Picking up a rental car: why does it have to be so painful?

Taxis in Japan

It’s hard to believe any system could be so inefficient. Check into a hotel and, in any decent place you’ll have your key and be in your room in a couple of minutes. Arrive at the airport and you can, in theory, go through security and be at your gate less than ten minutes after entering the airport, using your pre-printed boarding pass. So why is picking up a rental car so painful?

Last week I waited two hours at a rental desk in Lisbon. There were a lot of people in the queue in front of me but this was not the main cause of the problem. As I discovered when I eventually got to the front, the staff were taking 20-25 to process each customer. While this was a particularly unfortunate episode, I’ve waited many times to collect a rental car, wondering why things need to take so long.

What is it that causes this annoying delay? Some of it can be put down to staffing (not enough desks manned at peak time or poorly trained/motivated staff) but there’s another issue that I can’t help wondering about. Why can’t all the necessary information be provided at the time of booking, instead of having someone laboriously write everything at the desk?

We could send a scan of our driving licence in advance (although a licence number should be enough). We could fill out online forms that offer us the option of various insurances while we’re booking. We could tick boxes to show that we understand our liabilities, promise to return the car with a full tank and not to drive along dirt tracks etc. In fact there seems no obvious reason why the system couldn’t be made fully automated. Here’s how it could work:

1. Insert credit card into machine – name, payment details, licence details, chosen insurance/upgrade options are all retrieved from system, with the car key dispensed along with a contract copy that includes location of car and a diagram listing all previously noted scratches/dents.

2. Go to car. Inspect for any discrepancies between printed picture and reality, alerting nearby staff member if anything seen.

3. Drive off.

That’s it. 5-10 minutes from arriving at the rental point and you’re out of the airport and on your way to wherever you need to go.

Is it that hard to create such a process? Such an automated system would reduce the staff costs of rental companies, something they all seem very keen to do; so it’s clearly not about keeping people in work.

Presumably rental companies have thought of such a system and decided it doesn’t make sense for them to do this and that employees need to keep writing by hand the information they could have easily collected in advance. So I guess we’ll have to grin and bear the inefficiency for a while longer. We may be firmly in the 21st century but it appears that the car rental industry is stuck firmly in the past.

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Freelance travel writer

2 Responses to “Picking up a rental car: why does it have to be so painful?”

  1. Andy,

    It’s such a game! It’s as if these companies – global companies – are more second hand car dealer than service industry.

    Always take your mobile to take pictures – set the date function and show these to the staff at the start before you sign of and drive away.

    Always amend, even if you are being petty – the person checking it back in is the one you have to keep sweet.

    And always opt for the VW Polo when hiring a car in Dublin – we knocked out 200 miles, fuel gauge didn’t budge an inch.

    September 21, 2012 at 12:12 pm
    • Thanks Mark – like you say, it certainly pays to stay on the right side of the person checking the car back in. Most importantly, you want to be present when they sign the form to say everything is ok (often this is tricky)

      September 23, 2012 at 11:19 am