rental cars

Travel subscriptions for flights, hotels, cars

Paying for travel month after month

[This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News online]

There are subscriptions for just about everything these days, including streaming services, pet toys, meal plans, even crime-solving kits, and every year there are millions more people willing to pay for them.

According to an international survey by Zuora Subscribed Institute, 78 percent of U.S. adults paid for subscription services last year. The financial services firm UBS predicts the subscription business will continue to grow by 18 percent a year, to $1.5 trillion by 2025.

The travel industry has stayed on the sidelines for much of the subscription boom. But that’s changing. Airlines, rental car companies, and a growing number of hotels and resorts are introducing or expanding their subscription plans to attract the work-from-anywhere workforce and the growing number of leisure travelers who want to go to more places and stay longer.

The industry is “jumping on the subscription bandwagon because it locks in customers and increases profits,” said trends expert Daniel Levin of the Avant-Guide Institute, a travel and trends consulting company. For the right travelers, subscriptions can offer “the one-two punch of lower prices and greater convenience.”

But subscription deals also come with restrictions and fees that can make them costly if travelers’ circumstances change.

Subscribe and Fly

In 2009 and 2010 JetBlue offered the All You Can Jet pass, which gave pass holders unlimited flights for a month.

For very frequent travelers, American Airlines currently offers AirPass, a twist on the $ 250,00-lifetime unlimited travel pass sold in the early 1980s.

Now, for a $10,000 to $30,000 upfront payment, flyers can lock in access to fixed-rate fares on American Airlines and several partners and get enhanced travel flexibility and lots of VIP amenities, including lounge access, upgrades, and other perks. Customers that renew their membership each year may roll over unused funds. Those that don’t, lose them.

In February, Alaska Airlines launched a new subscription program.

For a fixed monthly rate of $49 to $550 and a yearlong commitment, Flight Plan subscribers can take up to 24 round trips, depending on the plan, among 16 airports in California, Nevada, and Arizona, including Los Angeles, Reno, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.

One of those subscribers is Eli Cohen, a qigong instructor who splits his time between San Francisco and Palm Springs, California. He is well-acquainted with the way ticket prices can swing up and down on that route. When the cost of a round trip soared to $400 last month, he decided to subscribe. Now, “instead of $400 for one round-trip flight, I’ll pay $600 and get six flights for the year,” he said. “And I’m also looking at flying for vacation to Los Angeles and San Diego.”

Alaska won’t disclose sign-up numbers, but “we are tracking just ahead of our full-year projections,” said Alex Corey, Alaska Airlines’ managing director of business development and products. He also said 1 of 3 new subscribers hadn’t flown Alaska in at least three years and that most have committed to more flights than they had taken with the airline at any time in the past.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst and the founder of Atmosphere Research, said, “There has never been a more compelling time for airlines to consider developing subscription products than now.”

He adds, “The travel business is like the soda business. The only way for brands to grow their market share is by stealing customers from their competitors. And fewer travelers view themselves as loyal to airlines and hotel brands than in 2019.”

Smaller airlines, including Volaris, a Mexico-based low-cost carrier, and FlySafair, a low-cost South African airline also offer subscription plans, and several other airlines in South America and Europe are expected to announce plans soon, said Iñaki Uriz, the CEO of Caravelo, a subscription platform for the airline industry.

“Before the pandemic, airlines were in their comfort zone and felt they had everything under control,” he said. Now, with the big drop-off in business travel and the rise of remote work, “airlines are much more willing to risk change, evolve and innovate.”

Subscribe and Stay

Hotel operators and other lodging companies are also embracing the subscription model to build relationships with 20- and 30-something travelers, who intend to blur the line between work and travel and are comfortable with monthly fees.

Selina, for instance, is an upscale hostel network based in Panama geared toward remote workers and what it calls “digital nomads.” The company has more than 90 properties in 18 countries, including the U.S., Brazil, and Costa Rica. Its CoLive subscription package starts at $450 a month for dormitory-style accommodations with shared bathrooms, communal kitchens, and common workspaces. Private rooms can run $3,000 a month or more, depending on the location. Subscribers can stay up to 30 days in one location or switch locations up to three times during the month.

The Dutch boutique hotel chain citizenM, known for its hip and high-tech design, is about to roll out a retooled and renamed version of a subscription plan it launched during the pandemic when travel was in deep trouble. For Ernest Lee, the chain’s chief growth officer, that was the point.

Before the pandemic, “we were never in the right position to risk our existing business because market conditions were quite stable,” he said. “But once your occupancy goes down to single digits, you are emboldened to try new ideas.”

One of those ideas was Global Passport, which cost $1,500 a month, for up to 29 consecutive nights at its properties in Europe, the U.S., and Asia. The plan was discontinued as the new one was being developed.

Subscription travel also comes in luxury versions. Inspirato is one of the industry’s biggest luxury travel membership companies. Its Inspirato Pass includes access to vacation homes and luxury hotels around the world, as well as experiences and travel planning. There is a $2,500 enrollment fee, a monthly fee of $2,500, and no minimum commitment. There are certain rules around booking stays, and two weeks is the maximum for one location.

Kathryn Wong, who travels frequently with her husband, said they were thinking about buying a vacation home. They signed up for Inspirato, instead. “I tracked all our Inspirato trips last year and compared our $30,000 in dues to the [prices] the actual resorts display for each trip,” she said. The value of the trips turned out to be more than twice the costs of the membership, “and we saved time in not having to do research and trip planning.”

Subscribe and Drive

If any part of the travel industry has been hit hard by the huge fall-off in business travel, it’s the rental car business, which relied heavily on corporate accounts.

The industry is just “dipping a toe in the water” with subscription programs, said Mike Taylor, the practice lead for travel intelligence at J.D. Power. Enterprise and Hertz have plans in which renters pay a set monthly fee, without a long-term commitment, and have the option to switch cars multiple times each month.

Enterprise’s plan costs $1,499 a month, with a two-month minimum and a $250 enrollment fee. The plan is available only in Minnesota, Missouri, and Nevada. Insurance is included, and drivers can swap out vehicles four times a month.

Hertz also has a two-month minimum, and it costs about the same at the high end, but it has a wider range of programs than Enterprise, one of them as low as $599 a month. At the moment, the plan is full because of supply chain issues, and the same shortage of rental cars that some travelers may remember drove prices into the stratosphere last year.

Taylor said he expects more car rental companies to come around to subscriptions. Younger generations are comfortable with the subscription model, he said. “And they are also the higher-margin renters.”

Travelers benefit from National Car Rental’s Emerald Club and Loyalty Tier Extensions

Sponsored by National Car Rental

There were some odd, low points in my household during the first year of the pandemic that I’m only now able to laugh at.

One time was when I got mad at my brave, masked and gloved-for-protection husband for stopping at the car wash on his way home from picking up our curbside grocery order.

It wasn’t that our car didn’t need a cleaning – it did. And it wasn’t that the car wash was a dangerous place to go. It was the fact that after months of being stuck indoors and going nowhere, my husband enjoyed an excursion, while I had missed the chance for an ‘adventure.’

The marriage survived and over the past few months, we have cautiously traveled to more exciting destinations. We went on a short road trip and while I obsessed about how best to clean all the possible touchpoints, I doubt we did a thorough enough job.

The next two trips were farther from home, so, we rented cars. We rented first at a small airport in California and then at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Both rentals were with National Car Rental, and a few things stood out.

Service was top-notch. With our first rental, we were enjoying our adventure so much that we lost track of time. As we were debating squeezing in one more stop, we got a courtesy call from the National Car Rental counter agent who graciously adjusted our vehicle return date. It made all the difference on our first real trip since lockdown and reminded us that we’re a bit rusty on our travel planning and may need to relearn a few tips.

In addition, the cars were very clean, which gave me peace of mind. Before our trip, I was aware of cleaning protocols developed by National Car Rental and other companies in response to the pandemic, but I hadn’t experienced these programs firsthand.

Our rental cars from National Car Rental were cleaned and sanitized in places I’d never even thought to clean in my car such as the instrument panel and areas between the seats and doorjambs (I checked the list). There was also a disinfecting wipe provided, with instructions to use it only on the vehicle’s high-touch, hard non-porous surfaces.

Now, as I get ready to head out for more adventures, it’s reassuring to know that National Car Rental will continue prioritizing the safety of customers. Patsy Rey, Director of Loyalty for National Car Rental states, “At National, we never stop looking for ways to enhance cleanliness and safety. Each of our vehicles is thoroughly cleaned between every rental and backed with the Complete Clean Pledge. This includes washing, vacuuming, general wipe down and sanitizing with a disinfectant that meets leading health authority requirements, with particular attention to more than 20-plus high-touch points.”

For reference, and in case you want to try super cleaning your own car, those touchpoints are:

  • Key/key fob
  • Steering wheel
  • Steering column
  • Seat belts
  • Center console
  • Door interiors
  • Door pockets
  • Interior door handles
  • Exterior door handles
  • Seat pockets/seat surfaces
  • Areas between seats & consoles
  • Areas between seats & doorjambs
  • Cupholders/compartments
  • Instrument panel
  • Accessory panel/touchscreen
  • Rearview mirror/side mirrors
  • Visors/visor mirrors
  • Dashboard /vents
  • Gear stick /gear shift
  • Trunk release

As travel rebounds, and spring break and summer travel plans fall into place, the demand for rental car vehicles will no doubt increase. At times, it may be more difficult or more expensive than expected to reserve a rental car in certain cities. Rey offers the following advice:

“We recommend reserving your vehicle as early as possible and consider using the Emerald Club loyalty benefit of Emerald Reserve Service to reserve a specific car class…providing flexible travel dates can also help increase your options.”

In addition to its handy app, National Car Rental has numerous other tools that can make renting cars easier.

The Emerald Club loyalty program is free to join. Emerald Club members can bypass the counter and access National’s “Emerald Aisle,” a section where members select any vehicle, as long as they’ve reserved a midsize car. Emerald Club members also have access to benefits such as premier selection, priority services and Emerald Club Counter Service, which expedites the rental process.

Also, to acknowledge that the pandemic kept many travelers off the road, National has once again extended elite tiers and free days. Executive and Executive Elite tier status with an expiration date of February 28, 2022, were automatically extended to February 28, 2023. In addition, Emerald Club Free Days which had an expiration date of December 31, 2021, were extended to December 31, 2022.

When planning for your next adventure, I encourage you to join National Car Rental’s Emerald Club to make your car rental experience faster and more convenient.

This post is sponsored by National Car Rental

How will the pandemic leave its mark on travel?

Dreaming about travel? Us too. But how will our journeys be changed by the pandemic?

(This is a slightly different version of a story we prepared for NBC News.)

Sanitizing stations, “stand here, not there” floor stickers, and cotton swabs up the nose were not part of the travel experience before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as travelers edge their way back into airports and hotels and onto airplanes, cruise ships, and ski slopes, they will be dealing will all that – and more.

But for how long? We asked some industry experts to tell us which new travel trends, technologies, and protocols they think will stick around.

Who will travel and what will they expect?

“Businesses are connecting with their customers virtually and leisure travelers are discovering the joys of staying local,” says Chekitan Dev, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in the SC Johnson College of Business. “Many business travelers will lower their number of trips, and leisure travelers will shift from ‘hyper-global’ to ‘hyper-local’ travel for the foreseeable future.”

For well into 2021 travelers will be expected or required to wear masks and observe physical distancing. And airlines, airports, hotels, and cruise lines will be expected to continue making health, safety, and cleanliness a priority.

“People will look at a dirty rental car or bus or airport or airline cabin or hotel room and wonder, ‘Uh oh, am I putting myself at risk?’ says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. “Travelers will continue to hold travel brands’ feet to the fire to keep their facilities clean.”


Once we move past this pandemic “we’re going to have amnesia about some of this and likely go back doing many of the same things we used to do before,” says Devin Liddell, futures and design strategist with Seattle-based Teague global design consultancy.

Theme parks, museums, and other attractions will reopen, and Liddell says the best operators will retain systems put in place to orchestrate the flow of people. For example, “ski resorts that require reservations will likely create a better experience for everyone on the lift lines,” he says.


Hotels will likely maintain flexible cancellation policies and keep in place the intensive protocols for cleaning guest rooms and public spaces.

But instead of housekeeping only upon request or not at all during a stay, “elective housekeeping will be more about providing guests with an easy ‘opt-out’ of housekeeping services,” says Bjorn Hanson, adjunct Professor at New York University’s Tisch Center of Hospitality. 


Most major cruise lines are maintaining – and extending – the voluntary suspensions of sailings until sometime in 2021.

When sailings resume there will be changes onboard.

“The buffet will move away from the more traditional self-serve approach toward a more crew-served style – something that lines have already said will likely be a more permanent change,” said Colleen McDaniel, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic. And “changes to muster drills could also stick around beyond the pandemic. Rather than mass events that put all passengers in small spaces at once, we’ll continue to see this more self-driven.”


At airports, “the pandemic has dramatically accelerated the adoption of countless new technologies and protocols to keep people healthy and safe and streamline the entire air travel experience,” says Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International-North America.

“Many of these changes will outlast COVID-19,” he adds.

Those technologies and protocols include sanitizing robots, restrooms that alert maintenance crews when cleaning is needed, contactless check-in, bag check and credential authentication, and the increased ability to order and pay for food or duty-free items from a mobile device and receive a contactless delivery anywhere inside the airport.

The current pandemic will change future airports as well.

“We plan to implement many public health procedures into the design of our new terminal building,” scheduled to open in 2023 said Christina Cassotis, CEO at Pittsburgh International Airport, “It will be the first post-pandemic terminal to open in the country that will be designed with these issues in mind.”

Materials in airports are going to change, too, says Luis Vidal, president and founding partner at Luis Vidal + Architects. “The use of new photocatalytic devices based on antibacterial, antiviral, and ‘autocleaning’ material, such as titanium dioxide, silver or copper, in high-use areas will become the norm.”


(PRNewsfoto/United Airlines)

Airlines will maintain stringent cleaning and sanitizing protocols. Generous rebooking and cancelation policies may stretch out for a while. But most airlines will soon stop blocking middle seats.

Coming back soon: the full range of in-flight services, especially at the front of the plane.

“The traveling public is not happy with the bare bones on-board experience right now,” says Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research. “They understand the need for limits, but people are saying they won’t accept paying for a premium experience and getting something that is subpar.”

Vaccines, Travel Corridors, and insurance 

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, it may become a ‘must-have’ for travelers.

The new normal for global travel may also include digital health passports displaying a traveler’s vaccine or negative test status and, by spring, travel corridors (also known as travel bubbles) that allow travel between countries with low COVID-19 infection rates, says Fiona Ashley, VP Product & Solution Marketing SAP Concur.

While there are some great fare deals being offered right now, as demand returns, so will higher prices.  And going forward, travelers will likely need to factor in the added costs of COVID-19 tests and travel insurance.

“Travel insurance may become a non-negotiable as destinations continue to require medical insurance, and travel suppliers tighten their refund policies,” said Megan Moncrief Chief Marketing Officer of travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth

“The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of the global travel industry. I think travelers will be more cautious about investing in expensive trips without insurance.”

Thinking of renting a car now – or later? National Car Rental offers travelers flexibility.

SEA Airport – Photo by Harriet Baskas

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.  

Courtesy Port of Seattle

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:

  • Key/key fob
  • Steering wheel
  • Steering column
  • Seat belts
  • Center console
  • Door interiors
  • Door pockets
  • Door handles (interior and exterior)
  • Seat pockets and seat surfaces
  • Cupholders and cup holder compartments
  • Areas between seats, consoles and the seats and door
  • Instrument panel
  • Accessory panel and touch screen
  • Rear view mirror and side mirrors
  • Visors/visor mirrors
  • Dashboard and vents
  • Gear stick
  • Trunk release

Click here to learn more about National Car Rental’s Complete Clean Pledge. If you’re interested in becoming an Emerald Club member, you can learn more here.

How to avoid rental car toll pass charges

How to avoid getting dinged for rental car toll fees.

My story this week for CNBC is about those irritating and outrageous fees rental car companies charge for using their toll transponders. Here is a slightly updated version of the posted story.

If you are a fearless flier but break out into a cold sweat at the airport car rental counter, you’re not alone.

Pre-paid gas plans, unnecessary or duplicate insurance coverage and post-rental charges for imaginary scratches are just some of the many ways car rental companies can trip up even the savviest traveler.

Now, as more bridges and highways shift to cashless, electronic toll collections, customers are increasingly getting dinged with surprise, hard to decipher and/or exorbitant fees for the “convenience” of driving a rental vehicle on a tolled road. 

Here’s how rental car customers get caught:

On cashless toll roads, drivers can’t stop to pay with cash at a booth. Instead, electronic sensors scan cars for passes or transponders, such as E-ZPass. And cameras snap photos of license plates on cars without passes and send toll bills to car owners in the mail.

If regularly drive your car on a toll road, you likely have a transponder or pay the tolls by mail.

But Rental car companies not only charge renters for the tolls they incur, they also add charges for using the transponders in the cars. Renters who skip paying transponder fees up front and travel on a toll road anyway can be dinged with even higher charges and added administrative fees.

“Here’s where the fun begins,” said Chris White of, a website that sells activated Tolltraxx transponders to rental car customers for use in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, “Depending on which rental company you got your car from, different charges will be applied.”

In some cases, one rental car company will charge different fees in different states. And companies that own several car rental brands will have different programs and fees for each brand.

What are the extra charges?

In addition to non-discounted toll fees, for example, Avis and Budget charge renters a $3.95 per day “convenience” fee for the transponder, including days the transponder isn’t used. The fee is capped at $19.75/month.

The Hertz PlatePass program charges tolls at the highest, undiscounted toll rate plus a $5.95 convenience fee each day tolls are incurred, with no convenience fee cap.

With Dollar and Thrifty, if you don’t get the transponder at the time of rental and end up on a toll road, you not only you pay for the transponder and the tolls but get charged a $15 administrative fee for each toll, with a $90 cap per rental.  

Not all companies charge high fees: Silvercar charges a one-time administrative fee of $4.95, in addition to tolls. And travelers who rent from Zipcar don’t pay anything for using a toll pass, although they are still responsible for paying the toll fees.

Finding what a company will charge for tolls and transponders is rarely easy. A few clearly state the toll and transponder fees on their websites. But others bury the information or make it very confusing. And some don’t reveal the charges until bookings are made, if at all.

Worse, man rental customers don’t learn about the transponder fees until they’re at the rental counter being asked (or pressured) to sign multiple “accept” or “decline” lines on a contract.

Even calling ahead to a customer service line may not be much help.

After searching in vain for toll and transponder fees on one company’s website, a customer service agent on the phone tallied them up, laughed and said, “My advice, if you think you’ll be going through tolls, don’t rent this car.”


There are other options. With some pre-planning and extra effort, you can avoid many of the “convenience” fees for tolling when renting a car.

Avoid toll roads

It may mean a slower trip and some round-about routes, but if you plot your journey ahead of time it may be possible to decline the transponder rental and get from here to there without traveling on toll roads altogether. Google Maps, Waze and other mapping programs have an “avoid tolls” option that can be turned on for searches.   

Bring a transponder from home

A transponder you have in your personal car can be used in many rental car situations.

E-ZPass transponders, for example, can be used on bridges and highways in more than 15 states, from Maine to Illinois and down south as far as North Carolina. Florida’s SunPass can also be used on toll roads in Georgia and North Carolina.

If you do bring your own transponder, just be sure the transponder in the rental car is turned off. Snap a photo in case the rental car company charges you anyway. And call or go online to add your rental car’s license plate number to your account for the dates of your rental.

Buy a travel transponder to use on the road

Frequent traveler or not, you can save a lot of money and avoid surprise fees by buying an extra or new transponder or toll pass to use in any state you’ll be traveling to or through. In many cases the fee you pay for the pass goes into your account as credit for tolls.

For the E-ZPass program, out-of-state drivers can purchase from any participating state’s E-ZPass program. So do a little homework and opt for a state, such as Massachusetts, that won’t add any extra fees. And be sure to add your rental car license plate and dates of travel to your account.