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The Navigator: Find a cheaper car rental rate away from the airport

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By Christopher Elliott
Sunday, January 24, 2010

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.

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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 that 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 just $202.

"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.


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