Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Getting around in style

For many, many years my Vegas vacations were sans a rental car. It didn't seem that important to me to drive around town when there were numerous mass transit options.

I did rent a car for a couple days during a January 2007 trip. I had a job interview in Henderson and it made more sense to rent a car than take a cab back and forth. And I was able to use the rental car to explore Red Rock Canyon for the first time.

I'm cheap. I like to save a little cash if I can. But I have my limits.

I started staying off the strip in 2009. I stayed at a timeshare property west of The Orleans, and I did so without the benefit of a rental car. I used shuttles from the timeshare property to The Orleans and city buses across Tropicana to access the strip and Pinball Hall of Fame. It worked for me at the time.

It was my Halloween 2011 trip that changed my mindset about renting a car in Vegas. I wanted to visit area haunted attractions, and the only way to do so reasonably was to rent a car. So I did so, and now the rental car is a necessity for my trips.

I have typically rented my car through Costco. I have a membership, and the rates Costco offers have been better than anything else I could find, no matter how many discount codes I used by booking through an agency's website directly, or how many searches I did through the many booking websites out there.

Costco has partnerships with just four agencies, but it turns out that one of them has been outstanding to deal with.

I used Budget a few times, but didn't love the fact that I had to wait in line and deal with an agent. (I've been told you can bypass the agents if you do some fancy online confirmation prior to your departure.) I also didn't like the fact I got stuck with whatever car they chose for me. I didn't get the choice of a Toyota or a Chrysler, and I didn't get to pick the color. The color shouldn't matter, but I hated getting stuck with a white vehicle.

The first time I rented with Alamo, however, my life changed again. I was able to check in via a kiosk, and didn't have to deal with the hassle of a clerk trying to sell me additional insurance. And upon completing my paperwork at the kiosk I was able to chose any of the available vehicles in my class. Having a choice of vehicles, and colors, is a nice bonus.

And in my experience, Alamo is laid back when it comes to the damage report you have to file when you drive off the lot. It's less of a hassle.

For my 2015 trips to Vegas, however, the Costco rates haven't been so hot. I did use Alamo in May, and rented a mini van at a higher rate than I'm use to paying, as that was the most economical option, even with the reduced gas mileage of the vehicle.

Last week, however, I did something quite different. I ended up using a new company. I rented a car from Sixt, and it worked out well for me.

Sixt is a small company across the street from the main rental car facility. You have to either haul your luggage down the road to their offices or wait for their shuttle van to come by and pick you up. From my experiences, they were quite efficient on both ends of my rental. This extra step was not an inconvenience.

I have been a longtime Costco customer, but for the past 10 months I've also had a Sam's Club membership. I don't plan on being a member of both long term, but I joined Sam's Club because of a deal last December that basically made my first year free. Like Costco, Sam's Club has car rental deals available to its members. It has different deals, and a different protocol for securing them, but with Costco failing to offer me any vehicle for less than $200 during my five-day visit to Vegas, it was hard to pass up renting a full-size vehicle from Sixt for $164.

That full-size vehicle was going to be a Nissan, but the clerk at Sixt offered us a $15/day upgrade. Instead of a Nissan sedan, we could get a BMW convertible. I was reluctant to say yes immediately, but my girlfriend encouraged me to splurge, so I agreed to it. (I do all the driving in Vegas, all she cares is that she feels safe alongside me.) In hindsight I can't believe I hesitated to say yes. When am I ever going to drive a BMW convertible again?

Sixt is a small company, so there isn't a large inventory of vehicles on site. I didn't get to chose the vehicle, but I didn't care, even after seeing the BMW was white. I felt like a high roller, and it was a much more enjoyable vehicle to drive than the 2003 Toyota Camry I drive in Minnesota. My car is fine, but it's no BMW.

So, which would I choose the next time I'm in Vegas, all things being equal? I'd still go with Alamo.

Sixt has a small staff, and when we picked up the BMW, it was quiet. That was a Sunday evening. When dropping off the car, however, we had to wait more than 10 minutes to process the return. That's not a deal breaker, but it's annoying. Alamo processes many car returns each day, and they have it down to a science. It takes about a minute to complete the process.

That's not enough of a reason to avoid Sixt. What scares me about the company is that it doesn't appear it manages its inventory properly.

I can't say for certain, but it appeared that a few people were waiting for their rental vehicle. They clearly weren't waiting for the shuttle back to the airport. And we heard one couple being told that their rental vehicle wasn't due for another hour. Perhaps these folks were there to rent their vehicle early, and therefore getting burned because of it. But I got the sense that on a Friday afternoon the renters were showing up and the vehicles they intended to rent weren't ready to be picked up. That's a proposition I'd rather not face, all things being equal.

My cheap BMW upgrade and minimal hassle with Sixt obviously won't prevent me from renting from the company again. I had a good experience, but assuming I'm not getting a cheap upgrade to a BMW the next time I walk through their door, (I was told that the normal rate to rent the BMW was $80/day – that seems a bit high,) I'd rather go with the efficient, reliable Alamo service I've come to know and love.

But if you should happen to find that Sixt is your best bet, you might find your experience is as satisfying as mine was.

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