The best rate Darren Popik could find on a weekend car rental at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport recently was
$114. So he decided to look elsewhere.
Popik, a Los Angeles-based blogger, widened his search to other car-rental locations in the Texas capital. And he found
a lower price through Enterprise Rent-a-Car. It was a much better deal," he said.
No kidding. At $38 - just one-third the airport rate - it was a steal.
At a time when rental rates are climbing, Popik is one of many travelers who have
discovered that it pays to cast a wide net when you're looking for affordable wheels.
Why such a dramatic price difference between on-airport and off-airport locations? Local taxes and airport concession
fees, according to Robert Barton, president of the American Car Rental Association. The fees cover the companies' costs
of renting airport facilities and of shuttle services to and from the terminal for customers, but the taxes can fund
local projects that may or may not have anything to do with airport users.
It's taxation without representation," he said.
Take Barton's recent two-day rental at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, for which he paid $27. After a
5 percent vehicle license fee, a 10 percent concession fee, a $12 airport fee and a 77 cent-
per-day tourism" fee were
extracted from the price, only about half of the rate went to his car-rental company.
Neil Abrams, a car-rental analyst with the Purchase, N.Y.-based Abrams Consulting Group, says the rate difference
between an airport and off-
airport location has historically been substantial."
For example, the average weekly rate on a compact car - the kind many leisure travelers prefer - was $363 at an
airport, according to a survey his company recently conducted. By comparison, the same rental taken off-airport cost
The rate difference is pretty constant," he says. But as car rental rates rise, more travelers begin looking for other
ways to get around.
The extra airport fees and taxes, he adds, put airport-based car-rental franchises at a competitive disadvantage."
That's bad news for the car- rental company, but good news for you.
Except when it isn't.
In some cities, renting at an airport makes sense almost every time. Denver comes to mind. When Amy Pollick hired a car
in the Mile High City recently, in-town rentals were unbelievably cheaper," she said.
Trouble is, my only friend in Denver wasn't in town to meet us at the airport and take us to the office," recalled
Pollick, who works for a newspaper in Decatur, Ala. Cab fare to and from the airport would have completely wiped out
any savings we realized."
Sometimes, it isn't the distance to the airport so much as it is the duration of the rental that matters. Jeff Tucker,a technology consultant who lives in Hawaii, frequently rents cars in Seattle.
You can rent cars in nearby Kent and save a bundle on
taxes," he said. Unfortunately, they couldn't shuttle you to and from the airport, so you had to take a cab." For a
short-term rental, it's not worth it. But if you're staying for several days, that often pays off," he added.
The other issue is convenience. Rent a car that's miles away from the airport, and you could save a lot of money. But
if your flight leaves around rush hour and you don't give yourself enough time to return the vehicle, you might also
miss your plane. That's happened to me a time or two.
I think most travelers expect gas to cost a little more in certain neighborhoods and a little less in others. They
anticipate price fluctuations on restaurant meals, groceries and other items they might buy while they're on the road.
But the exorbitant airport markup on rental cars defies reason and takes advantage of the people who are bringing
tourism dollars to a destination: you.
Unfortunately, there's little travelers can do to help narrow this unacceptable price difference. Until motorists
refuse to rent their cars at the airport, which is unlikely, airports
and counties will continue overtaxing their passengers, to the detriment of car rental companies, and us.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.
E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org,
or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune