It all started in 1916 with Joe Saunders renting his Model T Ford to visitors in his hometown of Omaha for ten cents a mile. And thus the rental car industry was born. Within a year Saunders had a fleet of 18 Model T’s for rent and within two years he had a copycat in Chicago. The companies started by those two enterprising men are still operating today as Hertz and Avis Rent a Car.
The rental car industry benefitted greatly from the overall growth of transportation in the 20th century. With railroads, then airlines moving people across the country, car rental counters were a natural fit to greet travelers at their destination. The companies that survived were those that embraced expansion, providing travelers with the same service, vehicles and policies wherever they were. We still long for that familiarity today, and many travelers subscribe to rental agency clubs that guarantee low rates and consistent service in thousands of destinations.
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With many car rental agencies in the market now, offering similar services, often within a dollar or two of each other in price, companies have had to look for unique ways to differentiate themselves. Car selection, shuttle services, refueling options, and amenities like GPS, car seats and ski racks were all unique options at one or two agencies before being adopted industry wide. With such homogenization it’s hard for anything to seem new, so large agencies like Hertz are focusing on streamlining the pickup and drop off process to save travelers time and hassle. Meanwhile, some upstart companies are thinking outside the box altogether.
Last year three high school seniors bound for ivy-league schools created FlightCar, a service that rents traveler’s private vehicles to people arriving at the airport. Departing travelers sign up to participate as a member of FlightCar’s fleet. A staff member will drop you curbside then take your car to the business’s lot, where it is washed in preparation for an arrival. When a traveler arrives, they rent the vehicle for rates as low as $20 per day. A portion of the rental is returned to the vehicle owner, who has also saved on airport parking fees. FlightCar will even throw in a GPS for your car when you sign up to provide it for rental. Though the new business is facing complaints from established rental firms they are operating at airports in San Francisco and Boston and working on a third location.
Silvercar is another service that’s restructuring the rental model by catering to a very specific customer – the business traveler. Silvercar only rents Audi A4s and everything can be accomplished through their app. No lines, no paperwork, no upselling on insurance. Every car is equipped with GPS, Wi-Fi, toll tracking and satellite radio so all the customer needs to do it access the app and pick up the car. For frequent travelers who dread the rental car drill it’s a dream come true, even one worth paying extra for. When I checked, the average price for a weekend rental in mid-October is $59 per day. The company’s motto is actually “car rental that doesn’t suck.” Right now Silvercar is available at DFW, Houston Hobby, Austin, Dallas Love Field and San Francisco, and just announced service coming to LAX in November.
Edited by Alisen Downey