When it comes to saving money on rental cars, there is no shortage of advice. Some suggest ignoring traditional businesses and using a alternative to car rental, as a peer-to-peer car-sharing service. Others promote packages through online travel agencies like Expedia. And then there’s this advice: Rent through a rental car agency downtown, rather than at the airport.
So how much do you really save by booking an off-airport car rental? Are rental cars at the airport more expensive? It turns out that it is about 26% more expensive to rent a car at the airport than at its downtown counterpart.
That’s according to a NerdWallet analysis conducted in March of 360 car rental prices (including taxes and fees) at the 20 largest US airports. The study compared the price of a one-week rental at eight major car rental companies to the rental cost of their nearby downtown counterparts.
How much money you actually save with an off-airport car rental
NerdWallet found that weekly car rentals for downtown locations were, on average, $126 cheaper than airport locations. In other words, you can expect to spend around 26% more on an airport rental compared to a downtown rental.
For rentals longer than a week, expect even more savings.
Why are car rentals at the airport so much more expensive?
The price difference may not just be due to rental car companies trying to take advantage of weary air travellers. Typically, it’s not even the car rental companies that pocket the bulk of the 26% deductible.
Most airports charge car rental companies to operate on their site. Fees vary from airport to airport, but are often intended to cover costs incurred by the airport, such as shuttle, cleaning and security services. Sometimes airports simply say that this fee covers the right to do business.
For example, San Francisco International Airport charges car rental operators 10% of gross revenue received from airport customers. SFO also charges a freight and installation fee of $16 per signed car rental agreement.
In addition to fees imposed by airports, some states levy tourist fees on cars rented at hotels and airports (which may not apply to cars rented at stand-alone locations).
Most car rental companies pass these costs on to renters.
Benefits of booking a rental car offsite (beyond savings)
Savings on the vignette price aren’t the only reason to book an offsite rental car.
You could save time
Just because a rental car is listed as “on site” at the airport doesn’t mean you can always walk straight from your gate to the rental car counter. Some airports offer a shuttle to the rental car center. Once there, you may be greeted by a long queue at the car rental counter, especially if several large flights have just landed. If shuttle frequency is limited, it may be quicker to hail a cab and hire downtown.
You will only pay for the days you need a car
Depending on the nature of your trip, you may need to rent a car for just a few days. Say you’re heading to Colorado, where you plan to spend a few days in downtown Denver before heading to the Rockies.
If you are flying into Denver International Airport, you could pay $10.50 to take the train from Denver Airport to Denver Union Station. Say you’re staying at the Westin Denver Downtown, which is just a 10-minute walk from Union Station. It charges $35 a day for parking (and $46 for valet).
By picking up your rental car downtown the morning you leave for the Rockies, you could not only avoid paying for unnecessary car rental days in what is otherwise a fairly transit-friendly and accessible city. walk, but you could also avoid parking fees. .
You can maximize carpooling discounts on days when you don’t need a full rental car
If you do part of your trip without a car — or end up carpooling from an offsite car rental location — here are ways to save on carpools (or at least earn rewards).
Lyft has partnerships with Delta Air Lines and Hilton, where you can earn Delta SkyMiles or Hilton Honors points based on the cost of your fare. Pay for your Lyft with select Chase credit cards and earn up to 10x bonus points or up to 5% cash back.
Meanwhile, some American Express cards offer a monthly Uber Cash benefit, which can be used for Uber rides or Uber Eats orders in the United States. Conditions apply.
When to Skip Downtown Rental
Despite the savings, booking cars offsite doesn’t always make sense. Being able to pick up your car immediately after landing might be more convenient – and the convenience could easily be worth the extra cost. Here are a few more reasons to skip downtown rentals:
- Some downtown locations have limited hours. While airports are often open 24/7, it is not uncommon to see the downtown location closed on Sundays or with fewer opening hours (such as a 4 p.m. closing time ).
- Still need to find a way to the city center. If there’s no free hotel shuttle or easy public transportation downtown, you may also have to pay for a taxi or carpool, which can eat into your savings. The NerdWallet study also analyzed average Uber and Lyft fares between airports and downtown. Uber’s average fare was $28.21 per ride, while Lyft’s average fare was $22.86.
- City center locations are not always cheaper. Although they are generally less expensive than their airport counterparts, the trend is not always true. If your trip is flexible, compare prices before booking.
How to find a cheap rental car at the airport
If you are going to book a rental car from the airport, there are a few tips:
- Look for the cheapest car rental companies. Another NerdWallet analysis of car rental company prices found that Enterprise, Budget, and Hertz round out the three cheapest car rental companies on average.
- Try to book at the last minute. Although it’s a bit more of a gamble, procrastination can sometimes save you money. NerdWallet found that rental car prices tend to be cheaper when booked a week in advance of the reservation date compared to three months in advance.
- Check out the rental car loyalty programs. Most major car rental companies offer loyalty programs that can earn you free rentals and upgrades. For example, while National is among the most expensive car rental companies, its National Emerald Club Car Rental is among the best, with perks like a free car rental day for every five qualifying car rentals made by members with Emerald Club Executive Elite status. They also enjoy benefits such as free private airport delivery.
JT Genter and Sam Kemmis contributed to this report.