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

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

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.



Renee King
  • Debbie Beardsley
    Posted at 13:35h, 08 November Reply

    Very detailed post on renting cars. Although it is not usually necessary to purchase the insurance when traveling in the US, it is important to know when renting or driving outside the US it is necessary!
    Debbie Beardsley recently posted…Innsbruck You Captivated Me!My Profile

    • Renee
      Posted at 13:39h, 08 November Reply

      Absolutely! I think you should have insurance in every instance. My point was that to check to see if you are already covered before buying the insurance sold as an add on by the car rental companies.
      Renee recently posted…The Newbie’s Guide to renting a car at the airportMy Profile

  • Christy
    Posted at 13:37h, 08 November Reply

    I find renting a car at airports really overwhelming. It might be partly due to some prior bad experiences, but I try to avoid it if at all possible!
    Christy recently posted…Monthly Travel Costs: October 2011 (Berlin)My Profile

  • Randy
    Posted at 16:04h, 08 November Reply

    I absolutely hate renting a car! Definitely have heard the insurance pitch more than once… ARGH! Headed to Houston need a car 🙂

  • Laura
    Posted at 16:15h, 08 November Reply

    In the past I’ve usually tried to avoid renting cars when I travel. The whole process kind of intimidates me and I tend to prefer public transportation, but of course that’s not always an option in every destination. These tips were really helpful, thanks for sharing!
    Laura recently posted…A visit to the Xochimilco marketMy Profile

    • Lovely2510
      Posted at 02:09h, 09 November Reply

      Renting a car somehow saved us from hassles and perpetrators on the road. This such a useful article you’ve shared and very detailed on companies that you have been tested and proven the quality of service. And yeah I agree, rental car offices inside the airports are safe to deal with.

      I love traveling reading your article, gives me more reason to keep on renting a car.

      • Renee
        Posted at 10:47h, 14 November Reply

        I do find it makes my travel more tolerable when I rent a car.

  • Scott - Quirky Travel Guy
    Posted at 18:35h, 08 November Reply

    Great post. I have been researching this forever and I still don’t know whether to buy insurance for rental cars and what type to buy. I don’t currently own a car (thus, I have no personal insurance), nor do I have a credit card, so I have to rent with a debit card. As a result, I always end up buying the most comprehensive coverage the agency offers, since I don’t believe I’d have any coverage otherwise. This method is very expensive, unfortunately!
    Scott – Quirky Travel Guy recently posted…Three Fascinating Pittsburgh Museums: Warhol, Heinz History and Fort PittMy Profile

  • adventureswithben
    Posted at 18:55h, 08 November Reply

    Buy excess reduction when traveling internationally! Just in case you get in an accident, it will reduce your deductible from thousands to hundreds.
    adventureswithben recently posted…Introducing, the adventures with ben Travel Newsletter!My Profile

  • Shirlene from Idelish
    Posted at 21:18h, 08 November Reply

    Very detailed guide! The agents’ fear tactics used to get me to buy insurance. Now I know better – I know my credit card and my insurance covers parts of it. I also learnt that American express has a rental car insurance deal where if you charge your rental to the card, they’ll add on a $20 charge to cover the insurance.
    Shirlene from Idelish recently posted…Our G+ Page is now Live & How to Create Your Own Google+ page!My Profile

  • jullia
    Posted at 01:15h, 09 November Reply

    Thanks for sharing such valuable information.Keep posting such great info for us thanks.

    • Renee
      Posted at 10:48h, 14 November Reply

      Thanks, Julia!

  • Philip
    Posted at 08:46h, 09 November Reply

    Great article. Very useful for those who are planning for a vacation.

    • Renee
      Posted at 10:46h, 14 November Reply

      Thanks, Philip!

  • Anna
    Posted at 10:48h, 09 November Reply

    I never thought that I was ever going to be reading a post about car rental, but hell yes, you rock on this topic! 🙂 You are so right about refilling the gas tank before returning the car, they really charge you unreasonable prices (unfortunately I know this by experience). 🙁
    Anna recently posted…When the cost of root canal treatment is not a priority question.My Profile

  • Richard in Spain
    Posted at 19:43h, 09 November Reply

    Good, comprehensive guide.

    You’ve mentioned the fact that you normaly have to bring the car back with a full tank and Anna mentions the fact that the hire companies overcharge you for fuel if you forget to. But I’ve come across cases where the policy is to bring it back empty which is a real pain if you aren’t sure what mileage you’re going to be doing since its easy to put too much fuel in and end up losing out that way too.

    • Renee
      Posted at 10:29h, 14 November Reply

      You bring up a good point, Richard. It’s important to see what your rental agency’s particular rules are for things like this. It can vary.

  • Michael Figueiredo
    Posted at 18:14h, 12 November Reply

    Very helpful tips, Renee. Thanks for sharing!
    Michael Figueiredo recently posted…Top 10: Things To Do in Lisbon, PortugalMy Profile

    • Renee
      Posted at 09:26h, 14 November Reply

      No problem, Mike!

  • ElleX
    Posted at 20:01h, 12 November Reply

    Great article!

    • Renee
      Posted at 09:26h, 14 November Reply

      Thanks, Elle!

  • Brett Maas
    Posted at 03:22h, 14 November Reply

    Bookmarked this for my next trip, thanks!

    • Renee
      Posted at 09:23h, 14 November Reply

      Cool! Glad to help!

  • Cathy Sweeney
    Posted at 15:09h, 16 November Reply

    Good advice, Renee. I use rental cars frequently and would just add a couple of things.

    Be aware that some search sites (and rental car company sites) don’t show you the add-on taxes and fees until you’re ready to purchase. That can be a big deal in places like Chicago O’Hare where the fees are very high.

    Also, if you decide to use an option (such as electronic devices for toll collection), make sure you understand if and how much you’ll be charged. It’s not always clear up front, so be sure to ask.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted…Vintage San Francisco: The F-lineMy Profile

  • Diana Stroe
    Posted at 07:39h, 18 November Reply

    It is ideal to rent a car when traveling to minimize our cost and avoid any trouble for unfriendly cab drivers. However, before renting a car, a traveler must be aware of the place or at least have necessary device, apps or even just a simple map for he/she be aware of where he/she will be going.

  • Jenna Vandenberg
    Posted at 03:05h, 19 November Reply

    Wow – you pretty much covered everything! I’m always wary of not buying insurance, but boy is it expensive.

  • Paul
    Posted at 23:36h, 20 November Reply

    I am reluctant when renting a car especially that I am not used to it. It is great learning about the refueling the car before returning it. I don’t want to end up feeling regret for paying more than the actual price.
    Paul recently posted…how to meet womenMy Profile

    • Renee
      Posted at 16:17h, 21 November Reply

      The first time I rented a car, I was so nervous, I could barely drive it. But the more you do something the better you get at it.

  • Rob
    Posted at 04:40h, 03 March Reply

    They make you think you need to buy rental car insurance but you don’t if you have a good comprehensive policy on your car.

  • Audrey Medworth
    Posted at 07:45h, 06 September Reply

    Very helpful. Thank you =) I have been researching about this and I still don’t know whether to buy insurance for rental cars as well as what to buy if ever I decide to…

  • John
    Posted at 08:49h, 29 June Reply

    In the past I’ve usually tried to avoid renting cars when I travel. The whole process kind of intimidates me and I tend to prefer public transportation, but of course that’s not always an option in every destination. These tips were really helpful, thanks for sharing!

  • Mike
    Posted at 05:04h, 03 August Reply

    Hi Renee,

    I’ve been reading some of your blog posts for quite time now. And I’m starting to love your blog. You certainly give useful information and practical tips that travelers can really use on their travels. Keep up the good work and keep on giving useful tips.

  • Jason Harrison
    Posted at 14:58h, 16 October Reply

    Hi Renee,
    these tips are somethings I already do, but I had to learn from my mistakes. One thing that I did learn though, was to take a picture of the dents on the car. This is one thing that I fear will happen to me, but never know how to go about it.
    Jason Harrison recently posted…Valentine One Radar DetectorMy Profile

  • Daniel
    Posted at 13:46h, 19 November Reply

    Massive and helpful information for renting a car at the airport! I have read out this entire guide related with renting care and also got lots of information about travel agency as well. So I hope that everybody will get some sort of benefit from this site. Looking forward once again for getting more information about renting a car. Thanks

  • Phil
    Posted at 14:36h, 23 November Reply

    Thanks so much for the tips Renee! I think that renting a car is so confusing and I had no clue that cars had a loyalty program where you can get points! I rent cars with Avis a lot for business, but I’ll definitely check out the name your own price on priceline. Thanks so much!

  • Robin Nixon
    Posted at 02:15h, 02 May Reply

    When picking up, make sure the license plates are not expired and the wheel covers and spare tire are not missing.

    When returning, if you filled the gas tank before returning the car, make sure they are not charging you for gas. Read the car return receipt before you board the airport shuttle, make sure the fuel gauge and miles agree with what the car indicates. Snap photos of the car before you leave

  • Sunitha Markose
    Posted at 03:36h, 18 January Reply

    Those points you mentioned about “renting transportation” is amazing. I am glad you shared this with us. Many people have no idea about this thing. I really appreciate your effort.

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