Posted by: Mark Ashley

airport car rental Avoiding airport rental markups

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):

Option 1:
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!)

Option 2:
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.

4) Pre-pay
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!

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pixel Avoiding airport rental markups
Categorized in: advice, car rental, rental cars

10 Responses to “Avoiding airport rental markups”

  1. Jason Steele Says:

    These are great suggestions. Here is mine: Take a free shuttle to a nearby hotel. Once there, either rent from a company that has a desk in the hotel, as many hotels do, or have enterprise pick you up. Why bother taking an airport shuttle to a massive rental car facility when you can take a hotel shuttle, and wait comfortably in their lobby until Enterprise shows up?

  2. mark Says:

    Is Enterprise still trying to soak customers for microscopic “damage” such as tiny and/or pre-existing bumper dings?

    I haven’t rented thru Enterprise itself since an atrocious experience 4.5 years ago, when there were widespread reports of questionable Enterprise tactics. (In fairness, I’ve had several recent rentals with Alamo & National, both now under the Enterprise umbrella, and encountered no problems.)

  3. Mark Ashley Says:

    I love the moxie, Jason. Perhaps you can even time it right and show up at a complimentary cocktail hour, a la Embassy Suites. ;)

    Regarding Enterprise’s damage-checking, Mark, it varies by location, but I still hear about it. Perhaps not as much as a few years ago, though.

  4. Rob Manderson Says:

    Forgive the plug but you might get a chuckle out of this piece I wrote a few years back.


  5. Carls Says:

    Something to watch out for: leaky tire. When I called in about a slow leak (tire went down overnight), the repair crew arrived without compressed air or towtruck, so we just changed to the small emergency tire. Dropped the car off the next day with the original in the trunk and two weeks later heard that the tire had been damaged and I was responsible for a new one and installation! It would have been _much_ better had I simply plugged the tire on my dime. (This is bad policy on their part, because plugging isn’t always a wise repair!)

  6. Joyce Says:

    I use Auto Europe regularly and get a pretty good deal most of the time. They will also beat (barely) other vendors. You do have to prepay but if things change, you can do so at no additional charge. I’d recently rented a vehicle with them and shortly after my husband found a better deal on the internet. They verified the deal, beat the price, issued a new reservation, and credited our credit card. The dollar had got stronger so even the exchange rate was better.

  7. MB Says:

    Did you also price taking a taxi and changing your downtown Dallas rental to 7 days? The weekly rate for 7 days may have been even cheaper than doing a 6 day rental.

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