Last Updated on January 31, 2021 by Michael

free day on an airport rental car

If you’ve been racking up award points in your favorite car rental loyalty program, you may be considering cashing in some points for a free day on a rental car. But be forewarned: It matters where you choose to pick up your vehicle.

If you choose to pick up your car at an airport, your “free day” won’t actually turn out to be free after all. That’s because an assortment of taxes and fees at can add up to $20 per day or more. But if you redeem award points for a free day at a non-airport location, you could find that taxes and fees add up to mere pennies.

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Loyalty programs such as Avis First, Hertz Gold Plus and National Emerald Club give customers points toward free days to build customer loyalty. While we might not expect a free day to be zero cost, it’s reasonable to expect that your hard-earned points should snag you a dirt-cheap day.

How Car Rental Fees Are Calculated on a Free Day

Even when the base rental rate is zero, various taxes and fees assessed by states, cities, airports, and rental car companies set an absolute floor for the true cost of an awarded day. That’s why an awarded free day from a rental car company is never truly free.

Even when a base rate is zero, there are still fixed fees related to vehicle licensing, energy surcharges, the rental car facility, and related services. These fees exist on every rental vehicle, regardless of the base rate.

There is good news, however. When a base rate discounted to zero, the renter can avoid percentage-based taxes, which make up the majority of taxes.

Comparison of Car Rental Fees for Free Days at Major Airports

The total fees levied on rental cars are typically the highest at airport locations, since in addition to all the other fixed and percentage-based fees, there are also airport fees. In short, airports have consistently found ways of squeezing revenue out of consumers.

So how do major airports compare? We repeated last year’s comparison of fees imposed on awarded free days at major airports.

Methodology and Results

We selected a date multiple months in the future and then requested quotes for a free rental day. Also, we used National’s Emerald Club program and the top 50 airports in the United States per traffic. We always requested a midsize car, as that classification allows a customer to select any vehicle in the Emerald Aisle (when an airport has that feature).

National’s Emerald Club program is more reliable about quoting taxes on award rentals than many other programs. Our findings showed a wide discrepancy in the actual cost you’re going to pay on a free award rental day based upon airport.

10 Most Expensive Airports for Car Rental Fees

Booking an award day at a major airport in the United States? In 2018, the median burden on an award was $7.18 per day. In other words, half of the airports have fees above that amount for a day and half have fees less than that. All in all, the fees ranged from a low of 22 cents for a single award day at Washington-Dulles to a high of $19.73 for a single award day at Boston Logan.

RankingNameCodeCostLast Year’s Ranking
1Logan International AirportBOS$19.732
2San Francisco International AirportSFO$19.051
3San Diego International AirportSAN$13.529
4George Bush Intercontinental AirportIAH$12.963
5Kansas City International AirportMCI$12.155
6O’Hare International AirportORD$11.964
7Oakland International AirportOAK$10.916
8Phoenix Sky Harbor International AirportPHX$10.358
9Philadelphia International AirportPHL$10.0010

Where are award rental days still almost free? Surprisingly, at the same two airports as last year, associated with Washington, D.C. and New York City.

Washington Dulles International AirportIAD$0.22
LaGuardia AirportLGA$0.60

Remarkably, two California-based airports have moved closer to the symbolic “under $1” threshold for an award day, as the cost at both John Wayne Airport (SNA) and Sacramento International (SMF) decreased to $1.02 for a free rental day.

Car Rental Fees at Major Airports

Here’s the cost of a single-day award rental at National Car Rental locations at the top 50 airports.

RankingNameCodeCostChange
1Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International AirportATL$6.22Decrease, $1.23
2Los Angeles International AirportLAX$8.52Decrease, $2.59
3O’Hare International AirportORD$11.96Decrease, $0.53
4Dallas/Fort Worth International AirportDFW$9.72Increase, $0.19
5John F. Kennedy International AirportJFK$3.10No change
6Denver International AirportDEN$4.82Increase, $0.39
7San Francisco International AirportSFO$19.05Decrease, $1.09
8Charlotte Douglas International AirportCLT$5.16Decrease, $0.19
9McCarran International AirportLAS$6.20Increase, $0.27
10Phoenix Sky Harbor International AirportPHX$10.35Increase, $0.13
11Miami International AirportMIA$8.25Increase, $0.11
12George Bush Intercontinental AirportIAH$12.96Increase, $0.33
13Seattle–Tacoma International AirportSEA$6.83Increase, $0.21
14Orlando International AirportMCO$6.76Increase, $1.17
15Newark Liberty International AirportEWR$8.66No change
16Minneapolis–Saint Paul International AirportMSP$7.18Increase, $0.01
17Logan International AirportBOS$19.73Decrease, $0.28
18Detroit Metropolitan AirportDTW$7.10Increase, $5.11
19Philadelphia International AirportPHL$10.00No change
20LaGuardia AirportLGA$0.60No change
21Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International AirportFLL$7.21Increase, $0.11
22Baltimore–Washington International AirportBWI$6.78Decrease, $0.05
23Ronald Reagan Washington National AirportDCA$3.72Increase, $0.03
24Midway International AirportMDW$8.71Decrease, $0.53
25Salt Lake City International AirportSLC$6.13Decrease, $3.40
26Washington Dulles International AirportIAD$0.22Increase, $0.03
27San Diego International AirportSAN$13.52Increase, $3.41
28Honolulu International AirportHNL$9.07Increase, $0.65
29Tampa International AirportTPA$9.42Increase, $0.11
30Portland International AirportPDX$7.03Increase, $0.38
31Dallas Love FieldDAL$2.39Increase, $0.20
32St. Louis International Airport at Lambert FieldSTL$2.37Increase, $0.01
33William P. Hobby AirportHOU$2.50Increase, $0.21
34Austin-Bergstrom International AirportAUS$9.34Increase, $0.21
35Nashville International AirportBNA$5.12No change
36Oakland International AirportOAK$10.91Decrease, $0.08
37Louis Armstrong New Orleans International AirportMSY$9.60Decrease, $0.09
38Kansas City International AirportMCI$12.15Decrease, $0.29
39Raleigh-Durham International AirportRDU$6.23Decrease, $0.19
40John Wayne AirportSNA$1.02Decrease, $0.09
41Norman Y. Mineta San José International AirportSJC$8.52Decrease, $0.09
42Sacramento International AirportSMF$1.02Decrease, $0.09
43Luis Muñoz Marín International AirportSJU$4.11Increase, $0.11
44Southwest Florida International AirportRSW$3.03Increase, $0.10
45San Antonio International AirportSAT$9.17Increase, $1.13
46Cleveland Hopkins International AirportCLE$9.15No change
47Pittsburgh International AirportPIT$7.27No change
48Indianapolis International AirportIND$4.82Decrease, $0.13
49John Glenn Columbus International AirportCMH$7.33Increase, $0.04
50General Mitchell International AirportMKE$1.23Increase, $0.06

As you can see, if you redeemed an awarded free day at a major airport, there was a huge range in what you might actually have ended up paying.