best car rental rewards programs

Every major rental car company has a free loyalty program, but they are not all created equal. Some let you accrue points toward free rental days, others offer an express service to speed you past the rental car counter and others, frankly, don't offer you much of anything at all.

Here's the lowdown on which programs deserve your attention:

 

Major Car Rental Loyalty Programs

   

Leaders of the Pack

 

National Emerald Club: National's free loyalty program delivers an unmatched selection of benefits available from the very first rental. Among other benefits, the base level of Emerald Club allows you to earn free days with National or Enterprise bookings, select your own vehicle from the Emerald Aisle at many airports simply by booking a midsize, bypass the rental car counter, and add a second driver for free. All Emerald Club members earn free rental days. Executive and Executive Elite members earn free rental days more quickly than base Emerald Club members and can reserve a wider range of vehicle types.

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Hertz Gold Plus Rewards: This free program was always known for delivering nice perks, such as skipping the counter and earning points toward free award days. But Hertz made some changes in 2019 that make the program better—including more flexible redemptions, faster service and a lower minimum enrollment age—so now there's no excuse for frequent renters not to sign up. All qualifying "Pay Later" reservations are eligible to earn Gold Plus points. At most major airports, Hertz offers its Ultimate Choice service, which lets you choose your own car. In addition, Hertz recently launched Hertz Fast Lane powered by CLEAR—a free biometric-powered service that promises to get you through the exit gate in 30 seconds or less.

Budget Fastbreak: This program is mainly an express rental service rather than a rewards program. At many major airports, Budget Fastbreak members can proceed directly to the lot, choose their own car, drive to the exit gate, and show their license. On the tail end of your trip, returns are just as easy. Drop the car in the designated area and go, and Budget will email you the receipt. Through the end of 2019, two rentals earns you a $25 Budget Bucks certificate.

 

Middle of the Road

 

Dollar Express: This free loyalty program serves primarily as an express rental program and you can earn points toward free award days. If you're going to be renting from Dollar anyway, it's a no-brainer to sign up for Dollar Express.

Enterprise Plus: This may not be the most generous program around, but we still recommend it, as you can earn points toward free award days. But better yet, sign up for both Enterprise Plus and National Emerald Club. When renting at participating Enterprise locations, you can use your National Emerald Club membership number on the reservation and receive credit toward points in the better loyalty program. We're not fond of revenue-based programs like Enterprise Plus, since it's comparatively hard to earn points, but the exception is the annual fall and winter Plus Your Points promotion.

Alamo Insiders: While you won't get the premium, go-straight-to-your-car experience you do with some car rental loyalty programs, Alamo's free program makes it painless to get cheap wheels. At major airport locations, you can check in online and skip the counter. Even better, members get the Insiders discount, which knocks 10 percent off the base rate.

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Avis Preferred: Avis's loyalty program has two parts: an express rental program that lets you bypass the rental counter and a rewards program to earn free days. It's free to sign up but the program is not generous enough on its own to compel you to rent from Avis unless you're getting a great rate. Avis Preferred hasn't yet truly embraced the "choose your own car" concept. Instead, its Preferred Select and Go allows you to exchange your assigned midsize-or-larger car for a limited selection of other midsize cars.

Sixt Rent a Car Rewards Cards: Sixt has a fairly straightforward program when it comes to accruing benefits and an easy way to advance in status, which can sometimes mean you can upgrade to a vehicle that would never be found at other rental car companies—and you could do it without paying a fee.

Thrifty Blue Chip: This free loyalty program serves primarily as an express rental program and you can earn points toward free award days.

 

Back of the Bunch

 

EZ Money Rewards: This is a minor player in the rental car industry, with a loyalty program that makes it decidedly difficult for members to benefit.

Payless Perks: This program is free to join but offers no incentives. Don't bother.

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