A little over a year ago, we covered Hertz's rollout of their new Ultimate Choice service.
As car enthusiasts, we were excited by the prospect of being able to choose our own cars instead of always getting assigned the same boring Toyota Corolla with 45,000 miles every time.
So, has the service lived up to its hype?
In short, yes! It's been a surprise to us to find out that Hertz actually came through—not only with a slick, well-designed system but even, in some cases, some pretty nice rides and enticing upgrades. Let's take a look at what Ultimate Choice is and how it works.
When we first covered Ultimate Choice in December of 2016, Hertz had just rolled it out to their first location, Austin Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas. As we reported in that article, Hertz had announced plans to expand to 24 more locations in 2017. Surprisingly, Hertz embarked on an even more aggressive expansion and so far has rolled it out to a grand total of 53 locations with plans to add six more throughout 2018 for a total of 58 US locations and one Canadian location (Toronto).
That means that Hertz offers Ultimate Choice at 45 of the top 50 airports in the United States. In other words, if you rent from Hertz, chances are you'll probably run into Ultimate Choice.
So, what is Ultimate Choice?
Basically, Ultimate Choice means that instead of the rental agent assigning you a specific vehicle in a specific parking stall, you instead get to choose your car from an entire row of vehicles.
Reserve a fullsize car? Instead of being handed keys to a rough-riding, sluggish Chrysler 200, you head out to the aisle marked "Fullsize" and pick anything you want. Like the dependability of Toyota products? Pick the Camry off the line. Want a few more bells and whistles? There might be a Ford Fusion with Sync sitting there. Heading into the mountains? You might spot a Subaru Legacy. Looking for fuel economy? The Volkswagen Jetta might appeal to you (if the Volkswagen emissions scandal didn't scare you off).
But for the real Ultimate Choice magic, sign up for Hertz's free Gold Plus Rewards program. It costs nothing and takes only a couple minutes to fill out the form on Hertz's website.
Then, when you book a midsize car at an Ultimate Choice location, not only do you get to skip the long line at the rental counter, you also get to pick from a special selection of vehicles just for Gold members. Hertz tries to reserve nicer trims and lower-mileage vehicles for the Gold section—instead of Corollas and Sentras with 50,000 miles on them, in the Gold aisle, you might find a Hyundai Elantra (a fun car to drive!) with 15,000 miles and maybe even leather seats. You might occasionally find a couple of fullsize cars sprinkled throughout the row.
It gets even better if you have a few rentals under your belt. Just five rentals in a calendar year gets you Hertz Five Star status. A midsize reservation at an Ultimate Choice location as a Five Star customer will give you access to an even more special Five Star vehicle selection. In the Five Star aisle, you'll probably see some fullsize vehicles and maybe even some small SUVs make an appearance. That's right: reserve a midsize and there's a good chance you can drive away in something with a little more room to spread out in—without paying for an upgrade.
People who rent 20 times or more in a calendar year and achieve Hertz's top-tier President's Circle level can take ultimate advantage of Ultimate Choice. With a dedicated President's Circle selection, a midsize reservation can net some nice catches. While standard fullsize cars are common, I've seen everything from an Infiniti Q50 to a Volkswagen CC to a Jeep Grand Cherokee to a Chevy Impala LTZ and more. Reports from my coworkers and other frequent travelers on online message boards like FlyerTalk are plentiful with accounts of everything from Cadillacs to Camaros to Suburbans and Siennas and more. While selection varies by location, season, day, and even time of day, the President's Circle lineup at most Ultimate Choice locations will usually have you driving something fun—or big—for the price of a midsize car. (Truthfully, the introduction of Ultimate Choice is what makes the Five Star and President's Circle status levels valuable. Before Ultimate Choice, the upgrade benefits were inconsistent or nonexistent.)
How does it work?
It's pretty simple.
1. If you haven't already, sign up for the free Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program
2. When making your reservation, be sure to include your Gold member number
3. Reserve at least a midsize car (you can reserve a larger one, but unless you need a specific car size, there's no point in paying more than you need to)
4. When you approach the Hertz parking lot (or if there's a shuttle bus, when you disembark), look for signs directing Gold Members to the parking lot
5. Proceed to your designated membership level's area—Gold, Five Star, or President's Circle
6. Choose any one of the cars from that area (or, if nothing floats your boat, check out the Premium Upgrades area for some nice rides for only $25-35 a day more)
7. Get in, drive to the exit gate, and show your driver's license, and you're on your way!
It's that easy!
(If you haven't signed up for Hertz Gold Plus Rewards, then after step #3, you'll need to wait in line at the rental counter, and once they've processed your paperwork, you'll head to the aisles labeled Compact, Midsize, or Fullsize, depending on which size you had reserved.)
How does it compare?
Hertz's two main competitors in the "premium" rental market are Avis and National.
Comparing Hertz and Avis is easy: Hertz wins by a landslide. Avis doesn't offer anything like Ultimate Choice. The closest they come is something called Avis Preferred Select & Go, which works more like Hertz's older Gold Choice program they've had for many years, where you can exchange your assigned midsize car for a limited selection of other midsize cars. Hertz's Ultimate Choice system is much more useful and much smoother, and we much prefer the way Hertz Gold Plus Rewards' points earning and redeeming system is structured. (Plus, Avis has a mixed reputation for customer service.)
Comparing Hertz and National is a little more difficult. National actually pioneered the choose-your-own-car system in 1988 with the introduction of the Emerald Aisle for Emerald Club members, and they've put a lot of effort into a smooth operation and feature-rich mobile app. With over 70 Emerald Aisle locations in the U.S., National has a few more major and mid-sized airports covered than Hertz currently does. National also offers an upgraded "Executive Selection" of vehicles to their members who reach Executive-level status, similar to Hertz's Five Star and President's Club offerings. Anecdotally, though, National's become a little stingier lately with the vehicles stocking the Executive Selection, and National also tends to come out a bit more expensive than Hertz, although AutoSlash's system that finds the best coupons and discounts can often change that. Ultimately, it probably comes down to whichever one is cheaper for your particular rental. But at least with Ultimate Choice now offered, if you end up choosing to rent from Hertz, you know you'll get a similar experience as you would renting from National.
It's a win! While Hertz's revenue has declined in recent years as they've struggled to improve their product and carve out a niche for themselves, the introduction of Ultimate Choice has put Hertz back on the map with a competitive product. As car enthusiasts here at AutoSlash, we approve and look forward to many more fun driving experiences courtesy of our President's Circle cards at Hertz!