All the attention has been on the Continental-United merger, but that’s not the only M&A action in the travel space. To wit:

  • Hertz made an offer to buy Dollar/Thrifty for $41/share. Avis subsequently signaled interest in making a higher bid. Bottom line: The car rental market is about to shrink.
  • Google is reportedly in talks to buy ITA Software, which provides much of the functionality for sites like Orbitz, Kayak, TripAdvisor Flights, and others. You can’t just google a ticket today, but you may do so soon.

The battle for Dollar/Thrifty between Hertz and Avis is largely about consolidation and elimination of the competition (much like the “Continited” merger). At the same time, buying Dollar/Thrifty would give Hertz or Avis a larger presence in the comparatively “downmarket” leisure travel segment.

The speculated deal for ITA Software is perhaps more interesting. What will Google do if it gains the technology and software engineering human resources to run better fare searches? Will they offer a search-of-searches, pushing traffic to airlines and online travel agencies, but putting Kayak and their metasearch ilk out of business? Will Google challenge Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, et al. themselves and build a Google travel agency? Will Google continue to sell the powerful ITA engine (which ITA lets anyone test drive on their beta site — login as guest) or will they let contracts expire and keep the technology for itself? Plenty of theories, but no answers.

So in the past week, the competitive landscapes for flying, driving, and booking travel have all potentially changed, with minimal visible benefits to the consumer. After all, less competition breeds higher prices.

All we’re missing is a hotel deal and a cruise line merger, and we’ll be all set. (The week is young.)


child in smoke filled car Budget and Avis ban smoking in rental cars
Budget and Avis (which are the same company, though operated as separate brands) announced that they were banning smoking in all their rental cars in North America.

Effective October 1, 2009, smoking will be off limits. If you do smoke in the car, there will be a $250 cleaning fee. The ban also applies to employees, who typically get to use a car for their personal transportation as a perk of the job.

To be honest, I haven’t noticed many smoky rental cars lately. They’ve been so rare (either because people aren’t smoking in rentals, or the cleaning process is so much better) that I’ve gotten to the point where I haven’t even thought to request a non-smoking car anymore. I can’t even remember the last time I made such a request.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see other companies follow suit. But there will almost assuredly be a company that doesn’t ban smoking, much like hotels, where some chains (e.g., Marriott, Westin) have gone smoke free, but most others have retained a mix of smoking and non-smoking offerings. (Will there be surcharges for renting a car that permits smoking, going forward?)


cruisecast roof Avis and Budget to feature live TV in your rental carWhile drivers will still need to keep your eyes on the road, Avis and Budget are partnering with AT&T’s CruiseCast to beam television channels into rental cars.

For $8.95 a day, the passengers in the backseat will never need to part with their precious television. Sorry, no Tivo option yet…

Unsurprisingly, the channel lineup is heavily tilted toward kids’ programming. Disney Channel, Disney XD, Discovery Kids, Animal Planet, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network Mobile, USA, COMEDY CENTRAL, MSNBC, CNN Mobile Live and CNBC. Perhaps ironically, the Travel Channel is being added soon.

Cars will be outfitted with a roof antenna (pictured), and the streaming video will be cached for three minutes, to prevent signal drop when you lose a direct line of sight to the satellite.

Budget and Avis are pitching it to both vacationing families and business travelers. The family angle, I get. The business traveler, not so much. Keep CNN or the Colbert Report running in the background while you drive?

Is this something you’d opt for in a rental car? Hit the comments!

Hat tip Budget Travel

Last November, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that Budget Rent-a-Car couldn’t impose an automatic fuel fee for those customers driving fewer than 75 miles. Budget was charging the fee even when those customers returned the car with a full tank.

But the fee wasn’t outlawed because it was obnoxious, or extortionary, or patently unfair. It was banned because customers weren’t adequately notified of the fee, or how they could get around paying it by presenting fuel receipts at the time of return.

So much for quick dropoffs. Readers in the past have reported that rental car check-in agents, with their handheld scanners and receipt printers, aren’t always able to override the <75 mile fuel fee. Renters are sent back inside, to wait in line. Agencies are banking on your unwillingness to risk missing your shuttle (and your flight) and just biting the bullet on the fee.

The FTC's decision didn't eliminate the fee, and it's not limited to Budget. It's still out there, just amplified with a big sticky note.

See for example the note attached to Tyler Colman‘s rental agreement at Portland Airport this past week, when he rented with Avis. The fee: $13.99. “EZFuel,” eh? Bilking the customer is oh so EZ !

avis ezfuel Read that sticky note: Driving less than 75 miles on a rental can still trigger a fuel fee

- Low Mileage, High Surcharges


driving miss daisy Car rentals: Compact, mid size, full size... chauffeur?

Want to class up that rental car? Avis launched a new service in ten cities today, letting Avis Preferred members hire a chauffeur to drive them around.

As part of the new “Chauffeur Drive” program, the drivers are provided and billed by WeDriveU, which specializes in this sort of thing, and by not Avis.

Personally, I love the idea of someone renting a little crapbox like a Kia Rio, but insisting on having a chauffeur. Somebody please do it, if just for the photos.

But more seriously, this could come in handy if time is short, and you want both an airport pickup and the freedom to drive your own butt around town. Your chauffeur can pick up your car and be there ready to pick you up at the airport, curbside. They can also do drop-offs. Thereafter, you can drive the car yourself, as normal.

Every time you use their service, it has a three-hour minimum, but you can dismiss the driver at any time. Of course, hiring the help isn’t cheap ($30/hour), and it requires 24 hours notice.

Avis has featured chauffeur service in certain cities outside the US, such as Mexico City, for some time, but the joint venture with WeDriveU will be available in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

Details here.

clock Reader mail: What happened to car rental late return grace periods?

Two readers wrote in regarding late returns and grace periods when renting a car. Reader Francine writes:

When I rented a car from National recently, there was no grace period for late returns. None! Is this the latest way they get you?

And reader Peter offers this story, and advice, from his recent rental with Budget Rent-a-Car in Montreal:

I was late getting out of Vermont and late getting the car back to the airport. When I arrived I discovered that I had signed a contract that stipulated $33.xx CAD/hour for being late on a $55/day rental. Further, since I was 2hrs 15 minutes late they claimed I was 3 hours late (the grace period disappeared) and they charged me for another DAY, stating it would cost me less than 3 hours of the late charge.

I haven’t had any luck getting Budget to discuss this with me. If you rent from anyone be clear at pickup 1) what constitutes late and 2) what it costs when you are.

Indeed, grace periods are no longer a given when it comes to late returns. Hertz cut their grace period in half a year ago, and others soon followed suit. Nowadays, you really need to know what you’re signing (and initialing).

In Peter’s case, I see only one possible “violation” here on the part of the company: The forfeit of the grace period. But even then, if he returned the car two hours late (instead of three), he’s better off paying a full day extra, rather than two hours’ overtime. It sucks, but those are the terms.

With contracts like this, if you signed for it, you’re on the hook. These hourly rates are one of the items you’re often asked to initial.

Not all companies are the same, though: Late-return policies vary by chain, with some chains offering no grace periods whatsoever.

Perhaps even more importantly, some companies reserve the right to retroactively change your rate to a higher level — for the duration of the entire rental — if you return the car late. If anything, Peter was lucky they didn’t change his rate for the earlier days as well!

The policies of each major U.S. chain, with key points highlighted, after the jump: