Drivers Beware: the Worst Airports for Car Rentals

Airport car rentals can be a nightmare (Photo: Thinkstock)

This country has some of the most frustrating airports in the world. But long lines and foul bathrooms are just part of the equation; for those who depart or arrive in a rental car, there can be maddening challenges.

It pays to do a little research before you travel, so you’re clear about where you’ll be picking up and dropping off your vehicle — and how you will get to it. In the United States, this process can range from walking a few steps between baggage claim and your waiting car to hiking miles away with your baggage via shuttle buses. In Atlanta and Newark, for example, you’ll need to ride a tram. And for some of the 40 rental firms operating at LAX, you’ll need to take two different buses.

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Long ago the rental industry divided into “on-airport” and “off-airport” locations, though even those facilities that are technically “on” can be quite a distance from the terminal. What’s more, not all rental companies are treated equally; many smaller, low-cost “off” brands can be situated far from airport grounds. Also, in recent years many domestic airports have developed “Consolidated Rental Car Facilities” that house all the competing brands in one building. While CONRACs can reduce costs for rental firms, they can increase distances and make shuttle buses more crowded for consumers.

Here’s a rundown of some of the worst problems plaguing airport rental facilities.

Looooong Rides to Off-Airport Facilities

Get ready for a long ride (Photo: Thinkstock)

Terminal space is expensive real estate, and years ago rental firms learned to move further “off” the grounds — but sometimes they move too far off. Take Denver International, the newest major airport in the U.S. At DEN, the ride along Pena Boulevard from the entrance to the terminals extends for 11 miles, and the rental facilities are a few miles from the gates. On the return, this can be confusing for renters who gas up before dropping off.

Heavy Traffic Areas

Two hours to return the car? (Photo: Thinkstock)

At some airports, a missed flight or a missed appointment could be due to the location of the rental facility, not the distance. In many cases, shuttle buses are routed through extremely heavy traffic on a daily basis, as at Baltimore/Washington International, where the ride includes congested streets and long left turns.

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Social media sites routinely quote renters who spend an hour or more on the BWI shuttle bus, and one traveler says the drivers recommend budgeting two hours for the ride to the terminal after dropping off.

Confusing Drop-Offs

Be careful where you return the car (Photo: Thinkstock)

At some airports, it’s critical you return the rental car to a specific location. Consider Minneapolis-St. Paul, which has two main terminals with separate rental facilities for nine different on-airport rental companies; if you mistakenly drop off at Terminal 1, you’ll need to make your way on your own to Terminal 2. Other airports with confusing drop-offs include Orlando and Tampa.

Bad Signage

A bad sign (Photo: Thinkstock)

Paying careful attention to the drop-off signs isn’t always enough, because some airports provide confusing signage. (Rental firms claim this is due to rules set down by airports or local authorities, but that’s of little comfort when you’re running late.) At New York’s LaGuardia Airport, the pick-up locations are spread over dozens of city blocks located west, south, and east of the terminals. Full disclosure: I was born and raised less than a mile from LGA, but even Queens natives can’t always quickly find their way to the Budget lot on 23rd Avenue. Again, it can pay to carefully map out your route in advance.

Dangerous Locations

My car rental company is where?!? (Photo: Thinkstock)

In the days before GPS, getting lost while exiting a car rental facility was a very common experience — and one that many carjackers and other criminals preyed upon. It’s unfortunate, but such concerns still exist. Ironically, some of the nation’s busiest airports offer facilities in dicey or isolated locations, including those off Aviation Boulevard and Airport Boulevard near LAX, and the back streets near New York’s LaGuardia and JFK. No matter how you choose to navigate, plan your route in advance and be aware of your surroundings at all times.

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Renting a car isn’t always bad (Photo: Thinkstock)

So which car rental firms perform best when it comes to getting you in and out of airports? It’s an issue J.D. Power addressed just last month, when it released its North American Rental Car Satisfaction Study of the eight largest U.S. companies. Enterprise and National ranked first for both “pick-up process” and “return process,” while Alamo and Enterprise ranked first for “shuttle bus/van.”

But not all airports are the same, so plan accordingly.

William J. McGee writes about aviation and travel and is the author of Attention All Passengers.

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