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Christian Nimsky's Weblog

Why Is Renting an SUV So Hard?

Christian Nimsky

One of the reasons people buy SUVs is because they like to take road trips.  They may not need the size or cargo hauling capacity on a day-to-day basis but for packing up the kids and going somewhere - particularly if you need 4WD - SUVs are great.  We have owned an SUV and recently concluded a two-year stint of renting them for road trips.  Our conclusion: If you’re particular about your ride - or about getting an SUV period - for your road trip, either buy one, rent a day or two in advance of your trip or have a backup plan for your rental.  Because the rental most likely won’t work the way you want it to.

This rant has a bit of a story behind it: We have an aging Ford Explorer that just isn’t up to the road trip task anymore.  After it dropped a driveshaft in 20 degree, 40 mile-an-hour winds at 11pm 137 miles from a city of any significance on the way to Mammoth with my very pregnant wife my trust in it waned considerably. Beyond the mistrust in a car that comes from having a major piece of the powertrain fall off at 80 mph we started to realize that the vehicle is no spring chicken anymore.  So once the kids were born we wanted a newer SUV for those big trips. 

Our renting adventure started off as a way for us to test out new SUVs as we contemplated replacing our Explorer one day.  Then as $100 a barrel oil and a keener environmental awareness entered our minds we started wondering if we should just not replace the Explorer and just rent SUVs for our road trips.  While that sounds like a good idea in theory,  in practice after renting SUVs multiple times now it has become clear to me that rental car companies just aren’t geared to meet this need well enough for us to plan a trip around.

When planning a road trip you know exactly how many people you want to seat.  You may want not one but two car seat tethers in the back row.  You know how much luggage you will bring. If you’re a gadget nut like me you’ll also know that you want one with an auxillary audio input jack for your iPod or Pioneer Inno. What the rental car companies give you if you’re lucky is some kind of “small/medium/large” selection during the reservation process. Even Hertz, with their new “choose your car” plans, will swap vehicles on you and won’t guarantee you a specific vehicle in advance.   The rental agent may or may not know much about the cars available (or even what a specific feature such as a car seat tether is), and at the end of the day your choices depend on what inventory is available at the time.

I’ve tried this with about 3 different rental car companies now on roughly 6 occasions over the past 2 years or so. Each time I’ve reserved a particular class of SUV with a major rental car company. I’ve experimented with calling a day or so ahead to get a sense of the inventory and in some cases have received promises of a specific car. My experiences thus far have included:

  • One successful rental where I got exactly what I wanted.  Woo hoo!
  • Three “we don’t have what you want but we have this other (usually slightly smaller) SUV…
  • One “we don’t have any SUVs - sorry - how would you like to rent a 10-passenger van?”
  • Most recently, a rental that started out bad (was not given a 4WD vehicle) that was rectified after a 30 minute delay for a vehicle swap.  After packing the car and letting it sit overnight the next morning it had a “low tire pressure warning” light go off at the start of our trip. As it turns out, the light was due to the tires having several embedded nails. After horsing around with customer service/roadside assistance for an hour on the phone I returned it to an airport rental center where it could only be swapped for a smaller SUV.  So I unpacked the SUV and kids in the middle of an airport rental center and barely managed to re-pack it all into a smaller vehicle while everyone marvelled at our stuff all laid out in the rental center parking lot.  This basically delayed our departure by about 4 hours, causing us to turn one day of driving into two consecutive days of driving.
I’ve concluded that renting doesn’t work for road trips.  The affordable, mainstream options out there don’t have the selection and just aren’t reliable enough to bet my family’s ski trip or camping trip on.  And I’d bet that if you were a minivan fan (we have one as well and but for some trips need the 4WD capability) renting minivans is probably just as big a pain. After the new year, I’ll start the process of buying a new SUV.  I’d rather not…rental car companies can you please come up with a system that works?