The Brancatelli File



December 1, 1989 -- Travelers can now rent cars at major domestic airports without standing in lineóif they are wiling to pay for the privilege. Instant-rental clubs from National and Hertz allow a renter to go directly from an airport terminal to an automobile without stopping at a counter or filling out a contract. That can save you up to 45 minutes at peak travel times.

Nationalís Emerald Aisle (800-328-4567) was the first instant-rental program, and now operates at about three dozen airports. You must be a member of Nationalís Emerald Club to use it. To join, you fill out a form that includes your charge or credit-card number and driverís-license data. You then receive a ďmaster agreementĒ that serves as a contract for every Emerald Aisle rental. Membership costs $60 annually.

Renting a car this way is remarkably easy. Members dial a toll-free number, reserve a car and request Emerald Aisle service. At the airport, a National shuttle bus takes them to the Emerald Aisle lot. They choose any car on the lot, drive it to the exit, and give the gate agent their driverís license, Emerald Club card and the short contract hanging on the car mirror. The agent returns the material in about 30 seconds. Currently, Emerald Aisle lots are stocked exclusively with premium, full-size and midsize cars, but renters pay on the midsize car rate.

The Hertz #1 Club Gold program (800-654-3131) costs $50 annually (or $25 from travel agents before December 31) and should be available at about 30 airports by year-end. The #1 Club Gold works in much the same way as the Emerald Aisle, with one exception. Hertzís instant rental lots have computerized signboards that direct renters, by name, to a car in their preferred size category. The carís engine is supposed to be running, the heater or air conditioner on, and the trunk open.

Iíve tested both clubs recently, and they performed admirably. The difference between the two may boil down to ego versus economy. Hertz feeds your ego: Thereís an undeniable thrill when you see your name in lights, even if it is only a signboard in a parking lot. National appeals to your pocket: the Emerald Club doubles as a frequent-renter program and offers a chance to earn free car rentals and airplane tickets.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

Copyright © 1989-2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.