Unprecedented rates of consolidation in the industry, a national addiction to building expensive consolidated airport facilities (costs are, of course, nearly always billed back to the consumer) and a business model that appears to be on life-support add up to one simple fact: In far too many markets, consumers are paying way too much for their rental cars. Where they’re most frequently being taken for a ride? The airport.
For die-hard budget travelers, it’s always been possible to avoid on-airport rates – all you’ve ever had to do is hop in a cab to a local agency branch, where you can save an often-astonishing amount of money. But with a much-needed increase in airport transit across North America, not to mention the cheaper-than-a-cab (well, most of the time) services like Lyft and Uber that are now legal at more airports than you might have guessed, even the most casual traveler can quite easily take advantage of the deals that are waiting out there, often just minutes from the airport perimeter.
To give you an idea of how easy it can be to beat the rental rates at some of the busiest North American airports, I’ve randomly sampled the cost of a week’s car rental in mid-July—after the dust settles from the upcoming holiday weekend—using one company per destination and selecting their cheapest available rate, regardless of size. (Make sure to check with as many as you can when you do your research – sites like Booking Buddy offer quick and easy comparisons.) I’ll then show you the cheapest way to get to the off-airport location, also finding out whether or not they’ll allow you to drop the car at the airport at the end of your trip without a steep penalty; this can save you a boatload of time and time and hassle on your last day in town.
Note: Two extremely popular destinations—Orlando and Fort Lauderdale—do not appear on this list. In most cases, renting directly from those airports typically remains (for better or worse) the most affordable / efficient option.
SAVE $274 IN LOS ANGELES LAX
Rent at airport $484/week ($109 taxes and fees), Hertz
Rent in town $210/week ($25 taxes and fees), Hertz Santa Monica Central
Cheapest way to get there Lyft and Uber are now authorized to pick up passengers from the Departures level at LAX; the 20-minute ride will cost around $21.
Additional cost to return at airport? Yes—all of $6.
SAVE $690 IN SEATTLE SEA
Rent at airport $1,061/week ($292 taxes and fees), Hertz
Rent in town $371/week ($92 taxes and fees), Hertz Sea-Tac / First Avenue South
Cheapest way to get there The 5-7 minute ride from the terminals runs between $16-$17 with Lyft or Uber—the shuttle bus ride to the airport’s rental car center takes nearly the same amount of time.
Additional cost to return at airport Around $50.
SAVE $346 IN DENVER DEN
Rent at airport $678/week ($163 taxes and fees), Enterprise
Rent in town $332/week ($51 taxes and fees), Enterprise South Broadway
Cheapest way to get there Hitch a ride on the new A Line train from DIA to Union Station ($9, 37 min.), changing to the C Line light rail to Evans, walk 15 minutes (you’ll pass a really good brewery, a distillery, a pot dispensary and a superb coffee shop—hello, you’re in Denver). Not up for a walk? Grab a Lyft or Uber for the 5 minute ride ($9-$12).
Additional cost to return at airport $150 drop fee
SAVE $450 IN PHOENIX PHX
Rent at airport $382/week ($135 taxes and fees), Hertz
Rent in town $188/week ($28 taxes and fees), Hertz Scottsdale Motor Mile
Cheapest way to get there Ride the airport SkyTrain (free) to the 44th + Washington Station and hail an Uber or Lyft from here ($12, 10 min).
Additional cost to return at airport Around $8
SAVE $303 IN SAN FRANCISCO SFO
Rent at airport $567/week ($144 taxes and fees), Budget
Rent in town $264/week ($29 taxes and fees), Budget South San Francisco
Cheapest way to get there Uber or Lyft will get you there in about 6 minutes for around $12. Probably don’t bother taking the BART to the nearby South San Francisco station—it’s a dreary 15-minute walk and the fare is $7.65.
Additional cost to return at airport It’s expensive, and never mind, anyway—an Uber back from here takes as almost as much time as the rail shuttle from the airport rental car center to the terminal.
SAVE $218 IN CHICAGO ORD
Rent at airport $575/week ($200 taxes and fees), National
Rent in town $357/week ($73 taxes and fees), National North La Salle
Cheapest way to get there Ride the CTA Blue Line to Washington ($5, 40 min.), walk two short blocks.
Additional cost to return at airport Yes—weekly rate jumps by hundreds of dollars, though that’s not necessarily the rule. Check around.
SAVE $146 IN LAS VEGAS LAS
Rent at airport $449/week ($130 taxes and fees), Avis
Rent in town $303/week ($51 taxes and fees), Avis South Rainbow Blvd.
Cheapest way to get there Lyft and Uber are now authorized to enter the passenger pickup area at McCarran. Your ride will cost around $19.
Additional cost to return at airport $0
SAVE $519 IN NEW YORK JFK
Rent at airport $831/week ($242 taxes and fees), Dollar
Rent in town $312/week ($56 taxes and fees), Dollar Newport Centre Mall, Jersey City. (Note: Renting at this location saves you nearly $150 over the cheapest Manhattan branch—well worth the minimal extra effort to get there!)
Cheapest way to get there AirTrain from terminals to Howard Beach ($5), A Train from JFK to Chambers Street (40 min. $3.00 single ride), transfer to the Hoboken-bound PATH at World Trade Center to Newport (2 stops, $2.75 single ride). The counter is located inside the garage of the Newport Centre Mall.
Additional cost to return at airport Almost $200! Forget it.
SAVE $103 IN DALLAS DFW
Rent at airport $392/week ($137 taxes and fees), Enterprise
Rent in town $289/week ($38 taxes and fees), Enterprise Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas
Cheapest way to get there Hop the new DART Orange Line light rail from DFW Terminal A to Irving Convention Center Station ($1.75-$2.50 depending on time of day, 15 min.), cross Las Colinas Boulevard.
Additional cost to return at airport Cost jumps to match the price of the airport rental. Return to Las Colinas, for sure.
SAVE $91 IN ATLANTA ATL
Rent at airport $328/week ($104 taxes and fees), Alamo
Rent in town $237/week ($50 taxes and fees), Alamo Embassy Suites (Downtown)
How to get there Ride the MARTA train from the airport to Peachtree Center Station ($2.50, 20 minutes), walk for ten easy minutes, cutting through the Centennial Olympic Park and its Fountain of Rings along the way.
Additional cost to return at airport? The rate nearly doubles. Yikes.
Daunted by the rental car search? For best results, always begin by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—a site like Booking Buddy is a great place to begin—you can check multiple sites in one place and sometimes score some pretty great deals from sites you otherwise might never have thought to include in your search. Always remember that bundling car, hotel and flight (or any combination thereof) can at times save you a significant amount of money—search your dates at Orbitz and Expedia to see just how much. Don’t want the run-around and just need a car? While it’s hard to say one agency is head and shoulders better than the others—they’ve all declined significantly in recent years, leaning on scammy fees and overpriced insurance to pad their losses—I’ve found over time that Hertz remains one of the best options for people who rent cars with any kind of frequency. Best of all, their loyalty program (something you should join every time you rent a car, no joke) is actually improving, of late—their Ultimate Choice initiative is not to be sniffed at. (Because who doesn’t want a free upgrade from a Chevy Spark to a Mercedes?)