January 29, 2023


Welcome to The Upgrade, By The Way’s new series on travel hacks and hot takes. Watch how to submit here.

As the only traveler in the rental car return line with no luggage, I probably look suspicious, but I don’t care. I prefer raised eyebrows to the look of pity — or concern — on the agent’s face as I pull into the drop-off point with tears, curses, or both.

In order to sleep more, have less stress and save overall, I decided years ago to leave the rental car in the evening before an early flight instead of on the day of departure. The preemptive return strategy has several advantages: I save money on overnight parking and the cost of an additional rental day. More importantly, in the name of self-care, I don’t have to get up at an unholy hour to drive in an unfamiliar area to an open gas station and the car rental building, which can be reached via a similar zigzag route as that a thief would take, to shake the FBI.

Don’t make these common car rental mistakes

With no flight ahead, I don’t panic if I miss an exit for gas or a rental car drop-off sign. So what if I have to drive an extra five miles to turn around or round the airport again: my Kia Soul or similar has no pressing commitments.

That was hardly my attitude when I was so car addicted. Years ago I had an early morning flight departing from an airport in western Alabama. I was so focused on finding a gas station that was open at that time that I accidentally drove across the Mississippi border. Then I got lost in a corn field and caught the attention of a startled farmer. As the clock ticked, I finally parked the car with just a squirt of gas in the tank. I apologized to the agent while trying to ignore the inflated gas price on the back wall, my punishment for not filling the tank. Sure, I could have taken more time that morning, but earlier was basically the night before.

Abandoning the car on this timeline works in most scenarios, but not all. If I’m in an area without an airport shuttle, local transit, or reliable car-sharing service, I’ll stick with the rental and drive to the airport myself. But mostly I book hotel with free shuttle so I can go from airport to hotel and back. (I pack extra singles to tip the driver twice.) In several cities, like Dublin, Winnipeg, and Knoxville, Tennessee, I parked the car and then made my way back to the property gone.

Obviously, early risers with keen navigation skills choose to wait until morning. But I don’t have either: I’m an owl with a permanently broken internal compass. So I don’t mind running a few errands on my last night, like taking my luggage to my hotel room, getting gas fuel, and hiking to the airport. In the morning I can quietly sip coffee brewed in the lobby while the shuttle driver walks around picking up passengers and luggage.

How much gas money does it take to drive across America

In order to save on rent, the timing has to be right. I can save a day if I pick up the car in the early evening. However, if my reservation starts in the late morning or afternoon, I will not break my last day of touring for a trip to the airport. In this case I return the car with 12 hours left on the clock. I see this expense as an insurance plan protecting me from losing even more money on a replacement flight, plus the countless quarters I would have owed the curse jar.

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