What is the most difficult and confusing airport to return a rental car?

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Travel is disorienting. To make matters worse, driving an unfamiliar rental car never helps, especially when heading back to the airport. However, some airports make it harder than others.

Here is an overview of some of the most confusing airports that I have experienced when it comes to returning rental cars Some of these are doozies.

At Kahului Airport in Maui, the rental car return is past the airport. This means, as you’ve passed the airport, that it is very easy to assume you’ve missed the turnoff.

(I warn first-time clients about this airport rental car return, and have heard stories of more than a few spousal arguments on this one that go like this, “I TOLD you to let me know where to turn…” etc.)

Other airports, like Los Angeles International, can be confusing due to all the companies being off the airport grounds. (Although at LAX most companies give maps to clients explaining how to get back to their locations and GPS systems can help.)

At San Diego, they add the wrinkle of only three companies being on the airport grounds. And at Dallas Fort Worth, the airport is so big that travelers who filled their tank a few miles away might actually see the indicator drop off full by the time they get to the return lots.

But, I have to say, even as a former Central Florida resident, that the most difficult overall just might be Orlando International Airport.

First, travelers have to know the area well enough to know that there are no gas stations right near the airport when approaching from many directions.

Coming on Rte. 528 from the Disney area, for example, the best thing to do is gas up at one of the two exits before the airport, since taking the airport exit and finding a station requires going some distance in the opposite direction from the terminals,

(To add insult to injury, the two closest stations on that street, Semoran Boulevard, are infamous in Orlando for gouging customers. Editor’s note: If filling up on Semoran drive about two stoplights away from the airport past the first two gas stations and the prices drop to normal. Put another way, drive to the first gas station that displays its price and fill up there.)

Alternatively, the airport exits lead directly to the terminals, where rental car companies will charge nearly $10 a gallon to refill the car.

Even for those who have pre-paid gas, the airport is incredibly confusing. There are two terminals, each with a rental car return exit, which the car companies share with arrivals.

Terminal A is somewhat easier, as it’s the first. Terminal B, which I usually use as a United flier, is nearly past the airport. So, by the time a driver gets there, they are seeing more airport exit signs than terminal signs.

But both rental car return locations are left exits, and an immediate sharp left upon taking the exit towards a parking garage. Plus, there are very small signs near the ceilings directing travelers to the individual car locations on various floors.

Now, all of this is doable and not rocket science for anyone paying close attention. But, considering that a very high percentage of Orlando travelers are tourists and often foreign ones at that, the whole system strikes me as confusing at best.

It’s probably too much to ask to have signs warning travelers “last gas option before airport” (though that would be nice). But more and bigger signs at the airport itself couldn’t hurt.

What do you think, Consumer Traveler readers? Are there any airports where you regularly dread dropping off a car? Or any others that you’ve tried once and vowed never again? I would love to hear your opinions in comments.

  • cam

    think you should have finished that sentence about the rip off gas stations gouging tourist with double priced gas prices and signs so tiny you wouldn’t see them even if you knew they were there. How pathetic it is that these 2 gas stations justify the gouging and have fought the county to not have to put up visible signs with their price per gallon. Gee, wonder why? 

  • Rsrchpro

    The Toronto International Airport is the absolute worse.  My husband once rode for better than an hour on highway after highway trying to get to the rental car return area, while I waited and heard them call our flight.

  • John

    Baltimore moved their location a few years ago and it is awful.  I almost missed a flight a few years ago looking for gas.

  • DCTA

    And the very best?!  FLL.  Hands Down the best.

  • WFDoran

    I recently flew in and out of Las Vegas and the rental return was like going on a treasure hunt it was  confusing  and a good distance from  the airport

  • Admin

    I can’t vouch for Orlando – never been there.  But Boston Logan deserves an honorable mention.  Various rental companies scattered about in various lots in a commercial park that’s easy to miss coming off the freeway.

    OTOH, I like Phoenix Skyharbor’s off-airport location with all the rental counters under one roof.  Just a 5 minute shuttle ride from the terminal.  The rental center is just blocks from 2 major freeways.

  • Mtp51

    STL is scary – seriously!

  • Mtp51

    STL is scary – seriously!

  • gs

    CDG by a clear mile

  • Anonymous

    I never have had a problem at OGG when dropping the car off, but getting out, yes.  HNL is a breeze and the gas station on site doesn’t gouge you.  SFO isn’t my favorite.  DEN takes forever to get to and from. I prefer smaller airports but I was impressed with PHL recently.

  • Janice

    Maybe I should write another on the best places, agree on Honolulu, what a lovely surprise that was the first time.

  • Stephen Doggette

    CLT … the whole airport approach is confusing

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been to the Orlando airport and I agree about the gas stations.  There’s one gas station that almost charges a ‘premium’ price while a block away the price drops dramatically. 

  • DCTA

    I would suggest for Orlando that everyone do the pre-paid gas option!  Really, I return those cars empty!

  • Drew Tipton

    I agree here.  STL has to be the worst, especially since some of the exits don’t even exist, depending on which direction you’re coming from!