Leave the airport to save a bundle on your Phoenix car rental

(Last Updated On: September 2, 2021)

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

If you want a cheap car rental in Phoenix, you need to book an off-airport rental car.

For a cheap rental car, avoid the Phoenix airport!

There are no cheap car rentals at the Phoenix airport

It’s so easy to arrange to pick up a rental car at the airport that few of us think twice about doing it.

However, in Phoenix you pay a high premium for what can be a limited amount of convenience.

Why you won’t find a cheap rental car at the Phoenix airport

A quick search for a three-day car rental in November 2017 showed the cheapest car rental in Phoenix was $58 for an economy car rented at one of Enterprise’s off-airport locations. That compares to $143 (also for an economy car) rented through Sixt and picked up at the Sky Harbor airport car rental facility.

The dramatic price difference between an airport car rental and an off-airport rental isn’t a fluke.

The cost of doing business at the airport adds up to higher bills no matter which rental company you choose.

By the way, there really aren’t any rental cars “at the airport” in Phoenix

Some of those extra fees on airport rental cars are to pay for Sky Harbor’s $260 million state-of-the art car rental facility just down the road from the airport.

Note that I said just down the road from the airport.

The airport car rental facility at the Phoenix airport is reasonably convenient in that you take a dedicated shuttle to get there. However, it isn’t like you can roll your luggage from baggage claim to the trunk of your rental car. If you rent a car “at the airport,” you’ll be taking a shuttle to a centralized location 10 minutes from the airport where you actually pick up and return your car. (Ironically, the Service Center is located where many of the discount car rental agencies used to be.)

While these rental car facilities are becoming increasingly popular around the country as a way to manage airport space and traffic, they do not improve the travel experience. And they significantly increase the cost of an “airport” car rental.

I am often willing to pay a premium for the convenience of walking from the baggage claim directly to my rental car. However, if I have to get on a shuttle to get my rental car, I’m going to go wherever the cheapest rental cars are located. And that is definitely not at the airport!

A cheap off-airport car rental can be pretty convenient

Sometimes it makes sense to pay more – even a lot more – for your car rental.  However, many people will find it is equally convenient to leave the airport to take advantage of a cheap car rental deal.

Book a cheap off-airport rental car if . . .

While cost isn’t the only consideration when renting a car, an off-airport car rental will work well for many people.

If one of the following describes you, you should book a cheap off-airport car rental.

You are staying in downtown Phoenix for all or part of your trip

While this may come as a surprise to many, not every visitor to Phoenix needs a car.

Downtown Phoenix is very walkable. If your business will keep you downtown, you probably won’t need a car at all.

In addition, the metro system through downtown Phoenix is very good, cheap, and easy to use. Light rail trains running on surface streets can get you to many places in Phoenix, Tempe, and even parts of Mesa.

Valley Light Rail in Mesa - www.ExplorationVacation.net

If you are starting your trip downtown, but plan to travel farther afield after a few days, pick up your car at one of the downtown rental agencies or have it delivered to your hotel when you actually need it. It makes no sense to pay for a car that is just sitting in the hotel parking lot and you’ll save additional money by picking it up somewhere other than the airport.

You are staying at a hotel served by a rental car agency

A number of rental car agencies actually have offices in hotels.  Examples include the Hyatt Regency downtown Phoenix (Enterprise), the DoubleTree Paradise Valley Resort (Avis), Marriott Desert Ridge (Hertz), and Scottsdale Embassy Suites (Dollar). Others are located in shopping areas near hotels. If you are staying in or near one of these locations, this is an ideal place to get your rental car. Just take the hotel shuttle to your lodging and walk over to pick up your car when you need it.

In addition, many rental car agencies will pick you up (often for free) or deliver your car to your hotel (usually for a fee). That means you can stay almost anywhere and have a rental car available when you need it.

Like visitors staying in downtown, this is a particularly good option if you only need a car for part of your visit. Use the hotel shuttle and get your car when you actually need it. Even if the rental location nearest you isn’t the cheapest in the city, it will still be a lot cheaper than renting your car at the airport.

You are arriving in Phoenix during regular business hours

If you are arriving in Phoenix between 8 am and 5 pm, you should have no trouble picking up an off-airport car rental. The Phoenix airport is well-served by cabs and light rail, making it easy to get to most off-airport car rental offices.

However, make sure you check the hours of the specific office where you plan to rent your car. While some of the off-airport rental car offices keep longer hours, many are open only from 8 am to 5 pm. And some – particularly hotel locations – maintain even more limited hours.

There are reasons to pay more for an airport rental

While many people traveling to Phoenix can benefit from a cheap off-airport car rental, there are reasons to pay the extra cost to use Phoenix Sky Harbor’s rental car facility.

The Phoenix Sky Harbor rental car facility is open 24/7

No matter when you need your car, you can get it.

As noted, many of the off-airport rental offices keep pretty standard business hours, making an early morning or late night pick-up impossible. Weekends can be a problem too. If you are traveling very early or very late and aren’t spending the night in the Phoenix area, you will probably need to rent your car at the airport.

It’s easier to get to the Sky Harbor rental car facility

You don’t have to find a cab or manage the transit system to get to Sky Harbor’s rental car facility.

If you are traveling with a lot of baggage, the simplicity offered by the Sky Harbor rental car facility may be worth the extra cost.

All the car rental companies are available at the airport

No matter who you prefer to rent from, they probably have cars available at the airport.

While several major car rental companies have off-airport locations or offer hotel pick-up, not all do.

If you participate in a loyalty program that provides significant benefits and your preferred company doesn’t have an off-airport location in Phoenix, it may be worth the extra cost of an airport rental to access your benefits.

Finding a cheap off-airport rental car

A number – but not all – of the major car rental companies have off-airport locations. Those that maintain more than one off-airport locations in the Phoenix area include Enterprise, Hertz, and Avis.

We have used a few off-airport locations with both Hertz and Enterprise. In all cases we’ve saved a substantial amount over an airport car rental and have found the whole process to be pretty user-friendly. And, while we have not tried this ourselves, all three companies also offer pick-up and delivery services, often for free

Searching for a cheap car rental in Phoenix

If your goal is simply to find a cheap rental car, use big search engines like Kayak, Expedia, etc.

Often these will automatically bring up off-airport rental locations because that is where the cheapest cars are. However, some online search engines and most rental car company sites default to the airport. (After all, the more you pay, the more they make on the sale.) No matter what site you are using, make sure your search is set for all locations in Phoenix. If the site you are using won’t let you do that, try another one.

Be careful using rental car company sites to search unless you are willing to pay more. Many of these default to the airport location even if they have other offices. And, of course, if you are searching for a car with a company that only rents cars from Sky Harbor’s car rental facility, then those are the only prices you will see.

Know when you can pick your car up

Again, most off-airport car rental offices are only open during business hours – and some hotel locations are open even fewer hours. Make sure you know the rental office will be open when you arrive.

Know how to get to your car

If you aren’t picking up a car at your hotel, you’ll need to think about how you will get to your car. Taxi service is easy and goes anywhere. However, the light rail system is super cheap and works well for some rental locations.

Taxi service

Taxis are always available curbside at the ground transportation area of each terminal at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport.

A taxi into the city will likely cost 20 -$30, depending on traffic. A ride up to northern Scottsdale or out to Mesa can cost considerably more. However, Enterprise has a rental office that is only a few minutes from the airport, making it a very inexpensive cab ride.

There are a number of online cab fare estimators that can give you an idea of what a typical fare would be.

Light rail

Phoenix has a light rail system that connects the airport to downtown Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. The system is fast and cheap ($2 for a single ride, $4 for an all-day pass).

Phoenix light rail and sky trail connection - www.explorationVacation.net

Rather confusingly, the section of light rail serving the airport is called the Sky Train. It is free, but it only runs from the airport to the 44th Street Station. Once there you need to get off, buy a transit ticket, and board the regular Valley Metro light rail. It’s easy, but it sounds a little complicated until you actually do it.

Although I expect this will change over time, there are absolutely no services available at the 44th Street Station. Nor is there a cab stand. This is just a place to change trains.

This post was updated in October 2017

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2 thoughts on “Leave the airport to save a bundle on your Phoenix car rental”

    1. It’s easiest to rent from a non-airport location if you are flying in/out during regular business hours on a weekday, but Saturday also often works. And there are options that make almost any day work, but they are usually tied to service at hotels.

      The key is to search for all Phoenix locations, not just Phoenix airport. Some search engines make this tricky, so you might have to play with it. Limit the search to the type of cars you are interested in and open a map view. Depending on your situation, you want to find a spot that is either close to the airport, close to your hotel (if the hotel has a free airport shuttle), or close to lightrail (a lot more challenging to sort out unless you know Phoenix really well). For a short rental, the key is to keep your cab/uber/lyft fare to get to the rental spot low. If you are renting for more than a week, you can look at places that require a little longer cab ride, because you are saving a lot more in total on the rental. Personally, I use the E McDowell Enterprise a lot, but they are also located along the way to where I am usually headed anyway, which makes them extra handy.

      One final tip, make sure you are looking at the actual total cost, including taxes and fees, and not the basic rental car total. Some sites show a “total cost” while searching that excludes those expensive add-ons. You pretty much have to go all the way to booking to be sure that you are seeing the true total on some sites.

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