Rental Car Smarts: How to Save When Flying and Driving for the Holidays

An airplane flies over an interstate highway
An airplane flies over an interstate highway

Many Americans spend the holidays at the same place year after year -- the home of family; a spa weekend with their oldest friends; alternating between in-laws'. From booking the right flight with the right layover, to calculating the shortest drive from the airport to Grandma's, those holiday travelers have the trip down cold.

But even the best-laid plans can fail to account for the time and money it takes to rent a car.

Fly and ... Walk?

According to a new study released by J.D. Power and Associates on customer satisfaction with rental cars, 41% of leisure customers (and 24% of business customers) will chose a rental car based solely on price.

But price alone doesn't take into account a vital component of renting a car at an airport: whether the rental counter is in the terminal or will require an extra trip to pick it up.

Most car rental companies with storefronts on the edge of the airport property will offer a complimentary shuttle, or be accessible by the airport's terminal transit system, if one is offered.

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While it can be difficult to ascertain from the car rental company's website where exactly their counter is located within the airport, many airports now have functional (if less-than-attractive) websites with information on ground transportation including rental cars.

Chicago O'Hare, for instance, has its car rental counters conveniently located next to baggage claims. At Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C., however, the rental counters are located in the parking garage, which is a shuttle ride or 10-minute walk from the terminals.

The travel booking site displays an icon in its car rental search results to let customers know before reserving if a rental location is at the terminal or requires a shuttle.

According to the J.D. Power study, customers spend about 10 minutes waiting on a shuttle bus to their rental agency, another 10 getting to the agency, and then an average of 17 minutes to pick up the car at the counter. And customers who use rental kiosks have a faster pickup process than those at the counter -- even those using dedicated loyalty-member counters.

To Rent at the Airport, or Not to Rent at the Airport

Few things are more convenient than hopping off a plane, picking up your baggage, and striding over to a rental car counter next to baggage claim. Add in a friendly salesperson and a conveniently located and well-maintained car, and all that's left to do is arrive.

But the logistics of renting a car can vary greatly, and renting straight from the airport may not always be the way to go.

First, there's price: Renting a car at the airport is often more expensive than renting in a suburban or urban location. For instance, renting a compact car over Thanksgiving weekend at Reagan National will cost anywhere from $65 to $84 a day. However, rent from an agency at Union Station, accessible from the airport by a $2.05 Metro ticket, and you'll pay anywhere from $32 to $65.

And lines are almost always a certainty; after all, an entire plane's worth of passengers has disembarked and is moving, en masse, to the baggage claim, coffee stands, and rental agencies, usually in that order. Customers who break out of the pack and head to a different location might be able to avoid the time-consuming bottlenecks.

Avoid Unnecessary Fees

The costs of renting a car go beyond the cost off picking up the keys:

  • Insurance is frequently an add-on, and may be an unnecessary one if its already offered through the credit card used to pay for the rental.

  • Keeping the car even a few minutes past the drop-off time can result in an extra day's charge.

  • Running close to empty? Forgetting to top off the tank will cost much more than a trip to the pump.

Lastly, avoid an expensive ticket by remembering a hands-free phone kit if you're visiting a state that cracks down on cellphone usage while driving.

Motley Fool contributor Molly McCluskey is an around-the-world traveler who writes frequently on travel savings and rental cars. Follow her travel and finance tweets on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.