Leave the Airport to Save a Bundle on Your Phoenix Car Rental

Airports are almost always the most expensive place to rent a car. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is no different – you pay a premium for the “convenience” of picking up your car at the airport.

Among other indignities, additional fees on car rentals at Sky Harbor cover the cost of the Car Rental Service Center. This $260 million-plus facility requires visitors who rent a car “at the airport” to take a shuttle to a centralized location 10 minutes from the airport. (Ironically, the Service Center is located where many of the budget “off-site” car rental agencies used to be.) While these facilities are becoming increasingly popular around the country as a way to manage airport traffic, they do nothing to improve the travel experience for those of us paying for them through fees on our “airport” car rentals. I was willing to pay a premium for the convenience of walking from the baggage claim directly to my rental car. Once I am forced to get on a shuttle, I might as well go wherever the cheapest rental cars are located!

Of course, high fees and taxes in Phoenix aren’t restricted to airport rentals. Phoenix has long been at the high end for rental car costs, largely due to local taxes. As in my own home state, many of these have absolutely no relationship to the use of a rental car, like the 3.25% tax Maricopa County voters imposed on car rentals to help pay for new baseball stadiums. Like taxes on hotel rooms, taxes on car rentals are a painless way to raise money from visitors who won’t be voting in the next local election.

When we were planning last winter’s trip to Phoenix we looked at the cost of renting a car at Sky Harbor and decided to see if we could save money (without adding a lot of extra hassle) by renting our car downtown.

We happened to be looking at Hertz and noticed that they had a rental office not far from where we were staying in north-central Phoenix. It appeared the rental office was along the light rail line, but I couldn’t figure out if I could easily get from the airport Sky Train to the light rail and then to the rental office (I now know you can), so we included the cost of a taxi between the airport and the car rental office in our calculations.

The savings was substantial (several hundred dollars over a week), so we booked it.

It worked beautifully too, thanks to a cab driver who knew where the very basic (and nearly hidden) Hertz office was located.

Hertz in central Phoenix - ExplorationVacation 20140209-DSC_3462

I don’t have the numbers from that rental to compare the cost of renting at the airport vs taking a cab into town to get our car, but I ran the numbers for a hypothetical trip this year:

phoenix rental car comparison

Yes, you are seeing that correctly: $584 to get a car at the “airport” location, but only $246 to get one downtown. The total cost of a downtown rental is less than half that of an airport rental! The ONLY other difference between these two reservations is the pick-up/drop-off location.

As you can see, the biggest cost difference is due to the base rate quoted for the car itself. While I won’t say this is universally true, we have often found that you can save a lot on the base rate simply by renting from a location other than the airport. (This was true on our recent trip to Mexico.) Lowering the base rate also lowers all other fees and taxes that are applied proportionately. This can lead to substantial savings in a high tax location like Phoenix.

Even if the base rate were the same, renting a car in downtown Phoenix eliminates almost $90 in airport-related fees – along with the extra taxes that would be levied proportionately on that $90. That’s enough to cover the cost of cab to the nearest off-airport car rental office and a nice lunch. If you are willing to use transit or your hotel offers a complimentary shuttle (often you can have your car delivered to your hotel for very little cost), you’ll have saved enough money to cover a nice dinner.

Obviously the cost difference between an airport rental and an off-airport rental will vary between companies, destinations, and times of year. However, in places with high airport fees and/or high taxes, you may be able to save a lot of money on your rental car simply by getting out of the airport on your own.

The Maricopa County measure that taxes rental cars and hotels to the tune of $1.2 billion over 30 years for tourism promotion, the Cardinals stadium, Cactus League stadiums, and additional youth sports facilities was declared unconstitutional. However, the issue is likely to remain in the courts for some time yet.

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