When you are flying to your vacation destination, the logical next step is to pick up a rental car at the airport. It's a relatively quick process, and you can return the car just as easily when your trip is over.
Will you save money by picking up your rental car at the airport? Is there a less expensive way to rent a car in a large or medium-sized city?
As with many questions pertaining to rental cars, these questions can only be answered through research, using your own travel dates and destinations. Your results will vary, depending on where you will pick up your car.
Downtown Brussels, Belgium, used to be a great place to pick up a rental car; prices at the Brussels Midi train station were considerably lower than at airport rental car counters. No longer. As of this writing, Hertz and Europcar typically charge the same price for cars picked up at Brussels Zaventem airport and at the Brussels Midi train station. Avis' prices vary by less than $20 for a one-week rental.
Similarly, Baltimore, Maryland rental car locations tend to charge very similar prices for the same classes of rental cars, regardless of whether you pick up your car at the airport or at a local rental office.
However, in Rome, Italy, your pickup location does make a difference. Avis charges $590.40 for a weekly rental of a manual transmission Fiat Punto picked up at Leonardo da Vinci (Fiumicino) Airport, but $680.96 for the same car picked up at Termini Station in downtown Rome. Europcar, on the other hand, charges a little less – about $40 – to rent a manual transmission Peugeot 208 at Termini Station rather than at Fiumicino Airport. So does Hertz. (Tip: Pick up your rental car at the end of your stay in Rome. Parking in Rome is expensive and visitors are not permitted to drive in many parts of the city. If you make a mistake, you will incur a hefty fine.)
In New York City, you may be able to save quite a bit of money if you take the JFK AirTrain and subway to Manhattan and pick up your rental car from a downtown location rather than from the John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) rental car facility. Avis charges $713.62 for a one-week rental of a Chevrolet Cruze, picked up at JFK, but just $461.52 for the same car picked up in Manhattan. Enterprise also charges much less to pick up one-week rentals of Toyota Corollas downtown, rather than at JFK. (Tip: Just as in Rome, pick up your car at the end of your New York City stay. Why pay for the privilege of fighting traffic?)
In Los Angeles, picking up your rental car downtown rather than at Los Angeles International Airport can save you $150 or more on a one-week rental of a Corolla or similar car, if you rent from Hertz or Avis. Each rental car company has a different location for its downtown office, so you will need to figure out how to get to the office from the airport if you are flying into Los Angeles. (Tip: Consider using a combination of the FlyAway shuttle bus and taxicabs to get to your downtown rental car office.)
Airport Pickup Pros and Cons
The main advantage of picking up your rental car at an airport is convenience. The airport rental car facility opens early and closes late; it may even stay open 24 hours per day. It is easy to get to the rental car facility from the airport terminal; if the facility is off-airport, there will be some kind of shuttle that takes you there. You will have plenty of cars to choose from. If you are renting in another country, the customer service representatives are more likely to speak your language.
Often, but not always, the main disadvantage of picking up your rental car at an airport rental car facility is cost. Airports often add facility usage fees to the cost of all rentals, which drives prices higher.
Downtown Pickup Pros and Cons
In some cases, you will save enough money on your car rental to make it worthwhile to head downtown to pick up your rental vehicle. If you are traveling by train, picking up your rental car downtown, preferably at the main train station, will also save you time.
The main disadvantage of renting your car from a downtown office is getting to that office. Particularly if your flight arrives at rush hour, getting downtown via public transportation may take a long time, and traveling by taxi may be expensive enough to eliminate the cost advantage of renting downtown. Downtown rental car offices may also have limited operating hours and may be closed on one or more weekend days, making both pickups and returns difficult.
The Bottom Line
The only way to find out which pickup location is best for you is to do research, compare prices and weigh the pros and cons of picking up your car downtown rather than at the airport rental car facility. You may be able to save quite a bit of money by changing your rental car pickup location, so it is probably worth your while to do the research before booking your car rental.