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Published: Jun 23, 2016 7 min read
Road into the San Juan Mountains and Wilson Peak, Colorado
Nyker1—Getty Images/iStockphoto

There's a lot more to this story, but here's the long story short advice: Renting a car anywhere other than the airport can save you a ton of money.

You may have heard this advice before. But here's a personal story that will illustrate just how much you can save by renting a vehicle away from the airport, without requiring any sacrifices such as opting for a smaller vehicle or booking with a sketchy unknown rental car agency, and without even the need to resort to coupons or other classic saving strategies. This little tale will also demonstrate how screwy and absurdly expensive rental car pricing is at airport locations.

In the course of planning a two-week road trip in the Rockies for my family this summer, I needed to look into a rental car—specifically, a minivan that'll fit all six of us. Naturally, at first, I did some searches for cars at the airport we're flying in and out of: Denver.

Prices were steep. Minivan rates at Denver's airport started at $775 per week from lesser-known agencies like E-Z Rent-A-Car and Advantage, and began at upwards of $900 to more than $1,000 weekly from bigger players like Alamo and Enterprise. When I looked closer at the final price estimates quoted by the agencies, however, the rates themselves were only part of the problem.

A minivan rented from Enterprise, for instance, came to a total of $2,792 for our itinerary. The breakdown showed that the rental rate itself accounted for only $2,165 of the total—two weeks at $1,011 per week, plus $144 for one extra day. What pushed the price I'd pay out of pocket into the next stratosphere were all the taxes and fees tacked onto the rental, including an 11.11% "concession recovery fee" (adding $241) and 11.25% in sales tax (another $274).

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I've covered the travel industry for quite a few years, and am well aware that airport rental car counters gouge customers with high rates and even higher taxes and mandatory fees. The blame for this doesn't necessarily fall on greedy rental car companies. Instead, a big part of the explanation for this situation is that the most (only?) popular tax is one that's not paid by the people approving of it. Politicians and voters around the country routinely approve new or higher taxes and fees on airport rental cars and hotel rooms—which, by and large, hit visiting travelers rather than locals in the pocketbook.

It's a different story at neighborhood rental car locations, however. In these spots, the typical customer is someone who lives in the area—and who would be outraged and have an earful to give to the local lawmakers if the taxes and fees were insane.

I assumed we'd be able to do better with an off-airport rental, but I had no idea just how much we would save. It turns out, we'll be saving so much we'll be able to afford to eat in better restaurants and stay in much nicer hotels throughout the trip.

An Enterprise location about an hour north of Denver quoted a rate of $378 per week for a minivan plus $63 for one extra day, and the overall total came to $919. We're talking about the same exact dates, same exact model of car, same exact rental car agency as the one at the airport, but with a price difference of an astonishing $1,873.

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Another way to look at this is that it would cost us roughly three times more to rent the vehicle at the airport, like most travelers do.

In the case of the off-airport rental, the lower weekly and daily rates were only part of the reason it cost so much less. The list of taxes and fees was much shorter and far more reasonable. There was no "concession recovery fee" like the one charged at Denver International. The off-airport rental's sales tax was assessed at the rate of only 6.55%, not 11.25% like at the airport. And the result of much lower rental car rates and the much lower tax and fee structure is that we'll be paying much less for wheels on our family vacation.

Granted, we'll have to incur the costs of getting to the neighborhood rental lot. But even if that costs a couple hundred bucks, we'll come out way ahead by dealing with the small inconvenience of renting away from the airport. What's more, I figured out that it only cost $50 extra to drop our car off at the end of the trip at the airport, so we'll only have to pay for a taxi or shuttle at the start of the trip.

Then again, maybe we'll skip the taxi. Part of me wants to rent a minivan at the airport, only so that we can drop it off an hour later at the neighborhood rental location. Then, we would pick up a virtually identical vehicle that we'd have for the rest of the vacation, for a much more reasonable price than if we kept the one we drove over from the airport.

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This would make no sense, of course—why couldn't we just keep the same car and avoid all the paperwork and hassle?—but then again, as you can see, a lot about rental car policies and pricing makes no sense.