Off-Airport Rental Location

The Fee Detective series frequently speaks about the downright abusive tax and fee burdens renters face at many airports around the country. Those tax and fee burdens create a conundrum for airport users. Often, the total rates are cheaper at airports than at off-airport locations -- after all, airport competitors are often side-by-side. Yet the high taxes imposed at airports combined with excessive demand might create absurd rates at airports but far more palatable rates at neighborhood (non-airport) locations! Flying into an airport during one of those peak demand periods, need a rental car, and are willing to figure out how to get yourself from the airport to the neighborhood rental car location? There might be a way to save on rentals (unless traveling into Denver)!

Denver makes renting a car off-airport a bit more difficult.

Why Did You Exclude Denver?

This was the subject of a previous Fee Detective article. The Denver International Airport and local government agencies have decided that all rental car companies within a 20-mile radius of the airport have to charge airport taxes on individuals who arrived at the airport within 24 hours of a rental pickup. It's a complete boondoggle. Fly into the airport and want to pick up a vehicle in Aurora? The airport taxes will be added at the counter by law. However, a renter who flies in and then travels more than 20 miles from the airport (e.g. "to Denver proper, considering the airport's in the middle of nowhere") can pick up a rental without the airport taxes and fees.

What are the Mechanics?

A renter might find that an airport is sold out (even we can't help in that situation) or has exorbitant rates on the desired rental. We wrote about that very scenario when Delta had an operational meltdown and the major airports in the D.C. and New York City areas were sold out. Yet neighborhood locations might have vehicles available, or vehicles available at more reasonable rates -- I was at Reagan National Airport, had booked a rental car from an Enterprise location attached to my hotel (which had an airport shuttle), and was directing AutoSlash users to neighborhood locations with rental cars! I felt better giving Enterprise at my hotel $40 per day than using my Hertz or National status to guarantee a car (at more than $200 per day) at the airport! 

The traveler has to take a conscious effort here to benefit from cheaper potential rates off-airport:

  • Airport searches will only return officially-authorized airport locations.
  • Neighborhood searches (where one enters an address) search for non-airport locations unless all neighborhood locations are closed. 

So a renter has to enter two different searches and figure out how to get to a non-airport location if the rates are much lower off-airport. We wrote previously how many Budget, Enterprise, and Hertz locations will pick up renters from their homes or places of businesses. Those neighborhood companies cannot pick up an individual from an airport because it would violate the concessions contracts with the companies that do operate at the airport. An inbound traveler who wants to take advantage of the potentially cheaper neighborhood (off-airport) rental cars needs to figure out how to get to the off-airport site!

Believe it or not, that's where the airports themselves come into play! The key is to think like a local, not a visitor. Let's start with the five most expensive major domestic airports to redeem a "free" rental day due to taxes and fees, which are familiar to those who have read the "Fee Detective" series.

  1. San Francisco International (SFO): Provides information on BART, Caltrain, and SamTrans 
  2. Logan International (BOS): Discusses the free Silver Line from the airport (Fee Detective article here)
  3. George Bush Intercontinental (IAH): Describes how to use the METRO bus (Fee Detective article here)
  4. O'Hare International (ORD): Includes CTA, Metra, and Pace (Fee Detective article here)
  5. Kansas City International (MCI): Lists information for RideKC buses (Fee Detective article here)

Airports really want flyers to rent cars at the airport as that's captive revenue for the airport through sundry taxes and fees. At the same time, the airports tell travelers the cheapest ways to get away from the airport! The vast majority of travelers -- the AutoSlash team included -- rents vehicles from the airport unless the costs are too prohibitive or the airport sites sell out. When the airport rates are completely unreasonable or one's looking at a multi-week rental, the effort to rent from an off-airport location by using mass-transit, a shuttle, or a Transportation Network Company (like Uber or Lyft) to head off to a neighborhood-based site becomes a much more reasonable option

When Does One Know to Search Off-Airport?

The tactic of considering off-airport locations doesn't always bear fruit. However, we know that frequent travelers to an airport will notice when there's something abnormal with pricing, especially at major cities with high traffic combined with absurd taxes and fees at airports. Our blog has picked on San Francisco (a lot) and I'm already persona non grata there after a previous line in a blog post. Here, we'll pick on Boston Logan Airport (modern example) and Kansas City International Airport (from a previous post).

An Example at Boston Logan Airport

The reason we love this example is that we can project timeframes every year when the airport will sell out (or nearly sell out), the rental car fees at the airport are known to be excessive, and the airport provides a free bus to the South Station!  I picked a scenario guaranteed to produce absurd pricing -- a minivan for the week around the Fourth of July, both at the airport and downtown. And the results were worse than anticipated -- after all, it would be hard for me to remain loyal to National when quoted a rate of $1,170.99 for the week from the airport!

We wanted to rent a minivan, not buy one!

Yet we could pick up a minivan from the National Downtown Boston location for $586.95.

Still painful but it's the summer in Boston!

The National Downtown location in question? The free bus from the airport takes one to South Station, which happens to be a half-mile from the National Downtown location.

The free bus puts one very near some non-airport rental sites.

We don't know about you but we would happily ride a free bus and walk a half mile to save $584.04 on a rental!

An Example at Kansas City International Airport

Our blog mentioned the punitive nature of long-term rentals from Kansas City International Airport in a post last year. The example there was a 43-day rental from Avis, where the airport-related fees are assessed for every day of the rental. The results were that the cheapest mid-size (intermediate) car at Avis from the airport was $2,257.77 while an individual willing to take an Uber (or mass transit) to the downtown location could get the same vehicle for $1,416.59.

This airport rental cost more than the first two cars I bought (combined).

Twenty miles away, the downtown location returned a far more reasonable rate of $32.94 per day (including taxes).

The difference of $841.18 would be a savings of $19.56 per day for 43 days. Most of that difference was airport taxes and fees (of course). Searching for a long-term rental car? One may find the airport to be the last resort (when there are no alternatives). 

What Happens if a Flight's Delayed and the Neighborhood Site Closes?

That's the drawback and a risk the renter has to contemplate. Airports tend to have expanded hours and are routinely accommodating of flight delays; after all, flights get delayed every day. Neighborhood locations aren't going to stay open late because a renter's flight is delayed or the renter's stuck finding transportation from the airport. 

Our Take

Finding outrageous rental car rates at your destination airport, even after AutoSlash finds the best possible discounts from the rental car companies' undiscounted rates? Know the local transportation infrastructure at your airport? If a convenient neighborhood location has far lower rates, that may be a time to make two different "Free Cancellation" reservations -- one at the neighborhood site the renter hopes to use and one at the airport, just in case travel goes awry. As the examples above show, the airport rental car companies might be the most proximal but those willing to exercise a little effort to get away from the airport might save tremendous amounts of money during periods of excessive airport demand or when searching for long-term rentals.    

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