It’s well-known that picking up a rental car at the airport will lead to numerous taxes, surcharges, and fees. The surtaxes can be mindblowing, with local governments soaking out-of-towners to fund expensive capital projects like stadiums with fees extracted from transients who can’t vote in local elections. So how do you avoid the exorbitant fees?
1) Skip the airport
This is the somewhat obvious answer: Take mass transit or a taxi and pick the car up at a downtown location. You’ll avoid the airport concession tax, and you’ll spend a little less time maneuvering in unfamiliar local traffic. Of course, this isn’t always possible, if the airport is poorly connected, or if you have a ton of luggage. Note that dropping off at the airport in the same city you picked up the car is generally not charged a one-way rental fee.
2) The two-rental solution
Let’s say you need to pick up the car at the airport. That doesn’t mean you have to be on that contract the entire time you’re renting. Reserve a car for pickup at the airport and plan for a dropoff the next day downtown. Then start a new rental at the downtown location. You’ll pay airport surcharges for only one day, and pay lower fees for the rest of the rental. The longer your trip, the more you save.
I quickly priced out a sample one-week rental in Dallas at Budget Rent a Car (the results could be replicated, give or take a few bucks, with other brands):
1 week rental, pickup at DFW airport, returning to DFW.
Lowest rate is for an intermediate SUV, total cost with taxes: $347.79.
(FYI: A more fuel-efficient compact car rents for $464.07!)
1 day rental, pickup at DFW, dropoff downtown Dallas.
6 day rental, pickup at downtown Dallas, dropoff at DFW.
Lowest combo: 1-day SUV: $53.69 all-in; 6-day compact: $189.19.
Total: $242.88. (Substituting a compact for the SUV in the 1-day rental raises the cost by $8.93.)
Total savings over Option 1: $104.91.
One major car rental company’s employee reminds me that this can be particularly useful in Europe, where one-way dropoff fees are not as prevalent as in the United States, as long as the car is picked up and dropped off in the same country. (The employee didn’t want to be named or have his company identified, for obvious reasons.) And the taxes are significant: 19% for Frankfurt Airport pickups, for example.
3) Half-day rentals, where available
This is not very widespread yet, but Hertz and others are rolling out half-day car rentals in some European locations. Otherwise, similar to #2 above.
Pre-paying a car rental is much like buying an airline ticket from a consolidator. You give up on flexibility (and take on more onerous change fee policies) in return for a discount. It’s not for everyone. This is obviously not something which business travelers would benefit much from, but for leisure rentals, it’s a viable alternative if your dates are fixed. I’ve had good experiences with Auto Europe in, well, Europe, and with Hotwire in the U.S. The total price quoted has typically been 10 to 30% less than the retail rates quoted by the majors themselves. The car itself has always been provided by one of the big name brands.
Got any other tips for avoiding these fees? Hit the comments!
- Reader mail: What happened to car rental late-return grace periods?
- Reader roundup: More tips for car rental deals
- Upgrade declined: Travelers turning down car rental upgrades
- Reader mail: Watch your prepaid rental car fees
- Chicago to align short-term car rentals and mass transit