the reservation is made one week or more ahead of the flight’s departure date.
“If you see an airfare you’re comfortable with, book it,” said Kayak spokeswoman Maria Katime. You can continue your research and, if you find something better, go back and cancel.
Reasonable rental cars
When it comes to cars, reserve once you know your dates and have done some shopping, but recheck prices closer to the time of travel. “Prices can drop last-minute, depending on the actual availability of cars versus what the companies anticipate,” said travel expert Carol Pucci, who saved more than $100 with this method on the Big Island of Hawaii. “It was easy to do because I hadn’t prepaid, which is hardly ever a good idea given the chances of prices falling,” said Pucci.
To make sure a rental car company doesn’t charge you for scrapes, scratches or dings already on the car you’re issued, “take pictures of the car before you drive it away and when you return it,” said Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the business travel website Joe Sent Me.
“Rental firms are getting extremely aggressive about these charges and since the cars in the fleet are older these days than they used to be, there’s more of a chance you’ll be given a car with a ding and/or scratches,” he said.
Honing in on hotel deals
Sign up for the frequent stay program of any hotel you visit to take advantage of free perks that can include complimentary breakfast, free Wi-Fi and welcome amenities such as cheese plates and bottles of wine for even the first-time guest.
Research room rates and hotel property reviews online, but as a final step, call the hotel you’ve chosen. “Once I narrow down my hotel choice, I call the hotel to see if they have any better offers then what I see online,” said Rob Connors, assistant vice-president of marketing for National Car Rental. “Your membership in a club or association might get you an added discount, and many times hotels offer special rates for suppliers calling on nearby companies.”
It’s also a good idea to check city tourism sites for short-run, special promotions.
Some cities have destination marketing funds and packages designed to generate room sales during off-seasons. The inaugural Hotel Week LA runs from Nov. 29 to Dec. 14, and in 2015, more than 30 Manhattan properties are participating in the fourth New York Hotel Week from Jan. 3 to 18. The programs offer significant discounts rate for some of each city’s top, usually very pricey, properties.
Vancouver’s “Be Vancouver” promotion gives guests $125 American Express prepaid gift cards for bookings made by Nov. 16 for stays through Feb. 28, bringing rates in some upscale hotels down to less than $60.
“The offers coming from that program are the best we have on offer,” said Jim Mockford, general manager of the Listel Hotel. “They’re highly targeted in regards to time frame, so you have to be quick and flexible. So it’s always a good idea to put your name on the mailing list of your favorite hotels. You’ll hear about some great deals that you’ll never see anywhere else.”
Choosing travel gear
To get the best bang for your buck when shopping for travel gear “make a list of three to five ‘musts’ for your new bag and prioritize these as you do research,” said Michele Marini Pittenger, president of the Travel Goods Association.
“The manufacturer’s warranty policy can be an indicator of durability, but be sure to check the dimensions of new carry-on bags to avoid getting dinged by extra charges when flying,” she said.
When to use a travel agent
Modern online booking tools and mobile apps make it easy to research and reserve much of your own travel. But the customer services of a travel advisor who can quickly reroute and rebook you when there’s a travel snafu can come in handy.
“When it’s a trip that matters—family vacations, celebration travel, a destination you want to experience rather than ‘see’—that’s when you most need a travel advisor,” said Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel agencies. “Not only will they save you precious time, they can save you money with negotiated hotel benefits and extensive firsthand knowledge to ensure that you get exactly what you expect from the trip.”
Boarding the bus
“Bus travelers typically save 50 to 55 percent versus the train and 55 to 73 percent versus flying,” said Joe Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and author of the Traveler’s Tradeoff study comparing intercity bus, plane and train fares across the United States.
“The ‘sweet spot’ for bus travel involves trips between 125 and 300 miles. Driving can be tedious, but air travel is often not cost effective,” he said.
When to book the bus?
“As early as possible,” said Megabus spokesman Mike Alvich. “Generally customers booking 30 to 45 days in advance will see the greatest savings, but even last-minute trip tickets are still very affordable in comparison to last-minute airline travel or even the cost of filling the gas tank of your personal vehicle.”
Smarter destination choices
You may not have much choice where business trips take you, but you can save money on leisure trips and avoid crowds by heading for South Africa, Shanghai, Uruguay, Portugal or some of the other “best-value” destinations on Lonely Planet’s Best Travel 2015 list.
Choosing “almost-as-good” alternatives to classic experiences in more expensive cities can also save cash.
“European cities are stuffed full of amazing historic buildings and churches that can be seen and explored for free without the crowds of big-name things,” said Lonely Planet’s editorial director, Tom Hall. “Gorilla trekking might be an unforgettable experience in East Africa, but looking out for chimpanzees and smaller primates can be much more fun and is certainly easier on the wallet.”
It’s been stop and go for car- and ride-sharing companies such as Lyft, uberX, FlightCar and RelayRides at San Francisco International, but a new agreement has given one business a green light to operate legally at the airport.
That’s good news for fans of RelayRides, a San-Francisco-based peer-to-peer car-sharing company that since August has provided departing passengers free airport parking and car washes, while offering arriving visitors great rental deals on those cars.
RelayRides, which has car shares available in 1,900 U.S. cities, had argued that it was exempt from having to pay the airport the same fees that traditional rental-car agencies pay because it operates in the shared-economy marketplace.
But that didn’t sit right with SFO, which derives about 10 percent of its annual operating budget ($94 million in fiscal year 2011-12) from such fees.
The airport maintained that RelayRides and FlightCar, another business with an almost identical car-sharing service, must pay rental-car concession fees to operate at the airport.
San Francisco International has filed a legal complaint against FlightCar, but under the first such agreement between a sharing-economy company and a major U.S. airport, RelayRides has agreed to be classified as an off-airport rental.
That means that, just like any other off-site car rental company, it will abide by state and airport permitting, licensing and congestion-reduction rules. It also will pay SFO 10 percent of gross revenues from its airport-related transactions, plus a $20 per-transaction fee, said airport spokesman Doug Yakel.
A traveler heading to the airport can reserve a free parking spot for a qualified car at the RelayRides lot, and then take a shuttle to the terminal. RelayRides will wash the car and make it available to qualified renters at a rate the company touts as 20 percent to 40 percent less than traditional car rentals. It also provides owners with a $1 million liability policy.
The agreement, announced Monday, is a win for SFO because the airport “is being creative about new streams of revenue while maintaining and expanding services to passengers,” said airport concessions consultant Ellery Plowman of Elleco.
But travelers also gain, Yakel of SFO said. “We want to provide options that our customers are already seeking out. We also need to enforce safety and fairness, and this shows that it can be done,” he added.
In a statement, RelayRides CEO Andre Haddad said the deal illustrates that “airports and sharing- economy companies can work together” and will serve “as a blueprint for how RelayRides plans to grow its business at airports.”
Though other peer-to-peer car- and ride-share services are not authorized to operate at SFO, that may change in the near future.
FlightCar CEO Rajul Zaparde said vie email that his company is “in dialogue with SFO,” and Yakel said the airport has been meeting with representatives of several sharing-economy groups that it hopes will be soon be authorized to operate there.
The arrangement with RelayRides is being examined by other airports, including some that have taken legal action against FlightCar and other companies operating sharing-economy transportation services without concession agreements.
The stakes are high. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. airports earned $1.5 billion from rental car company fees last year—or about 20 percent of their nonaeronautical revenue.