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The Independent Online
"Same company, different place, virtually identical experience." Chris Lewis, of London, writes that my experience at an Alamo car rental counter in Florida was far from unique. At Newark airport, New Jersey, he came under the same pressure to upgrade to a more expensive model.

"The man behind the counter started telling me that the economy car I'd booked and paid for lacked `safety features' (unspecified) and, far worse, a radio. `For only an extra $20 a day...'

"I conferred with the better half - `save the money', she said, `and stick with the small car'.

"We walked out to the allotted parking space and thought we'd made a mistake. I'm no expert on American cars, but this one was huge, with power everything - and a radio. There didn't seem to be any small cars in the parking compound. (Incidentally, the car parking area at Newark is a pig to find and we ended up missing our flight home, but that's another story.)"

Victor Carlton, of Bristol, says anyone who books the cheapest model of car is actually in a strong bargaining position. "The clerk who gave you a Suzuki Esteem was trying to pull a fast one. As soon as he saw your documents specifying a sub-compact, he knew he had a problem with none in stock. He should have immediately offered an upgrade at no extra cost, the choice of vehicle to be agreed.

"I always specify a sub-compact and have been offered any car on the rental lot: `Hey, how about a Pontiac Firebird?' Providing the car has been pre-ordered and paid for, they have no choice. In your case he should have asked if you minded having a Suzuki Esteem as an alternative and, if you had a genuine objection, would have had to offer a second choice."

The rule, says Mr Carlton, is always to order a sub-compact. "You will almost always get an upgrade and, if not, who needs a big car?"

Jonathan Posner writes from Niccone in Umbria to say he habitually books an A-class car for city driving. "On my last trip to San Francisco this had an unexpectedly pleasant, although guilt-ridden (for about 15 seconds) benefit. Like yourself, I had order a Fiesta-sized car. What did I receive? Yes, a V8 Ford Mustang in a rather fetching red".

Peter May e-mails from the sunny side of cyberspace to say he has "long worked on the principle that car rental companies at airports never have the cheapest car in stock. I always pre-order an A-class car and only once have I actually driven away in one.

"The agent usually says something like, `Well, Mr May, we only have a ****** available' I look blank because I know nothing, and care even less, about cars, so I have no idea what a ****** is. They explain it is bigger than I ordered. I think of extra fuel and more difficulty driving and parking. But they regard it as something I should be pleased about. I have never - never - been asked to pay more. You pay the rate for the car group ordered; if they can't supply it, they give the next group up at no extra charge. I have noticed that the shorter the rent the bigger the car you get.

"By the way, I find the web sites of the major car rental firms very useful for comparing rates, and usually the weekly rate is worth using even if the rental is less than a week. And if you decide to stay at a hotel near the airport on the night you arrive, you can save a lot by picking up the car at a location outside the airport zone."

Mr Carlton suggests saving the same cash by being economical with the truth to avoid airport tax on the rental.

"It is a tax the airport charges for the privilege of being allowed to shuttle passengers to and from the airport. If you don't use the shuttle you don't pay the tax. They don't know whether you've come in on the shuttle or whether someone gave you a lift. Tell a white lie and save $15."

Finally, to avoid being befuddled by strange cars, says Mr Carlton, "make a checklist of the things you want to know about the car, and ask for someone to come and show you all the items. I once had great difficulty finding the release catch for the gas tanks. The depot didn't know; they had to ring someone. It turned out to be concealed inside the glove compartment."

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