Ranking the Best Rental Car Rewards Programs

Ranking the Best Rental Car Rewards Programs

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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 reward 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.

Best rental car rewards programs 2020

Company
One-week price for standard vehicle
Rewards on a one-week rental
Points needed for free rental day
1. Enterprise$479354 Points400 points
2. National$483No points system; awarded one free rental day after seven daysFree rental day after seven bookings
3. Dollar$379265 Points500 points
4. Hertz$387387 Points750 points
5. Avis$405288 Points (Preferred Members)700 points
6. Zipcar$546N/AN/A
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Source: ValuePenguin research (2020)

1. Enterprise

Enterprise
Photo courtesy of Enterprise.

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.

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 $479. Therefore the value of the program will be evident after a few weeks of rentals. Points never expire, and there are no blackout dates.

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.

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.

2. National

National
Photo courtesy of National.

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.

There are no points. Instead, National issues "credits." Seven credits earn a user one free day, for up to a midsize car.

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.

3. Dollar

Dollar
Photo courtesy of Dollar.

Dollar has a smaller presence but still has over 250 locations in the United States and Canada. 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. 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.

4. Hertz

Hertz
Photo courtesy of Hertz.

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. 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.

Users renting 12 times per year (or spending $2,400) qualify for the next tier, with the "Five Star" membership. You'll earn a 20% bonus on total earned points. Meanwhile, the "Hertz President's Circle" is the highest tier reserved for those renting 20 times per year (or spending $4,000 or more). Members earn a 50% bonus on all points.

The average Hertz standard-size rental costs $387 per week, meaning that most will earn their first free rental day after approximately two weeks worth of rentals.

5. Avis

Avis
Photo courtesy of Avis.

With 5,500 locations worldwide, Avis is the third-largest major player in the car rental business.

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. 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 $405 per week.

6. Zipcar

Zipcar
Photo courtesy of Zipcar.

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."

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 $10 per hour and $77.50 per day
  • Secondary insurance for all trips
  • Free gas for all trips
  • Maintenance and 24/7 roadside assistance
  • 180 miles per day ($0.58 per mile if exceeded)

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 25% 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.

Best credit cards for renting a car

Most of the top travel credit cards offer some form of rental car insurance as part of their benefits package, and some even earn accelerated rewards on rental car expenses. Below, we've broken out a couple of the top options for paying for a rental.

For premium perks

  • On Chase's Secure Website

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® offers primary rental car insurance in the U.S. and abroad. This covers damage, theft, towing charges related to a covered loss, up to the cash value of the rental car. The card also offers Priority Pass™ lounge access and 3 points per dollar spent on dining and travel — including rental cars.

For travel-spending rewards

  • On Chase's Secure Website

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card gets you the following rewards on rental cards: 2X points on dining at restaurants including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out and travel & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide. It also has the same rental insurance coverage as the Chase Sapphire Reserve®. However, the annual fee is considerably lower ($95 versus $550). If you're a frequent traveler and looking to maximize spending rewards on car rental expenses, then this is a great choice.

Methodology

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). Finally, 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. First, we divided the points earned from a one-week rental by the 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.

National has the best rewards program as there are no points involved and you'll simply need seven days of car rental bookings to earn a free rental day. However, we ranked it lower than Enterprise as it doesn't have as large of a presence as Enterprise does, making National less accessible.

Stella Shon

Stella Shon is a travel credit cards writer with ValuePenguin. After studying abroad in Paris three years ago, she became determined to keep traveling. That’s when she discovered the world of points and miles, which enabled her to travel on a student budget. Since then, she’s flown over 150,000 miles and earned more than 500,000 points and miles with eight different credit cards. While in college, she even co-founded her own travel agency, helping her peers plan and book trips on a budget. As a recent journalism graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, her goal is to write about travel to make it simpler and achievable for everyone. Her work has also appeared on JetBlue, The Points Guy, Travel + Leisure and CNBC.

These responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which ValuePenguin receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). ValuePenguin does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Example of how we calculate the rewards rates: When redeemed for travel through Ultimate Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred points are worth $0.0125 each. The card awards 2 points on travel and dining and 1 point on everything else. Therefore, we say the card has a 2.5% rewards rate on dining and travel (2 x $0.0125) and a 1.25% rewards rate on everything else (1 x $0.0125).

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