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To sleep more, stress less and save overall, I decided years ago to ditch the rental car the evening before an early morning flight instead of on the departure day. The preemptive return strategy has several advantages: I save money on overnight parking and the cost of an additional rental day. More important, in the name of self-care, I don’t have to rise at an unholy hour to drive around unfamiliar surroundings searching for an open gas station and the car rental building, which is accessed by a zigzaggy route similar to the one a thief would take to shake the feds.
Without an imminent flight, I won’t panic if I miss an exit with refueling options or blow by a rental car drop-off sign. So what if I have to drive five additional miles to turn around or circle the airport again: My Kia Soul or similar doesn’t have any pressing engagements.
This was hardly my attitude when I was so auto-dependent. Years ago, I had a dawn’s-early flight departing from a western Alabama airport. I was so focused on finding a gas station operating at that hour, I accidentally drove across the border to Mississippi. Then I lost my way in a corn field and attracted the attention of a startled farmer. With the clock ticking, I ended up dropping off the car with only a squirt of gas in the tank. I apologized to the agent while trying to ignore the inflated gas price posted on the back wall, my punishment for not filling the tank. Sure, I could’ve given myself more time that morning, but any earlier was basically the night before.
Relinquishing the car on this timeline works in most scenarios, but not all. If I am staying in an area without an airport shuttle, mass transit or reliable car-share service, I will hang onto the rental and drive myself to the airport. But more often than not, I will book a hotel with a free shuttle, so that I can catch a ride from the airport to the hotel and back. (I pack extra singles for tipping the driver times two.) In several cities, such as Dublin, Winnipeg and Knoxville, Tenn., I have dumped the car, then walked back to the property beneath an evening sky twinkling with stars and airplane lights.
Obviously, early risers with sharp navigational skills might opt to wait till the morning. But I do not possess either trait: I am an owl with a permanently busted inner compass. So, I don’t mind tacking a few errands onto my final evening, such as running my bags up to my hotel room, gassing up and trekking to the airport. In the morning, I can calmly sip lobby-brewed coffee while the shuttle driver runs around collecting passengers and bags.
To save on the rental fee, the timing must be right. I can shave off a day if I pick up the car in the early evening. However, if my reservation starts in the late morning or afternoon, I will not interrupt my last day of touring for a jaunt to the airport. In this case, I will return the car with 12 hours still on the clock. I view this expense as an insurance plan that will protect me from losing even more money on a replacement flight, plus the countless quarters I would have owed the curse jar.
More winter travel tips
Flying: Manage airport disasters | Fly like a decent human being | How to set airfare price alerts | How to get a refund for a canceled flight | PreCheck vs. Global Entry vs. CLEAR | Can I fly with weed? | AirTag your luggage | Airport parking 101 | Deal with airport crowds
In case of emergency: Your flight is canceled | How to get a human on the phone | What to do if your car gets stuck | Find your lost luggage | How to get a refund for a canceled flight | Deal with a bad hotel room | When you’re bumped off your flight | If you get rebooked without your family