While searching for car rental options online, you might have encountered the sort of offering that lets you lock in a low rental rate in exchange for letting the company select your vehicle.
This type of rental goes by many names: "Manager's Special" (Hertz and Dollar), "Wild Card" (Thrifty), "Mystery Car" (Avis and Sixt), "You Click. We Pick." (Enterprise), supplier's choice, and so on.
The rates for these mystery deals are usually comparable to—or a few dollars less than—what you'd pay for an economy or compact car (i.e., the cheapest class of rental vehicle).
But you could, theoretically, wind up with anything on the lot: a compact, a full-size sedan, a minivan, or an SUV. And if you get a bigger, nicer car, you won't have to pay for the upgrade.
Most of the major rental car companies guarantee that customers who go for the manager's choice will get room for at least four or five passengers and at least two pieces of luggage. Everything else is a gamble.
Caveats to Consider
Essentially, the manager's special is a way for rental companies to move extra inventory, so you don't have to worry that you're getting scammed. But there are reasons to be cautious.
What you get depends on availability, the company's inventory needs, and, possibly, the whims of the counter clerk (it never hurts to be polite).
In a Reddit discussion of this type of rental, one user points out that rental car companies often need to shift around inventory based on different car needs in different locations, and those considerations may play a part in what the manager's choice doles out.
"I just used Managers Special on a one way rental and got a Chevy Malibu so it’s not always a dinky car," the Reddit user writes, "it’s just whatever they want driven right then."
Keep in mind, however, that bigger isn't always better. You could be traveling alone and opt for a mystery car that turns out to be a huge, gas-guzzling pickup.
That happened to another Reddit user who opted for a mystery car. When that customer turned down the truck the company offered and went with a sedan instead, "there was a $500 upcharge" as a penalty for not sticking with the manager's choice.
That's the thing to remember with mystery rentals: You get what you get. Either accept what the company offers or be prepared to pay the price. The same goes for amenities and other extras—customers have no say in that department, either.
And while it's conceivable that the mystery car could turn out to be an overstocked beauty, it could just as easily have a few dings and a lot of mileage.
In most cases, a condition of locking in the low rate is agreeing to forgo refunds without penalties. Be sure to read the rental company's terms and conditions before surrendering to the mystery.
When a Mystery Rental Might Make Sense
Obviously, the gamble is least risky for travelers who have some flexibility with what they need in the way of car size. Otherwise, a family of six could end up trying to stuff themselves and their luggage into a Honda Civic, and a solo road tripper could find herself behind the wheel of a Ford F-150.
But if you don't need a lot of space (yet you're okay with unexpectedly getting some) and you're not picky about the type of car you drive, it might be worth taking a chance on the manager's choice.
Given the rental car shortages of recent years, flexibility can be a wise course of action. When mystery car availability is driven (no pun intended) by excess inventory, it stands to reason you increase your chances of getting a car when you'll take whatever the company will give you.
To find these types of rental rates, your best bet is to go directly to the website of the rental car company—manager's specials aren't always listed at online travel agencies such as Hotwire and Priceline (though those sites sometimes have their own mystery rates on rental cars, marked "Supplier's Choice" at Priceline and appearing as Hotwire Hot Rates).
Before you make a reservation, be sure to do a little comparison shopping to make sure the manager's choice rate is indeed the lowest available. If you're doing this to save money, after all, you want to actually, you know, save money.