If you want a better rental car, start with the smallest vehicle. That secret for getting a car rental upgrade has been around for almost as long as there have been car rental companies.
And it still works, says Marc Burdiss, an emergency management consultant from Dayton, Ohio. “Book the cheapest and smallest car,” he says. “Rental car companies very rarely have these in stock unless you prebook one and they hold it for you.”
The strategy is most effective for last-minute reservations at an airport location. Burdiss says an agent will try to sell you an upgrade. But if you insist on sticking with the matchbox car you reserved, they’ll upgrade you into a bigger vehicle – at no extra cost.
With the busy summer vacation season just ahead, a lot of travelers are thinking about renting a nicer car. Maybe a convertible for that long drive down the Overseas Highway to Key West? Or a comfy SUV for that California road trip? There are ways to get a free car rental upgrade, experts say.
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I hear from a lot of car rental customers who say the reserve-the-small-car trick still works. But you can improve your chances with a little insider advice. First, it helps to understand what’s happening behind the scenes. Car rental companies have to manage vast fleets, and the ability to reserve and cancel a car without paying a penalty makes that difficult. Last summer’s car rental shortage made it even harder.
On a busy holiday weekend, it’s possible for a rental location to run out of cars in a certain class. That means it has to start giving their customers the keys to more expensive vehicles.
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Chloe Skupnick, a former car rental manager who lives in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, says booking the lowest-class can land you a better car. But you have to be careful.
“Book the lowest class car you’re comfortable with, in case you have to take it,” she says. “Once you get to the lot, ask the attendant if they have any ‘no-rev’ vehicles. Their pay is based on getting those bad boys out. It’s usually stuff they can’t easily rent out, like trucks, vans, sports cars. They put you in it and you’re on your way – for free.”
Another thing car rental customers may not realize: The key to an upgrade is that person at the counter. Yes, agents may try to sell you an upgrade (they get paid more when they do), but they can also give you the upgrade.
“All it costs is a little flattery and banter,” says Nikki Webster, a frequent car renter. “In almost all cases, if an upgrade is available the rental company will give it to you.”
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Webster, who writes a travel blog called Brit on the Move, says she tries to make friends with the reservation agents. 
“Long before we get to the type of car, I have engaged them in a conversation about the area, about themselves. I try to spark a connection and compliment the area or the agent. Once we’ve established some rapport and go to the actual car, I throw in a line such as “So what upgrades can you offer?” or, “We are getting upgraded, right?” – and I make the assumption that we are.”
Peter Hoagland, a marketing consultant and frequent car renter from Warrenton, Virginia, offers yet another obvious – but often overlooked –  tip. 
“At the car rental facility, I don’t actually ask for an upgrade,” he says. “What has worked for me on occasion, is saying something like: ‘On this trip, I have to transport a number of people. Do you have something a little roomier?’ They get the message and might come through with a bigger – and nicer – vehicle.”
And one more thing, he adds. “Politeness can go a long way.”
Yes, it can. Now, I realize that other travel “experts” might try to fill a story about car rental upgrades with strategies about joining loyalty programs or finding specials online. And in the short term, playing the loyalty or the coupon game might land you a better car. But it’s a time-suck, and the rules of the game change frequently. 
You’re better off with these tips: Rent where there are a lot of upgrade opportunities. Ask for a nicer car. And be friendly and polite. I wish everything in life were that simple.
What’s the opposite of an upgrade? Getting the worst car on the lot. You know, the one with lots of miles and a ding or dent. Here’s how to ensure you get one:
Arrive late. Car rental companies assign many vehicles on a first-come, first-served basis. If you check in late in the day, you might find that the most desirable vehicles are out the door.
Act rude. Plunking down your platinum card and asking, “Do you know who I am?” could guarantee the worst vehicle. Car rental employees don’t like customers with attitude. 
Pay less. Although there’s only anecdotal evidence that car rental companies assign their worst cars to their cheapest customers, it’s worth considering. If you find one of those prepaid rates at a discount site, you might also land a well-used vehicle. You know what I mean? The one that smells kind of funky inside.

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