At first I didn’t understand the car rental business. Now, I think what they do is deliberate. You can make a reservation for a rental car, but they don’t ask you to pay for it. When you make a reservation, the company tells you that you’ll get x kind of car, “or similar.” They have a strange definition of similar. They have strange definitions of intermediate, standard, premium, etc. too. A few years ago, I rented an intermediate SUV and got one that the automotive press called a compact SUV. I was recently looking at intermediate sedans for an upcoming trip. One company offered me a Toyota Corolla as an intermediate. My Corolla certainly isn’t intermediate. Is yours? Three years ago, I wanted a sedan. They didn’t have what I wanted and the “or similar” turned out to be a Dodge Magnum. I wanted a sedan, because I had luggage and didn’t want it out in plain sight. I didn’t consider the Magnum similar at all. It’s a station wagon with no way to conceal your luggage. I held out for a sedan and while I didn’t get the one I thought I’d get, I did get one. On my first trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, I reserved a Jeep Grand Cherokee and they offered me a smaller Jeep Liberty at the same price. I balked and they gave me a Chrysler Pacifica which they said had all-wheel drive, but didn’t. In Colorado and New Mexico, I arranged for a Grand Cherokee and wound up with a Subaru Forester, which does have all-wheel drive, but doesn’t carry as much.
I’ve also noticed that some car rental companies advertise cars that are no longer made. What’s an “Or Similar” if the rental agency says they rent Pontiacs? A DeSoto, or a Studebaker?
All of these charming quirks in the car rental process are apparently designed so they can up-sell you. They don’t have any incentive to have the car you didn’t pay for. They have described the cars they do have in terms that make each category sound better than the cars are, and worse than the average consumer or the automotive press would understand. You have shopped for the car on line, and you have set expectations for the car, and the price. You are tired and cranky after a long flight. You want to get out of the airport and either down to business, or off on vacation. They offer you less than you expected. You don’t want to go to all the other rental counters to stand on line, and shop for something better. So you pay more to get something you do find more acceptable. Heads they win, tails you lose.
One thing that might help is if some auto maker produces a car so expensive that no car rental company would consider having even one of them in stock and calls that car the “Or Similar.” If that happens, the rental agencies will have to stop this substitution nonsense, or at least spend some time and effort making up a new term. Instead of calling the cars they really do rent the “Or Similar”, maybe they could call it the “Misleading Business Practice” instead.