As long as rental companies are willing to issue confirmed rental car bookings without collecting any money upfront, they are going to continue to be in thecreditcard dark as to the exact number of cars they will have available when you arrive at the rental counter. Remember, there are many rental car categories: mini, economy, compact, intermediate, standard, full-size, luxury, premium. Most of these come in sedan, station wagon, SUV, and van versions, and all are offered in both automatic and manual. It has to be an extraordinarily complex process to make absolutely certain you and family get that 9-passenger van with automatic transmission that you absolutely must have in that small-town in Italy or Germany or Scotland or wherever.

The Lure of Pay Later

The reason rental companies hand out reservation numbers online with no money in advance is that it generates bookings. Oh, you say to yourself, the van is $1500 but I don’t have to pay until I arrive at the rental counter? Great, I’ll make the booking. And maybe, because I’ve heard the stories about the current rental car shortage…people with confirmed bookings being turned away from rental desks in Hawaii...I’ll make backup bookings with one or two other companies. I'll do one on Expedia, another on Orbitz, and perhaps a third at a rental company website. After all, I don’t have to pay and there’s no way they can charge me if I’m a no-show. They don’t have my credit card, just my email address.

The Problem for the Rental Company 

We don’t have numbers, but this pay-later business is creating no-shows all over the world and, when the rental company’s algorithm guesses wrong, chaos ensues at the rental counter. Let’s say the XYZ rental station at Nice Airport has 10 bookings for intermediate station wagons with automatic transmission (IWAR in rental car language) to be picked up on a Saturday morning between 10 a.m. and noon. Four bookings are prepaid, six are pay-at-the-counter (possible no-shows). At 7 a.m. there are eight automatic wagons on the lot with two to be returned before 9 a.m. However, one of those is returned with a mechanical problem and can’t be rented. The other IWAR isn’t coming back because the customer decided to drop it in Avignon and pay the one-way fee. The rental counter now has eight vehicles and 10 confirmed bookings.

How No-Shows Can Affect Those That Show Up

At 10 a.m., a customer with no reservation walks up to the rental counter with his family of four, credit card in hand, and wants an IWAR. The Nice counter supervisor, Edward, whose compensation depends in part on the number of rentals “out-the-door,” has a decision to make. Does he rent to the walkup customer? Absolutely he does. The walkup gets one of the wagons because Edward is pretty sure there will be no-shows among the six pay-at-the-counter reservations. If he is wrong, and all six pay-laters show up, he will offer a manual transmission wagon, a smaller automatic wagon, a sedan with automatic, phone the downtown office for help, or just shrug his shoulders and offer heartfelt apologies. In many cases, the shoulder shrug is his only option.

In the above scenario, the four pre-paid bookings were never in jeopardy. Edward will make sure each of the four will get one of the eight remaining wagons. This is why you should never, ever arrive at a rental counter without a pre-paid booking…one you can cancel for a full refund right up to the day of rental.

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