15 June 2011

Car rental - Near the airport can beat at the airport

What is the price of convenience?

For many travelers it is priceless; they’ll pick the swiftest and least complicated way regardless of cost to get from point A to B.  Or more to the point of this post, from their arrival airport to their car rental.

For others it may depend on how great the price difference is, before they will consider picking up a car rental from an off-airport location that requires more effort to reach.

Lately I’ve been checking both airport and near-airport locations, either when a client asks me to or when I think it may produce significant savings with minimal disruption.

The price difference can range from nothing at all (or even more expensive from a non-airport location) to a modest difference to a huge difference.

Before giving some examples I’ll explain why the cost differences exist.

The reason is simple: it costs more for the car rental companies to do business at the airport because airports often impose taxes, user fees, or concession fees that the rental companies have to pass on to customers.

For many travelers – especially business travelers – the price difference is not enough to deter them from renting at the airport.  For business travelers time really is money, and the money that might be saved by renting off-airport isn’t worth it if it reduces the amount of work time available.

Leisure travelers have different agendas, and if time isn’t particularly precious then it may be worthwhile to compare the cost.  There is the potential to save money, which you could  better apply to the trip’s lodging and meals.

Here are examples, some of which are derived from my clients’ experiences.  Because I overwhelmingly book Hertz, I am using only Hertz examples but you will likely encounter similarities with other rental companies.  Off-airport locations cannot offer shuttle service to and from the airport, so customers must allow for the additional cost of a taxi.

San Francisco, compact car, 22-29 July, AAA discount:
Airport - $587.67
South San Francisco (about 3 miles from airport) - $212.30

Eugene, Ore., full size car, 10-17 August, AAA discount:
Airport - $336.69
Downtown Eugene (about 9 miles from airport) - $229.70 (see note below)

San Francisco, economy car, 12-13 July, AAA discount, one-way rental to Chico:
Airport - $183.05
South San Francisco (about 3 miles from airport) - $91.12

Chicago O’Hare, intermediate car, 3-10 August, AAA discount
Airport - $425.20
Des Plaines (about 3 miles from airport) - $251.04 (see note below)

Even though you pick up a car at an off-airport location, you may be able to return it to the airport at little or no additional cost.  In the Eugene example,  the price would be the same if booked with a return to the airport.  In the Chicago O’Hare example the price would only increase ten bucks to $261.12, almost certainly less than the cost of a taxi from Des Plaines to O’Hare.  The only way to know this is to try pricing it with the different options.  Obviously if you can get back to the airport using the rental car, it will save money (no need for a taxi ride back to the airport) and increase convenience.

Renting from an off-airport location will not always result in savings or in savings enough to justify some additional trouble and transportation cost to pick up the car.  I tested other cities and found no savings or actually higher prices for off-airport rentals.  Surprisingly in Las Vegas, a city where historically the price for an off-airport rental has been less expensive than an airport rental, I found the opposite to be true.  But nothing is constant in the travel industry which means that you need to do the research if you want to know for certain.  Because something is a particular way today means nothing tomorrow, a month from now, or a year from now.

In general I think you’ll find that when there is a savings it will more likely be for a rental of greater length – a week or longer.  Weekend rentals from airports can often be remarkably low even with the mandatory fees included.  Furthermore, if you’re traveling over a weekend, even a long weekend, you may not be interested in the extra time necessary to pick up and drop off a car at a remote location.

Interestingly, when researching rates a few months ago for a client booking a car in France I came across a similar situation but one that involved train stations.  I found a substantial savings was achieved for picking up a car from the Hertz location in downtown Aix-en-Provence compared with picking the car up at the Hertz facility at the TGV station a little outside of town.

As with airports in the U.S., the French railroad system imposes additional fees for doing business at the train station.  And as in the example for Eugene, Ore., the car picked up in the center of Aix-en-Provence could be returned to the TGV station for the same price.

To sum up: if you are surprised in a bad way by the cost of an airport car rental, consider investigating what the cost would be for renting from a nearby location.  You might be surprised, but in a good way.

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