It's a classic car renter's dilemma: Splurge on a bigger vehicle when booking the reservation, or hope you'll get lucky and snag a free upgrade at the counter? The latter is always a crap shoot, but there are some things you can do to help your chances of walking away with a nicer car than the one you paid for. Here are seven tips for snagging a complimentary rental car upgrade.
How to Get an Upgrade on Your Rental Car
Join the loyalty program. It's free and fast to sign up for the car rental company's rewards program, which is a good idea for several reasons. In addition to providing members-only deals on car rentals and the ability to earn points toward free rentals and upgrades, loyalty programs offer many convenient perks like skip-the-counter programs at pickup locations that can save you time.
Joining a program like National's Emerald Club or Hertz Ultimate Choice means you get to choose your own vehicle when you pick up your car. Often when you reserve an intermediate (a.k.a. midsize) car at an airport, you can end up driving something much nicer, since the pool of available cars can include premium cars, SUVs, minivans and so on.
Use a coupon. Car rental companies often provide coupons for free car rental upgrades, and it can be easier than you think to use one of those codes. Before you start the booking process, do a quick search on the car company's website to find out if they offer a "deals" page with special discounts. For instance, Budget, Alamo, Avis and National advertise coupons specifically for free upgrades right on their websites.
Reserve the cheapest car. When you start at the bottom, there's no place to go but up. One way to snag a free upgrade is to reserve the least expensive category available—usually an "economy" or "compact" car, depending on the company and location. That's because it's a common industry practice to give you a free upgrade if they run out cars in the category you originally reserved. This strategy can work especially well at those busy locations with high turnover, but be aware that you could end up with exactly what you booked.
Know your rights: Note that sometimes a rental agent might try to get you to pay for an upgrade, since agents usually make a commission or at least get credit for add-ons. Let's say you booked an economy car and all they have is mid-size and up. The agent may tell you that you need to pay an upgrade fee so that he gets the commission, but that means you've paid for nothing. Before agreeing to pay for an upgrade, ask if the agency has the vehicle you originally reserved in stock. If the answer is no, then they're obligated to upgrade you to the next size up for free.
Milk your memberships. Belonging to certain clubs and associations can pay off. For example, Costco members can often snag free upgrades at Enterprise and Alamo. AARP members can do the same at Avis and Budget.
Be nice to the rental car agent. The man or woman behind the counter often has considerable discretionary power when it comes to assigning you to a car. How you treat the agent can mean the difference between driving away with the worst car in your reserved category or scoring an upgrade. Don't miss our insider guide to how to land a better car.
Use the right credit card. Not only can using the right credit card save you money by offering benefits like free car rental insurance, but it can sometimes score you a free upgrade. For example, the American Express Platinum Card gets you elite status with Avis, Hertz and National. That means perks like not waiting in line, discounts on car rental rates and, yes, the possibility of getting a free rental car upgrade.
Match your status with other membership programs. Keep your eyes peeled for deals from other memberships that you may already have. For example, National's Emerald Club program will match your elite status with more than 40 other companies, including hotels, airlines and other car rental brands.