car rental awarded free day


If you've been racking up award points in your favorite car rental loyalty program, you may be considering cashing in some points for a free day. Be forewarned: It matters where you choose to pick up your vehicle.

If you choose to pick up your car at an airport, your "free day" won't actually turn out to be free after all, thanks to an assortment of taxes and fees at can add up to $20 per day or more. On the other hand, if you redeem award points for a free day at a non-airport location, you could find that taxes and fees add up to mere pennies.

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Loyalty programs such as Avis First, Hertz Gold Plus and National Emerald Club give customers points toward free days to build customer loyalty. While we might not expect a free day to be zero cost, it's reasonable to expect that your hard-earned points should snag you a dirt-cheap day.


How Car Rental Fees Are Calculated on a Free Day


Even when the base rental rate is zero, various taxes and fees assessed by states, cities, airports, and rental car companies set an absolute floor for the true cost of an awarded day. That's why an awarded free day from a rental car company is never truly free.

Even when a base rate is zero, there are still fixed fees related to vehicle licensing, energy surcharges, the rental car facility, and related services. These fees exist on every rental vehicle, regardless of the base rate.

There is good news, however. When a base rate discounted to zero, the renter can avoid percentage-based taxes, which make up the majority of taxes.


Comparison of Car Rental Fees for Free Days at Major Airports


The total fees levied on rental cars are typically the highest at airport locations, since in addition to all the other fixed and percentage-based fees, there are also airport fees. Airports have consistently found ways of squeezing revenue out of consumers. >

So how do major airports compare? We repeated last year's comparison of fees imposed on awarded free days at major airports.

Methodology and Results

We selected a date multiple months in the future and requested quotes for a free rental day. We used National's Emerald Club program and the top 50 airports in the United States per traffic. We always requested a midsize car, as that classification allows a customer to select any vehicle in the Emerald Aisle (when an airport has that feature).

National's Emerald Club program is more reliable about quoting taxes on award rentals than many other programs. Our findings showed a wide discrepancy in the actual cost you're going to pay on a free award rental day based upon airport.

10 Most Expensive Airports for Car Rental Fees

Booking an award day at a major airport in the United States? In 2018, the median burden on an award is $7.18 per day. In other words, half of the airports have fees above that amount for a day and half have fees less than that. The fees ranged from a low of 22 cents for a single award day at Washington-Dulles to a high of $19.73 for a single award day at Boston Logan.

Ranking Name Code Cost Last Year's Ranking
1 Logan International Airport BOS $19.73  2
2 San Francisco International Airport SFO $19.05  1
3 San Diego International Airport SAN $13.52  9
4 George Bush Intercontinental Airport IAH $12.96  3
5 Kansas City International Airport MCI $12.15  5
6 O'Hare International Airport ORD $11.96  4
7 Oakland International Airport OAK $10.91  6
8 Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport PHX $10.35  8
9 Philadelphia International Airport PHL $10.00 10


Where are award rental days still almost free? Surprisingly, at the same two airports as last year, associated with Washington, D.C. and New York City.

Washington Dulles International Airport IAD $0.22 
LaGuardia Airport LGA $0.60

Remarkably, two California-based airports have moved closer to the symbolic "under $1" threshold for an award day, as the cost at both John Wayne Airport (SNA) and Sacramento International (SMF) decreased to $1.02 for a free rental day.

Car Rental Fees at Major Airports

Here's the cost of a single-day award rental at National Car Rental locations at the top 50 airports.

Ranking Name Code Cost Change
1 Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport ATL $6.22  Decrease, $1.23
2 Los Angeles International Airport LAX $8.52  Decrease, $2.59
3 O'Hare International Airport ORD $11.96  Decrease, $0.53
4 Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport DFW $9.72  Increase, $0.19
5 John F. Kennedy International Airport JFK $3.10 No change
6 Denver International Airport DEN $4.82  Increase, $0.39
7 San Francisco International Airport SFO $19.05  Decrease, $1.09
8 Charlotte Douglas International Airport CLT $5.16  Decrease, $0.19
9 McCarran International Airport LAS $6.20  Increase, $0.27
10 Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport PHX $10.35 

Increase, $0.13

11 Miami International Airport MIA $8.25  Increase, $0.11
12 George Bush Intercontinental Airport IAH $12.96  Increase, $0.33
13 Seattle–Tacoma International Airport SEA $6.83  Increase, $0.21
14 Orlando International Airport MCO $6.76  Increase, $1.17
15 Newark Liberty International Airport EWR $8.66 No change
16 Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport MSP $7.18  Increase, $0.01
17 Logan International Airport BOS $19.73  Decrease, $0.28
18 Detroit Metropolitan Airport DTW $7.10 Increase, $5.11
19 Philadelphia International Airport PHL $10.00 No change
20 LaGuardia Airport LGA $0.60 No change
21 Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport FLL $7.21  Increase, $0.11
22 Baltimore–Washington International Airport BWI $6.78  Decrease, $0.05
23 Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport DCA $3.72 Increase, $0.03
24 Midway International Airport MDW $8.71  Decrease, $0.53
25 Salt Lake City International Airport SLC $6.13  Decrease, $3.40
26 Washington Dulles International Airport IAD $0.22  Increase, $0.03
27 San Diego International Airport SAN $13.52  Increase, $3.41
28 Honolulu International Airport HNL $9.07  Increase, $0.65
29 Tampa International Airport TPA $9.42  Increase, $0.11
30 Portland International Airport PDX $7.03  Increase, $0.38
31 Dallas Love Field DAL $2.39  Increase, $0.20
32 St. Louis International Airport at Lambert Field STL $2.37  Increase, $0.01
33 William P. Hobby Airport HOU $2.50  Increase, $0.21
34 Austin-Bergstrom International Airport AUS $9.34 Increase, $0.21
35 Nashville International Airport BNA $5.12 No change
36 Oakland International Airport OAK $10.91  Decrease, $0.08
37 Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport MSY $9.60  Decrease, $0.09
38 Kansas City International Airport MCI $12.15  Decrease, $0.29
39 Raleigh-Durham International Airport RDU $6.23  Decrease, $0.19
40 John Wayne Airport SNA $1.02  Decrease, $0.09
41 Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport SJC $8.52  Decrease, $0.09
42 Sacramento International Airport SMF $1.02  Decrease, $0.09
43 Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport SJU $4.11  Increase, $0.11
44 Southwest Florida International Airport RSW $3.03 Increase, $0.10
45 San Antonio International Airport SAT $9.17  Increase, $1.13
46 Cleveland Hopkins International Airport CLE $9.15 No change
47 Pittsburgh International Airport PIT $7.27 No change
48 Indianapolis International Airport IND $4.82  Decrease, $0.13
49 John Glenn Columbus International Airport CMH $7.33  Increase, $0.04
50 General Mitchell International Airport MKE $1.23  Increase, $0.06

As you can see, if you redeem an awarded free day at a major airport, there is a huge range in what you might actually end up paying.

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