Newbie How-to's, Travel Advice

The Newbie’s Guide To Renting A Car At The Airport

November 7, 2011 • By

Under what circumstances should I be renting a car while on vacation?

When I travel a great distance from my house (meaning more than a 4 hour drive) chances are I will be traveling by plane. I will rent a car when I’ve found that the city I’m visiting lacks a sufficient public transportation system. If it seems that it would make sense logistically to have a car as opposed to not having one, I will rent. If it takes three buses and one train ride to get to destination B, it makes sense to spring for a car.

Or if I want to take a day-trip to another nearby city, it makes sense to rent. Some cities like New York City, Chicago and San Francisco lend themselves to being very pedestrian friendly so it would be counter intuitive to rent a car under those circumstances.

If someone in your party has a physical impairment or if you have a large number of people in your travel party and public transportation would be difficult to navigate as well as being cost prohibitive, then you can’t go wrong renting a car.

How do I go about renting a car?

You can rent a car by simply calling one of the many rental companies in your destination city. But that’s no fun! I have employed several methods for renting cars. I happen to have a favorite rental company, Enterprise, mostly because they will pick you up and bring you to the rental office to transact the deal.


That was particularly useful when my car was once stolen and there was no one available to take me there. But that’s when unusual circumstances exist because I’m still all about saving the mighty dollar.

To that end, I have used the name your own price feature of Priceline. I always begin with a $10.00 a day bid and work my way up via $2.50 increments, but I will usually stop at $17.50. You should always know your limit and be ready, willing and able to walk away. Otherwise, just go directly to the rental site and pay full price.

Twice, I have gotten $15.00 per day winning bids for an economy sized car, expect to bid more for larger sized vehicle. Another big player in the car rental market is Hotwire. Be advised that each option, Hotwire and Priceline will charge you in full and the purchase is non-refundable.

So be sure that your dates, pick up location and price are correct. If not, don’t bother trying to get assistance from the rental car company either, they will only refer you back to Priceline or Hotwire.

Can I earn perks with my car rental?

Absolutely! Each major car rental company has a free program that rewards frequent users of their service. I am a member of National Car Rental’s Emerald Club and some of their benefits include being charged the mid-size rate regardless of what car you choose, earning free rental days with every seven paid days and the freedom to bypass the rental counter and go straight out to select your car.


Alamo Rental’s Insiders program offers a discount off weekly rentals, 10% off their published prices as well as upgrades for their members. Enterprise’s “E-Plus” Program offers email only deals, faster reservations and rentals, members only line in major airport counters. Whatever your car rental preference, there is an associated rewards program that you should check into.

I think my favorite perk is earning airline miles whenever I rent a car. Most airlines will have a portal on their website where you can rent a car. They offer percentage discounts on rentals and typically an opportunity to earn a certain number of miles for each day that you rent a car. Delta Airlines currently has a promotion with their partner Hertz where you will earn 100 miles per day and receive 40% off of the entire rental.

However, Hertz’ Gold Plus Rewards program has an annual fee of $60.00 and for that reason, I would skip this program. Instead, check out the comparable Avis Preferred program which matches Hertz’s perks to the letter but does not charge a fee! Be sure to check out a car rental’s website for special offers and their partner offers before you make your reservation.

Remember to give your membership number when booking your reservation so that benefits can be correctly credited to your account. Always look for ways to stretch your dollar by searching for discounts which are usually available on a regular basis.

Where do I pick up my rental car?

Car rental agencies can be located in airports or off-site close to the airport. When reserving a car, you will be queried as to whether you want to pick up your car on the airport premises (assuming one exists) or somewhere close by. If you choose the airport, usually you only need ask an airport employee to direct you to it (usually in the same building).

Sometimes, it can be a little trickier. In Phoenix, AZ, for example, you will have to take a shuttle at Ground Transportation which will take you to another building on the airport campus where all car rental agencies are located.

At that point, you will be dropped off and you can proceed directly to the agency you have reserved a car from. The most common situation for off-site agencies is that you would catch their brand specific shuttle at Ground transportation outside of the airport terminal. The shuttle driver will take you to their offices and you can pick up your car there.

To complete the transaction, the counter attendant will ask for your driver’s license and the credit card that you used to book the reservation and after giving you your keys, you’ll be directed where to go to pick up your vehicle.

Some rental agencies will go even further. I rented a car in Fort Lauderdale, FL with the intention of driving into Miami to catch a Cruise ship. Therefore, it was a one way rental with a drop-off in Miami the next day. After dropping the car off, the agency provided a free shuttle that took us directly to the Miami docks to board our cruise ship.


Is there anything I should I do before leaving the rental car lot?

Typically, the agency will fill up the car before you leave and you will need to bring the car back with a full tank. In the event that you ‘forget’ to do so, they give you the option of pre-paying for gas at a premium price. Say no thanks because you plan to bring it back with a full tank. Just make sure that you check to see if the tank is full before you leave. If it isn’t make sure that the attendant knows it and indicates it on your rental receipt and s/he should initial it.

Do a thorough check of the interior and exterior of the car. Let the attendant know if you see any dents beyond the usual wear and tear that you would expect to see on a car. I prefer to err on the side of caution, I like to detail anything that I think may be blamed on me after I return it. So while the attendant may say a dent/ding is no big deal, I still like for them to take note of anything that bothers me.

In fact, you may want to pull out your cell and take pics of anything that may concern you before you drive off the lot. I would take a pic of the dent/ding with that day’s newspaper in the frame with the date prominently shown….or anything else that would prove that the damage existed before you left the lot.

Should I buy some type of insurance to cover me during the rental?

You can almost set your clock by how quickly the counter attendant will try to sell you their car rental insurance. Don’t be surprised if they stoop to the level of using extreme fear tactics to get you to sign on the dotted line.


Before you do, see if you may already be covered. Check with your own insurance company first to see if your current insurance will cover you in the event an accident occurs while you’re in your rental. It’s a rare occasion that you will have an accident during the span of your rental, but check to make sure that you have some type of coverage. If there is an accident, remember they have your credit card on file.

Your credit card issuer may cover you as well but they will clearly state that you should not purchase insurance from the rental company if you expect them to cover you. Exercise due diligence in these matters before committing to signing up for the rental car company coverage.

What happens when it’s time to return the car?

When returning your car, you would bring it back to where you picked it up. At the airport, there are usually pretty detailed signage directing people where to return their car rentals. If you picked it up off-site, you will be taken back to the airport via their branded shuttles. Try to return it in the same condition that you received it.  

Keep in mind that a rental usually has unlimited miles, but you may have to pay extra if you leave state lines. Check with the agency if that is your plan so that there will be no surprises. Also, refill the gas tank before returning the car. Otherwise, you will be looking at paying a ridiculous rate (double to triple the current price of gas). This is essentially what you can expect should you decide to rent a car, just follow these steps and you should have an uneventful and hopefully, very happy driving experience while on vacation.