For my two full days in Whitefish, I wanted to have a rental car to get out and about, including a road trip out to Glacier National Park. I started looking for what deals were out there immediately, only to find that the price of cars we very high both in town at the train station (Hertz and Budget) and the Kalispell Airport (all the majors are there).
In addition to high daily rental fees, it seemed all cars were priced with limited miles per day (125 to 150). Since I was hoping to drive over 400 miles during my two days, I didn't want to be locked into an additional fee of $.25/mile for anything over 250 or 300 for my two day rental.
I also found that picking up my car upon arrival (9:00p) and returning when I departed via Amtrak the morning of my third day, I would be essentially paying for that third day of car rental to have the car sit in my hotel parking lot from 9:00p until 7:00a the next morning. I suppose getting the added daily miles might be worth it, but probably not.
Therefore I planned the pick up of my rental car at the Kalispell Airport the morning after my arrival, and returning it the following evening around 9:00pm. With the convenience of the hotel's shuttle service this made the most sense for me.
I ended up booking my rental car through Hotwire.com for what turned out to be a savings of $30 on the two day rental; plus I got unlimited mileage. What a bonus! My rental was assigned to Alamo.
When I picked up my car at the Kalispell Airport which was just 12-15 miles away from Whitefish, I noted that they were offering the prepaid gas option at $2.25/gallon, more than $1.25 less than the street price I noticed en route to the airport that morning. To me, that was a no brainer especially since I was planning to rack up plenty of those free, unlimited miles.
As I discussed my car return to the airport after hours, the counter agent offered to let me drop the car off down at the Whitefish Amtrak Station, rather than bringing it back early the evening before requiring the hotel's shuttle services. This worked out perfectly as it allowed me to have the car later the evening prior to my departure and saved having to ask the shuttle driver for a pick-up at the airport and an early morning ride the next day to the train station.
So the best I can figure the business model of the rental car business in this area . . . most people do not rack a lot of miles on the rental cars. I would guess 125-150 miles per day is sufficient especially in the winter when folks are coming to the area to ski. If they are skiing, their rental cars are sitting idle.
Further, if the rental does take the prepaid gas option, they really need to drive and use 10+ gallons of the tank to make it financially beneficial. Again, if the car sits and is not driven, the car rental company makes out on the deal, even at $2.25/gallon (plus taxes).
For most with the limited mileage, if they do drive the car enough to drain the tank closer to empty, they will be on the hook for the mileage fee (the $.25/mile) which would more than offset the discounted price on the prepaid gas option.
So you see, the combination of unlimited miles plus the low prepaid gas option, someone could really take advantage of things especially if they drive the tank close to empty. And I did! I had to buy two gallons of gas when the low gas warning light came on indicating I only had 40 miles to empty. With the added gas, I figured I had 100 miles more to drive before leaving the car at the train station. When I left the car there, I had driven it 80 miles, allowing just enough for them to get it back to the Kalispell Airport.
In total, I did drive the rental car 425 miles in the two days of day tripping. My total gas expense was $40 at an average cost of roughly $2.82/gallon. Sweet!
Perhaps for their summer tourism business, they have a different pricing philosophy as I would expect visitors to do more driving, especially to Glacier National Park area. I would encourage folks to look into alternative car rental booking agencies including Hotwire, Priceline and CarRentals.com. I found that my direct contact to the rental companies, especially in Whitefish, to be less than friendly or helpful. Budget was especially inflexible and rather rude about it too.