Barry Saunders

A tale of two car rental companies, but only one car – Saunders

“Mr. Crooms.”

“MR. CROOMS! YOU’RE NEXT!”

Everyone in the Budget car rental agency looked around, wondering why Mr. Crooms didn’t get himself to the desk and finish his business so we could all move up one.

The woman behind the desk went to the next person, and we were left wondering what the heck happened to Mr. Crooms.

There were, eventually, only two people left besides me, and I was asked whether I’d been helped.

No.

Actually, this saga had started a few minutes earlier, when I went to the Avis – not Budget – car rental agency on Guess Road in Durham to return a car I had rented in Maryland. That’s when I noticed the envelope had Budget written on it, but I was certain that I’d rented from Avis.

The two agencies were in the same building in Maryland, so I assumed that either I must’ve gotten in the wrong line or those nights of drinking MD 20/20 like Kool-Aid had finally started wreaking havoc on my brain.

So I got back in the car and drove to the Budget agency a few hundred yards away in Durham. After waiting, I was archly informed, “This car was due back in Maryland two days ago, sir.”

No, I replied, it was rented in Maryland and driven to North Carolina.

Are y’all the same company? I asked, giving a woman behind the counter the side-eye. She said something about them being owned by the same parent company and some legalese that had my eyes glazing over.

“Look, Mr. Crooms. This car was due back in Maryland on July 31 and you ...”

“Did you say ‘Mr. Crooms?’ Hah! That ain’t even me.” (Yes, that’s how I talk when I sense I’m about to be accused of stealing a car.)

After a bit more confusion, it turned out that the same car I’d rented from Avis the previous day had been rented from Budget by Mr. Crooms days before. I’d grabbed, by mistake and in my haste, the contract that he’d left in the glove compartment.

Are y’all the same company? I asked, giving a woman behind the counter the side-eye.

She said something about them being owned by the same parent company and some legalese that had my eyes glazing over.

“Naw, y’all are the same company,” I corrected her.

My by-now-jostled mind went back to an incident two or three years ago when, after an hour of checking for the best rate among various car rental agencies, I’d settled on Avis. The woman who answered the phone said, “Good afternoon. Welcome to Budg ... Avis.”

Being naturally trusting, I sensed nothing amiss and innocently assumed that perhaps she used to work for Budget, had left for better pay and had not gotten acclimated to her new gig.

Bull hockey. Budget and Avis, I now know, have been fooling us for years, and all those hours I’ve spent dialing back and forth between the two trying to get the best deal on a set of rental wheels was just spinning my wheels. Further investigation revealed that in addition to owning Budget, Avis also owns Payless car rental. Hertz owns Thrifty and Dollar, and Enterprise owns Alamo and National.

Egads! Why, that’s socialism! Does Bernie Sanders know about this?

Corporate consolidation has been prevalent for decades, and many companies are upfront about it. Whoever thought you’d one day be able to get Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken under the same roof? They’re owned by the same “parent” company, true enough – and it’s a glutton’s delight to have them right there together – but nobody with good sense ever went to KFC for a taco or to Taco Bell for an extra crispy two-piece meal.

Avis and Budget are not trumpeting their association, certainly not in their television and print ads, but neither are they hiding it.

A more fitting comparison to the rental car monopoly would be if we found out that UPS and FedEx have the same “parent company” and you’ve just been kidding yourself by preferring one over the other.

Avis and Budget are not trumpeting their association, certainly not in their television and print ads, but neither are they hiding it. When you call Avis’ corporate headquarters, you are directed to address correspondence to the Avis-Budget Group.

When I called its New Jersey headquarters to find out what gives, a company spokeswoman directed me to Avis’ website. There I read that “Avis Budget Group’s brands are differentiated to help the Company meet a wide range of customer needs throughout the world. Avis is a leading rental car supplier positioned to serve the premium commercial and leisure segments of the travel industry, and Budget is a leading rental vehicle supplier focused primarily on more value-conscious segments of the industry.”

Oh, OK. Well, that explains NOTHING, especially when both companies rent the same cars.

In my favorite musical, “Man of La Mancha,” Dulcinea – a fallen woman – sings, “One pair of arms is like another. It’s all the same to me.”

That, sadly, appears to be the case with car rental companies.

Dulcinea, at least, didn’t hide what she was.

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