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Best rental car rewards programs for August 2021
Renting a car is often considered a hassle. By leveraging the value of various reward programs, however, customers can save while enjoying the freedom of a car at their destination. Many travelers ignore rental car rewards programs; we get the pitch at the rental desk when all we want are the keys. Here, we'll review and rank the benefits of different programs, so you're equipped to choose the best car rental deal.
Why trust us?
We used an objective process to determine the best rental car rewards programs for 2021:
- To calculate the average cost of a one-week rental, we sampled prices for standard vehicles during the same week.
- The four cities we selected were Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU), Dallas/Fort-Worth International Airport (DFW), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
- All taxes and fees were accounted for in these calculations.
- To rank these rental programs, we standardized the points value of each program with a simple formula: Points earned from a one-week rental ÷ average price of the one-week rental to get our points value
- Then, we standardized the points needed for a free rental day to effectively compare the programs together.
- We ranked the programs based on the lowest number of points needed for a free rental day after standardization.
#1 Best Rental Car Rewards Program: National
No points system
Given the complexity of many loyalty programs, National's offer is refreshingly simple. Called the Emerald Club, National is an attractive option for those who seldom travel.
How does National's Emerald Club work?
There are no points. Instead, National issues "credits." Seven credits earn a user one free day, for up to a midsize car.
Elite status benefits
Emerald Executive members are part of the next tier and can earn one free day with just six credits. To qualify, you must purchase 12 paid rentals or 40 paid rental days in a calendar year. Members are also guaranteed free upgrades when reserving the midsize rate.
Finally, Executive Elite Members must purchase 25 paid rentals or 85 paid rental days in a calendar year to qualify. The main advantage of this tier is that members can earn one free day with five credits. You're also guaranteed a car (up to full size) within 24-hour notice when booking the midsize rate.
#2 Best Rental Car Rewards Program: Dollar
Earn 1 Dollar Express point per $1 spent on cars compact to full size
Dollar has a smaller presence but still has over 840 locations in the United States and Canada.
How does Dollar express work?
Its loyalty program, Dollar Express Rewards, is simple and has one level for all of its members. It's free to join, and you'll earn 1 Dollar Express point per $1 spent on cars compact to full size. Taxes and fees are exempt from these calculations. You can then redeem your rewards points when making a reservation, and a free rental starts at just 500 points on weekends and 625 points on weekdays. Keep in mind that there are some blackout dates to be wary of when redeeming your free rental.
Points never expire as long as you keep your account active for two years but can only be redeemed within the U.S. and Canada.
#3 Best Rental Car Rewards Program: Hertz
- Tier 1 - Hertz Gold Plus: Earn 1 point per $1 spent
- Tier 2 - Hertz Five Star: 10% bonus per dollar
- Tier 3 - Hertz President's Level: 25% bonus per dollar
The second-largest rental car business in the U.S. has 2,800-plus locations. The Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program is a tiered system with three levels. The program is free to join, and you'll start out as a Gold member.
How does Hertz Gold Plus Rewards work?
Every dollar spent equals 1 point. The major benefit of the Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program is that you'll earn points even on taxes, fees and other surcharges, whereas other programs only allow you to earn points on the base rental cost. Like Enterprise, these points generate for free rental days. One free rental day starts at 750 points. However, the definition of a "qualifying dollar" is wider. Therefore you can earn points on spending that includes fuel purchases, upgrades and insurance coverage options. Finally, points expire after 18 months of no activity.
Elite status benefits
Users renting 10 times per year (or spending $2,000) qualify for the next tier, with the "Five Star" membership. Meanwhile, the "Hertz President's Circle" is the highest tier reserved for those renting 15 times per year (or spending $3,000 or more).
Is Hertz Gold Plus Rewards worth it?
The average Hertz standard-size rental costs $698 per week, meaning that most will earn their first free rental day after approximately two weeks worth of rentals.
Hertz ranks highest in overall customer satisfaction, according to J.D. Power's 2020 North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study.
#4 Best Rental Car Rewards Program: Enterprise
- Tier 1 - Plus: Earn 1 point per $1 spent
- Tier 2 - Silver: 10% bonus points
- Tier 3 - Gold: 15% bonus points
- Tier 4 - Platinum: 20% bonus points
Reward programs are only useful when the provider has a significant presence in the market. Enterprise has a fleet of 1.7 million vehicles, which beats all other vendors. Nearly any destination is likely to have an Enterprise option given their 8,000 locations worldwide.
How do Enterprise Plus points work?
The Enterprise Plus rewards program is straightforward: Each dollar spent equals 1 point, but keep in mind that this does not include fuel, taxes, surcharges and non-qualifying rentals. These points are used to earn free rental days. You can earn a free rental day for as few as 400 points. The required rental points to earn free rental days depends on the dates of travel and automobile used. The average weekly cost of a standard-size car will run $712. Therefore the value of the program will be evident after a few weeks of rentals. Points never expire, and there are no blackout dates.
Dollars spent on taxes and surcharges, vehicle license fees, airport-related fees, insurance costs, fuel purchase option and refueling don't earn points. "Qualifying dollars" are defined as spending on time and mileage (base rate), paid upgrades and additional add-ons.
Elite status benefits
Benefits compound as a user rents more cars. You'll earn Silver status when you rent six times per year. This level offers a 10% increase in your total points earned. Become a Gold status member by renting 12 times a year (or 40 days total) and get a 15% boost to your earned points. Finally, the "Platinum" level is for those renting 24 times a year (or 85 days total). This top tier offers a 20% bonus to your points.
#5 Best Rental Car Rewards Program: Avis
- Tier 1 - Avis Preferred: Earn 1 point per $1 spent on rentals and 2 points per $1 spent on accessories
- Tier 2 - Avis Preferred Plus: Earn 1.25-1.5 points per $1 spent on rentals and 2.5-3 points per $1 spent on accessories
With 5,500 locations worldwide, Avis is the third-largest major player in the car rental business.
How does Avis Preferred work?
Like the others on the list, the Avis Preferred program consists of three tiers and is free to join. Avis Preferred members earn one point for each dollar spent and two points for each dollar devoted to accessories. With Avis Preferred Plus, members earn 1.25 points for each dollar spent and 2.5 points for each dollar spent on an accessory.
Elite status benefits
To qualify for this tier, the member must rent at least 12 times per year (or spend $5,000). The top-tier members enjoy 1.5 points for every dollar spent and 3 points for every dollar spent on accessories. Qualified members must rent 25 times in a year (or spend $7,000).
Points last up to five years for active members. Similar to Enterprise, you won't be award points for any taxes and fees on your rental.
All rentals earn a minimum of 100 points, and you'll earn 100 bonus points when you rent within the first three months of joining as an Avis Preferred member. One free rental day starts at 700 points with no blackout dates, so you'll earn your way to this award pretty quickly. The average rental price for a standard vehicle costs $634 per week.
#6 Best Rental Car Rewards Program: Zipcar
No points system
This online industry disrupter is the newest competitor to enter the field. Zipcar's business model is different from the more traditional three listed above. To provide an equal comparison to Hertz, consider this analysis from ConsumerReports: "Zipcar did well in our cost comparison, based on our pricing of a sample Toyota Corolla for 1.5 hours. Including tax, the cost came to $19 for Zipcar, compared with $36, the daily rate, at Hertz." The authors then continue, "For a week, the Zipcar rental climbed to a deal-breaking $636 compared to Hertz' more reasonable $182."
How does Zipcar work?
Zipcar can be an easy, flexible and affordable option for quick errands to a weekend getaway. Do some research first; Zipcar has far fewer locations nationwide compared to the big three above. Zipcar is located in over 500 cities and towns and over 600 college campuses.
To get started, there is a one-time $25 application fee for membership. Other fees may apply based on the driver's age and city. Zipcar offers a monthly and annual membership that offer:
- Driving rates from $9 per hour and $85 per day
- Secondary insurance for all trips
- Free gas for all trips
- Maintenance and 24/7 roadside assistance
- 180 miles per day ($0.45 per mile if exceeded)
How much is Zipcar?
The monthly membership comes in at $7 per month, while the annual membership costs $70 per year. If you're looking for long-term savings, you'll save about $14 per year by opting for the annual plan.
The rewards program is just as unconventional as the business model, as there is no point system. Instead, Zipcar users are offered various savings on different businesses that are both national chains as well as smaller local spots. Zipcar members can get up to 15% off Avis rentals for longer duration needs. Additionally, members receive a 50% discount on Gousto, a meal delivery service, and 10% off craft brews through Honest Brew.
Before choosing a rental car consider your frequency of travel. If you know your list of destinations ahead of time, you can make a much more informed decision. For those who don't know where they'll be traveling, consider Enterprise, which includes Alamo, as a good option. At least, until you can afford your own car.
Note: Pricing on rentals not available on Zipcar's site until paying to join their program.
Compare rental car rewards programs
One-week price for standard vehicle
Rewards on a one-week rental
Points needed for free rental day
|#1||$785||No points system; awarded one free rental day after seven days||Free rental day after seven bookings|
|#2||$636||453 Points||500 points|
|#3||$698||698 Points||750 points|
|#4||$712||520 Points||600 points|
|#5||$634||457 Points (Preferred Members)||700 points|
Source: ValuePenguin research (2021), *Zipcar one-week price for standard vehicle (2020)
Types of rental car rewards programs
Car rental rewards programs generally break down into two types — those for general consumers, and those specially targeted to businesses:
1. Consumer car rental rewards
Consumer car rental programs (which comprise the majority of our list above) are open to general consumers, offering rewards and elite status benefits for being a loyal member. Examples include:
- Enterprise Plus
- Emerald Club by National
- Dollar Express
- Hertz Gold Plus Rewards
- Avis Preferred
2. Business car rental rewards
3. Car rental online sites
Car rental search engines can be a great means of comparing prices and finding deals on car rentals. We offer some popular options below. However, beware: In some cases, your rental through these sites may not count as a qualified rental for earning points.
How to get upgraded for a rental car rewards program
Rental car rewards programs often offer free upgrades to their elite status members, if qualifying upgrades are available. To maximize your upgrade potential:
- Be aware of your elite status benefits, whether you qualify for upgrades and what the terms are. (For instance, do you need to book a certain level of car to qualify for an upgrade?)
- When you check in, be sure to ask the rental agent if a free upgrade is available.
Here are the upgrade terms for some popular programs:
Hertz Gold Rewards
|Gold Plus||Not available|
|Five Star||Car-class upgrades if available|
|President's Level||Guaranteed one-class upgrade|
Avis President's Club
|Preferred Plus||One-class upgrade if available|
|President's Club||Automatic double-class upgrade if available, when you book intermediate class or higher|
|Chairman's Club||Automatic upgrade to best available car when you book intermediate class or higher|
Credit card elite status for car rental rewards programs
Once you pledge loyalty to a car rental rewards program, you should pick the right credit card to go along with it. Some credit cards partner with rental car loyalty programs to offer discounts and special privileges. Some cards can even grant you automatic elite status in a rental car rewards program.
Best credit cards for renting a car
In addition to cards with rental car discounts and elite status benefits, you can also find cards that offer useful benefits for renting a car, including:
- Primary or secondary car rental insurance (this allows you to turn down the costly insurance that the rental car agency tries to sell you at the counter)
- Rewards on your rental car purchases — some cards offer up to 3X points per $1 spend on rental cars (on top of the rewards you earn from the rental company)
Here are our top credit cards for renting a car:
Type of coverage
Rewards on car rentals
|Chase Sapphire Reserve®||Primary||3X points||$550|
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card||Primary||2X points||$95|
|Secured Mastercard® from Capital One||Secondary||None||$0||Read Review|
|Chase Freedom Unlimited®||Secondary in the U.S., primary for international rentals||1.5% cash back||$0|
|Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card||Primary for business rentals and for all international rentals, secondary for U.S. personal rentals||3X points||$95|
Rental car insurance
Rental car agencies offer different types of rental car insurance that you can purchase by the day (often with a costly premium). You may be able to decline these policies if your personal car insurance policy covers it, or you’re covered by a credit card's collision damage waiver.
Policies rental companies offer
You may choose to decline if you have...
|Liability insurance supplement||Adequate personal liability insurance|
|Collision damage waiver (CDW)/loss damage waiver (LDW)||Adequate personal comprehensive and collision insurance|
|Personal accident insurance||Adequate personal injury protection and health insurance|
|Personal effects coverage||Homeowners or renters insurance that extends to rentals|
Use points and miles to book cars
Outside of the points that you earn through your rental car rewards program, you can also use rewards earned in other loyalty programs to book rental cars. (Note, you will often lose value on your points and miles when you redeem them for rental cars, so it's usually not the best redemption option.)
Here's a sampling of rewards programs that allow you to use points or miles for rental cars:
Earn points and miles when booking cars
Many car rental agencies partner with airline and hotel programs to let you earn hotel points and airline miles on your rentals in place of rental car points. For instance, Avis partners with Delta Airlines (and many other airlines) to offer SkyMiles on your car rentals.
SkyMiles earned per qualifying rental
The best advice when picking a rental car rewards program is simple: Know thyself. Whether you're looking primarily for the fastest path to free rental days and upgrades, the ability to skip the rental counter or just the most convenient locations, the best rewards program is the one that best fits your specific needs, so figure out what matters most to you and do your homework before signing up.
— Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at ValuePenguin
Usually, at the time of booking your rental, you can opt to earn an outside program's rewards. Before booking, you should consider:
- Your loyalty in other programs and whether you need to rack up some extra rewards with them
- The price of the rental and how many car rental rewards it amounts to compared to the rewards you'll earn with an outside loyalty program
How to compare rental car rewards programs
How long does it take to earn a free rental day?
When comparing the value of rental car rewards programs, it pays to look past the number of points offered and consider the bigger picture: How long will it take you to stack up enough points to earn a reward?
For example, one of our top picks — National — doesn’t offer points at all.
You simply need seven days of car rental bookings to earn a free rental day.
How big of a footprint does the program have?
You should make sure that the program offers rentals in the places where you want to travel. In general, the more rental locations, the better, as you can ensure you'll be covered wherever you go.
We rank Enterprise higher than National because it has a larger presence.
How much is the regular rental rate?
If you're searching for the best value overall, you should also consider how much it costs to rent a car.
For instance, Enterprise was one of the more expensive programs that we surveyed.
While the rewards may save you on a rental day here and there, you may find that the regular rental rate is too expensive.
What are the other benefits of the program?
Many car rental programs offer unique benefits to their most loyal members.
Avis Chairman's Club members qualify for valet service and complimentary car delivery, while Hertz's Five Star and President's Circle members qualify for expedited vehicle pickup and no stopping at the counter at over 50 airport locations.
Prime perks like these make it well worth sticking with one program if you frequently rent cars.
Is the customer experience good?
Before you pledge loyalty to a particular car rental agency, you should consider whether the service is up to par with your standards.
Car rental rewards program FAQs
The information related to Secured Mastercard® from Capital One has been independently collected by ValuePenguin and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication. Terms apply to American Express credit card offers. See americanexpress.com for more information.