Renting a Car in Bozeman

by | Nov 2, 2022

So you are planning your outdoor adventure to Bozeman, Montana and need to rent a car… This should be an easy task, but it is most certainly not. Bozeman, and Montana in general, host a variety of factors from weather to wildlife that renting a compact car is not a good option. Further, since 2021 Bozeman has had some of the highest daily rental car rates in the country. Rental cars were always expensive in Bozeman, but since Covid and the tourism explosion as a result, the rental car scene has gotten seriously crazy. Explore Rentals, founded in 2010, is the oldest independent car rental agency still operating at the Bozeman Airport. Over the years, and through the “Car Rental Gold Rush of 2021” we have scene and experienced quite a bit of change. Whether you book your rental car with us is less important than ensuring that you have a safe and easy Montana adventure. With that in mind, hopefully the following FAQ can help you navigate the insanity of Bozeman rental cars

Frequently Asked Questions: Renting a Car in Bozeman

Question: Do I need a rental car in Bozeman? 

Answer: Most likely, yes. Although shuttle services, public transportation, and ride sharing services (Uber/ Lyft) have greatly improved over the last few years, they still stink. For example, there is no bus service to the Bozeman Airport. Although downtown Bozeman is totally walkable, a lot of the time of the year it is too snowy/ cold to want to do this. And finally, Bozeman is super-cool, but the best of Montana is outside of city limits and you need your own car to get there. You can get an Uber up Hyalite Canyon, but you can’t get an Uber out- because there is no cell reception up there.

Question: Do I need a 4WD or AWD rental car in Bozeman? 

Answer: Depends on what you are planning to do. If you are coming in August and just plan on loafing in downtown Bozeman, a cheap two-wheel-drive car will be fine. If you are coming in August and plan on doing some serious hiking or fly fishing, yes, you will want four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. The reason for this isn’t snow and ice, it is ground clearance and the durability to travel on gravel roads. Even some of the classic short day trips just outside of Bozeman, like going to Fairy Lake, are 8-miles on pretty nasty dirt roads. An inferior economy car is going to lock you onto pavement, and all of the best stuff out here isn’t on pavement. If you are coming outside of July and August, you need a 4WD or AWD car 100% for the chance of snow and ice conditions.

Question: Do I need a 4WD or AWD car to go to Yellowstone National Park. 

Answer: In July and August, not really. All of the roads you can travel on in Yellowstone are paved, and the chance of snow is slim. If you want to explore outside of Yellowstone, or are coming at any other time of year, a 4WD or AWD rental car is highly recommended for winter driving condition safety and the capability to drive on gravel roads.

Question: Can you drive off of paved roads with Bozeman Rental Cars? 

Answer: It depends on who you have rented the car from. If you read the fine print on a major Franchise rental agreement, there will usually be a clause expressly limiting travel to paved roads only. Meaning, if something bad happens off the tarmac, you may void the rental agreement and be 100% liable for any damages. Most independent car rental agencies in Bozeman, like Explore Rentals, allow driving on gravel roads. If you are planning on any sort of outdoor adventures, make sure your rental car company allows you to travel off pavement or your trip will stink.

Question: Does my rental car need special tires in the summer? 

Answer: If you are planning on doing some exploring, yes- you need good rubber. If you are renting a medium or small SUV that is an adventure brand (i.e. Jeep or Subaru), most likely the factory all-season tires will be sufficient for long runs on gravel roads. If your rental is a 2WD car, whether or not an SUV, be careful as the tires will not be very durable off of pavement. If you are renting a large SUV, i.e. a Chevrolet Suburban, tires are a crucial point in the summer if you are doing extensive gravel road driving. OEM tires on Suburbans are fuel efficiency specific, 4-ply, highway tires. These tires are extremely prone to flats off of pavement, especially with multiple passengers in the vehicles. This is why Explore Rentals upgrades all our rental Suburban tires to Load Range E (i.e. 10-ply or LRE) all-terrain tires as they are significantly better for Montana driving conditions.

Question: Do I need snow tires to get to Big Sky or Yellowstone in winter? 

Answer: Yes, 100%. Especially If you are going to Big Sky or Yellowstone National Park. They are required in Yellowstone, and highly, highly recommended for going to Big Sky. Other than ensuring your rental car is 4WD or AWD, snow tires are the best way to be safe while driving in winter conditions. Big knobby off-road tires are just as dangerous as fuel efficiency highway tires- and generally if you are renting from an individual, or a franchise- most likely your rental will have the cheapest set of tires available. When in doubt, call your rental car agency.

Question: What fees are standard for Bozeman Airport Rental Cars? 

Answer: All rental vehicle companies in Montana are required to collect a 4% Rental Vehicle Tax that goes to the State. Authorized concessionaires operating at the Bozeman Airport are required to charge a 10% BZN Airport Concession Fee for rentals originating there. Beyond these standards, fees are at the businesses discretion. For example, Franchises tend to add a License Recovery Fee or similar in addition to the 14% total for originating at BZN. Go Rentals charges 14% for Bozeman Airport Service. The peer-to-peer online platform Turo charges the most extreme fees, including a 15% “Trip Fee” and an 11.5% BZN Airport Fee. Oddly, Turo does not charge Montana Rental Vehicle tax, however, at +26% of total rental cost they are still the winner. One way of saving on your rental car costs are to pick-up your rental car at established off-airport rental car locations, avoiding the BZN Airport Concession fee of 10%. Explore Rentals is 1.5-miles from BZN, Journey Rent-A-Car is a little further away but has also been in business for over a decade. Do note that many of the Bozeman Rental Car agencies that have sprung up over the last couple of years actually are people operating out of their homes, or shady used car dealers.

Question: Is Turo in Bozeman?

Answer: Turo has been operating in Bozeman since at least August 2014, but gained very little traction until the insane rental car demand of summer 2021. Turo is a “ride-sharing” app. It allows individuals to rent out their cars through an on online platform for an agreed daily rate. Turo collects the money, takes their cut, and provides a very unclear level of quality and insurance to the operator and to the renter. Currently, there are over 350-private vehicles available for rent by individuals in Bozeman alone, and well over 600 in the state of Montana. It is important to note that Turo operators are individuals renting out their personal cars- not businesses with actual fleets. Safety protocols, cleanliness standards, and an individual’s professional experience may not exist. 

Question: Is there Turo at the Bozeman Airport? 

Answer: Turo has been operating at the Bozeman Airport, however, they have only been an Authorized Concessionaire since the Fall of 2021. Turo has a number of allotted parking spots outside of the BZN terminal where they are allowed to park vehicles for a maximum of 12-hours. You will regularly see owners cleaning their rentals in the parking lot. Turo is required to charge the standard Bozeman Airport Concession fee of 10% that all Concessionaires are required to do for rental cars originating at BZN, however, Turo actually charges between 11 – 13%. Further, Turo refused to collect State required Rental Vehicle Tax for at least 10-years, and now instead of collecting the required 4%, they collect between 5-7%.

Question: Is Turo in Bozeman safe?

Answer: Maybe. Can an individual be relied upon to provide a vehicle that will keep a family safe driving to Big Sky in a snow storm? Most likely yes, but there is a very real chance of no. Turo boasts that most of the vehicle renters on their platform are regular people trying to make a little extra money on the side. Personally, I am more likely to trust an established business with something as important as my safety (and time), rather an individual trying to make an extra buck out of their garage. From winter driving, to elk and deer on the roads, there is a lot that can go wrong while driving a rental in Montana. Pick your provider carefully. Check reviews, but note that Turo seems to delete any reviews less than 4-stars.

Question: Is Turo in Bozeman legit? 

Answer: Maybe. There are countless individuals renting out their vehicles for a daily rate. That being said, Turo is a venture capital funded start up like Uber, DoorDash, or any other of the countless “Gig Economy” businesses around. They are relying on individuals, as subcontractors, to carry the bulk of the risk and do all of the work. Transparency does not abound, but their insane marketing budget does. The process to become an individual that rents a vehicle on the platform is not rigorous, nor are their safety protocols, vehicle standards, and operating procedures. Again, they rely on the individual’s ability to run their own rental business, and for review culture to essentially weed-out the weak operators. It is worth noting that reviews for Turo operators are only available on the Turo website- which seems to make anything less then a 4-star review disappear.

Question: What is the cheapest rental car in Bozeman? 

Answer: Your least expensive rental car option will most likely be an off-airport used car dealership, like Finish Line Rentals, Randash (Rent-A-Car-Montana), or Snyder Rentals. These guys know cars, and they know how to loan money to someone with bad credit. There are some cheap options on Turo for some old vehicles, but the newer rentals comparable to what an established car rental agency offers are often actually more expensive once you add up all of the fees. NextCar is a new franchise that has some basic cars off airport, and Yellowstone Rent-A-Car is right next to the airport and has pretty inexpensive rates.

Question: What is the best rental car agency in Bozeman?

Answer: Explore Rentals has more five-star reviews on Yelp! and Google, dating all the way back to 2010, than any other legit business in Bozeman. They rent Subaru Outbacks, Chevrolet Suburbans, Silverados, and Mercedes 4×4 Sprinter passenger vans. Rocky Mountain Expeditions has a lot of great Google reviews and exclusively rent Jeeps. Journey Rent-A-Car is the second oldest independent with fairly priced rentals and great service. Go Rentals has consistently the most expensive rentals, namely black Cadillac Escalades and similar, and seems to cater to the private jet crowd. Hertz has been the dominant Franchise at the Bozeman Airport forever. There are countless new rental car companies in Bozeman, none of which have been around much more than one-year.

Question: Can I rent a sports car in Bozeman? 

Answer: Yes. Explore Rentals rents some Porsche models. Hertz usually has some high-spec Chargers or similar available. There are some Teslas available on Turo, however, be aware of range charging limitations in Montana.

Question: Why is renting a car in Bozeman so expensive? 

Answer. Demand. Bozeman and Big Sky has exploded since Covid. Microchip shortages and manufacturing delays have made it impossible for rental car companies to purchase enough vehicles to fulfill the demand. Further, cost of living in Bozeman has skyrocketed as it became a “Covid Refugee” mecca, making it extremely expensive to hire capable employees and to operate a business in general. It is not just rental cars, everything is more expensive in Bozeman as a result. We are talking $22 bar hamburger expensive, and $350/ night Holiday Inn expensive.

Question: Can you rent a car at Bozeman Airport? 

Answer: Explore Rentals has a Bozeman airport location, offering convenient service and dedicated parking spots right outside of the Arrivals terminal.