The white sands of Fort Myers Beach on final approach to Southwest Florida Regional Airport
With spring rapidly approaching, snowbird season will soon be coming to a close in Florida. That means it’s time yet again for an annual rite of spring – the migration of the snowbirds back up north, and along with them, all of the rental cars they and other visitors looking for warm weather escapes during the winter had been using. Ordinarily, one-way rentals are extremely expensive due to significant fees levied by the rental car companies for dropping off a vehicle at a different location than where it was picked up. However, come April, as the snowbirds and spring breakers leave, demand craters, and Florida rental cars become available at rock-bottom rates, with one-way fees waived to boot. Why? The rental companies need to reposition all those vehicles elsewhere in the country where they’re needed, and it’s cheaper for them if you the renter do it instead of taking up a few days of an employee’s time. This presents a unique opportunity to take a vacation to Florida, or somewhere between Florida and where you live, on the cheap, if you have the time and don’t mind doing a little driving.
How Does it Work?
It’s pretty easy, really:
- Pick up your car at a participating Florida location
- At a participating rental car company
- In a participating car class (usually Economy to Standard SUV)
- Drop off your car at a participating city outside Florida
- Rental period should generally fall between April 1 and June 30
What makes this an especially easy deal to take advantage of is that most of the major rental car companies run the same deal, over the same general time period (4/1-6/30), and you can pick up your car at pretty much any Florida location south of Daytona Beach. Acceptable return cities are more limited, but still cover many major cities east of Denver. I couldn’t find a published list of participating return cities on budget.com, but Avis publishes its list here. Curiously, Pensacola is an acceptable return location; last time I checked, that’s still Florida, albeit a long ways from everything else.
As an example, I ran a hypothetical rate quote with Budget, picking up my Ford Fusion or similar car at Ft. Myers – Southwest Florida Regional Airport (RSW) on April 17th and dropping it off 5 days later at Dallas Love Field. The results:
You’re reading that right – $74.85 for a 5-day rental, including taxes and fees, or $14.97 a day. I used Budget in this example, but as mentioned earlier, most of the major rental companies run very similar deals ($5-10 a day base rates). If you really want to be cheap, you could save a little on taxes and fees by picking up and dropping off at off-airport locations, but check the difference before doing so. Unless you have an easy way off getting to an off-airport location (i.e. a friend or Uber to drop you off), transportation costs to get from the airport could offset any savings, especially at base rates this low. The best part of all, even these el cheapo rates count as qualifying rentals for frequent renter programs, and are eligible for additional discounts via, for example, AAA or your favorite airline frequent flier program discount code.
What Are the Cons?
Of course, most of the time when you’re being an el cheapo, there are some drawbacks to keep in mind. In this case, there are three main items to consider:
– You’ll have to find a cheap one-way fare to Florida. Here in Dallas, with plenty of daily nonstop flights to Florida courtesy of American and Southwest, or one-stops via Delta or United, there is no shortage of cheap one-way tickets to the Sunshine State. Or if you really want to prove your penny-pinching expertise, you can fly Spirit. Depending on where you are, a one-way flight may or may not be inexpensive.
– You have to drive the car home (or at least somewhere else) from Florida. It’s easy to forget, but Florida is a long state. It takes a long time to get out, especially if you’re originating in South Florida. It’s a good 1,200 miles from Ft. Myers to Dallas; heck, it’s an even 600 just to reach the Alabama line west of Pensacola. In other words, if you’re not a frequent road tripper, don’t underestimate how long the drive home will be – and it certainly helps if you like to drive. Which also brings me to my next point.
– It helps if you live close to a participating return city, and most everything west of Denver is excluded. If you don’t live in a city where you can return the car without the one-way fee, you’re going to have to fly the rest of the way home from there, which may very well eliminate the savings (and defeat the purpose). Unfortunately, for those of you on the West Coast, this deal appears to be unavailable.
– Hotels, gasoline, meals, and tolls add to the final cost. Using my April 17th example, a one-way flight to RSW from DAL is $183 (fares are considerably lower to larger markets like Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa, or Orlando). It’s easy to say, “oh, if I’m only paying $75 for the car, it’s only $258 roundtrip”, but that would be a mistake – in fact, one of the most common mistakes I see with people planning long road trips. If you’re driving 1,200 miles, you’re also going to have to pay for gas, a hotel, and meals on the way home, which can add up fast. Now, it may still work out to be a good deal, depending on how long you plan to be gone, where in Florida you’re visiting, and/or the places where you plan to stop on the way back, but you really should do a full comparison of half flying/half driving vs. flying the entire way and see what the actual difference is.
Who Should Do This?
To restate the obvious, do not attempt this if you don’t like driving, or you’ll drive yourself mad (pun intended) before you even get to Georgia. I can think of a couple of scenarios where a one-way flight/one-way drive would make sense. The first is if you’re planning a vacation in Florida with a group of 3-4 people. In that case, the difference in airfare with 3-4 tickets vs. a $75 car rental can mean substantial savings, even with the incidental expenses you’d incur to get back home. This is particularly true if you live in a high airfare market where one-way drops are permitted. Cincinnati and Memphis are two cities that come to mind.
The second is if you’re eyeing a vacation somewhere between the southern half of Florida and home, and said spot is difficult to get to via plane and/or requires a car rental anyway to get there. Example: Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, located 90 miles north of Nashville and 90 miles south of Louisville, two cities that aren’t exactly cheap to get to. If you live in, say, Pittsburgh, you can fly to Florida, spend a day or two there, then drive up through Kentucky on the way back home. With all the money you saved on airfare, you can stay somewhere fancy on the way there. Say, for instance, at the swanky Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.
Of course, this is an appealing option for those that just like road trips and want to burn off a little cabin fever, but want to save a little time by only driving half the distance. I’ll freely admit, I’d take advantage of this offer in a heartbeat if I didn’t already have several other trips planned for the year. I did, after all, drive all the way there and then back with a cat in the middle seat. But if you have a few vacation days to burn, a one-way rental from Florida sounds like a great way to satisfy both the avgeek and roadgeek in you.