Way back in the ancient days of the 1970s when I first began renting cars every week, I recall just a few prices at Avis and Hertz and National.  First was the so-called walk-up rate per day for each class of car, which I always viewed as sort of an MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price).  In other words, a price to use as a reference point while trying to negotiate down.  Getting a lower rate meant having access to either government or corporate discounts.  Things weren’t too strict then, and I could usually talk an agent on the phone into a rate cheaper than full retail, and it was never questioned when I picked up the car.

Over the years rental car rates were parsed and sliced until an infinite number of rates became the rule.  Getting a modest discount was almost assured, but really significant discounts could only be had if one had a big company’s secret CPD (corporate program discount?  I was never sure of the acronym’s meaning).  This was a negotiated rate that was almost always 25-40% off walk-up rates.  Despite rates being on an endless sliding scale, there was a certainty that the rate structure moved steadily from top to bottom.

This plethora of rates really took off with the Internet.  I can’t recall the last time I talked to a rental car company agent on the phone.  One would think that the Internet would bring an even more stately and structured approach to rental car rates than ever before.  Now, though, confusion seems to reign when trying to snag a reasonable rate.  It seems, in fact, like a crap shoot every time I am on the hunt for a good rate.

A good example is my recent experience lining up a rental car (a minivan) in Seattle for a week in July.  Checking with both Hertz and Avis, and using two CPD numbers from very large U.S. companies that I have stored in my online rental car accounts, both companies quoted about $1050 for a 7-day rental (including all taxes) when I chose the online option that says something like “select a rate that my company has negotiated.”

Wow, I thought! Over a grand for a car, even a minivan, seems high.  So I started again at hertz.com and this time stipulated the same car and rental week period but did not click the box that said “select a rate that my company has negotiated.”

That time Hertz (and later, Avis) produced a rate of about $530, all in, about half the corporate rate that the supposedly cheaper CPD number produced.  Naturally I booked the lower rate at once.

However, I decided to dive deeper into the murky waters of rental car rates to see if an even better deal awaited me at Sea-Tac.  After all, I had just saved $520 in two minutes.  I checked Hotwire, Priceline, Orbitz, Hipmunk, and Kayak for a minivan at the same dates at SEA.  I also tried a couple of peer-to-peer outfits like Flightcar.com.  What I found amazed me.

Everything was more expensive than the non-corporate rate at Hertz and Avis.  Rates for minivans ranged from $817 per week (all in) to as much as $1700 (again, with all taxes and fees).  Flightcar rates were among the highest.  Nothing even came close to $530.

While I am delighted to have landed a great rate for my vehicle, the research results seem counter-intuitive to me.  First, I would have expected the non-corporate rates at the two flagship rental car firms to be higher than the corporate negotiated rates which were supposedly discounted.  Second, I would have expected Hertz and Avis rates to be generally higher than any other firm because, well, they are the big boys in the industry, with a lot of presumed overhead.  Third, I expected to find at least one rate comparable or lower than the one I booked.  Fourth, I expected the peer-to-peer firms to be very competitive with established companies based the old-school car rental model.

So why the seemingly anomalous results?  I don’t know.  Maybe it was just the timing of my searches, the location, the dates, or the vehicle type.  If I had time I’d spend several hours testing car rental quotes for several different car classes in several locations several months out to see if I get the same general range of rates.  Regardless, it just points to how erratic car rental rates can be.  The staid predictability of rate structures prevalent 40 years ago is long gone.