Personal Finance

Ranking the Best Rental Card Rewards Programs

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 before arriving.

The car rental industry saw significant consolidation as recently as 2013. As a result, there are just a few major players to consider. This ValuePenguin list ranks the best rewards offers.

1. Enterprise

Reward programs are only useful when the underlying provider has a significant presence in the market. Enterprise has a fleet of 1.1 million vehicles. This scale bests all other vendors. Nearly any destination is likely to have an Enterprise option given their 6,250 locations.

The “Enterprise Plus” rewards program is straightforward; each dollar spent equals one point. 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 $192.00. 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 20% 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. Hertz

The second-largest rental car business in the US has 5,140 locations. Their rewards program is a tiered system with three levels. The “Hertz Gold Plus Rewards” is free to join. Every dollar spent equals one point. Like Enterprise, these points generate for free rental days. One free rental day starts at 550 points. The definition of a “qualifying dollar” is wider. Therefore you can earn points on spending that includes fuel purchases, upgrades and insurance coverage options.

Users renting seven to 19 times per year (or spending $1,500 to $3,999) earn a 10% bonus on total earned points. Additionally, Hertz issues 675 bonus points after every 15 rentals.

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 25% bonus on all points and an additional 675 points for every 15 rentals. The average Hertz standard size rental cost $175 per week, meaning that most will earn their first free rental day after approximately two to three weeks work of rentals.

3. Avis

With 3,250 locations Avis is the third largest major player in the car rental business. Like the others on the list, the program here consists of three tiers. “Avis Preferred” members earn one point for each dollar spent. You can earn 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 three 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.

Avis, on average, is the most expensive of the big names. There is no clear basis for the minimum points needed to earn a free day, so users may be in for a surprise if points don’t translate to value as quickly as Hertz and Enterprise.

4. National

Given the complexity of typical reward programs, National's offer is refreshingly simple. There are no points. Instead, National issues "credits." Seven credits earn a user one free day. “Executive” members -- you must purchase 12 paid rentals or 40 paid rental days in a calendar year -- can earn one free day with just six credits. “Executive Elite Members” -- you must purchase 25 paid rentals or 85 paid rental days in a calendar year -- can earn one free day with five credits. You'll earn one credit for each four continuous days of renting. Therefore a rental period of eight days earns you two credits. National is an attractive option for those who seldom travel.

5. Zipcar

This online “industry disrupter” is the newest competitor to enter the field. The model is different than 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 is an easy, flexible and affordable option. Do some research first; Zipcar has far fewer locations nationwide compared to the big three above. The majority of these sites are on college campuses. There is also a one-time $25 application fee and membership fees. A basic plan membership costs $70 per year. An intermediate plan costs $19.95 per month, and the largest plan costs $50 per month.

The rewards program is just as unconventional as the business model. There is no point system. Instead, Zipcar users are offered various savings on different business 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. This same offer applies to Budget rental cars. Additionally, members receive discounts of 10 to 20% on local eateries, gyms, retailers and other venues.

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.

The article Ranking the Best Rental Card Rewards Programs originally appeared on ValuePenguin.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.