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The hard part of renting a car is returning it

Space crunches at airports are squeezing out on-site returns, and off-site centers are delaying anxious travelers.

Mike Nelson drove around Los Angeles for six days without getting lost, until he tried to return his rental car at the airport.

Fighting traffic, Nelson spent nearly 30 minutes lapping Los Angeles International Airport in search of signs for Alamo Rent a Car's return lot. Running out of time, he finally called the car company for directions.

Add rental car returns to your list of travel tribulations. With domestic travel booming, U.S. airports from San Francisco to Chicago are spending about $7-billion expanding their facilities.

Poor signage, traffic and construction woes are just the beginning. Now a growing number of airports are actually moving on-site return lots _ of companies such as Avis Rent a Car and Hertz Rent a Car _ into catch-all facilities a mile or two from terminals. That means travelers can need anywhere from 10 to 45 extra minutes to make their flights.

At cheaper, off-airport operations, the problem is even worse: Customers of Enterprise Rent-a-Car at Ontario International Airport in California, for instance, must take two different shuttle buses to reach the terminal.

The obstacles present yet another hurdle for time-pressed travelers, causing hassles ranging from lost upgrades to outright missed flights. More than one-third of car renters at or near an airport indicated they had a problem with their rental experience, up 15 percent from last year, according to a study by J.D. Power & Associates.

The problem is so bad that Hertz and Avis have outfitted cars with a navigation technology that can, among other things, direct customers back to the return facility. Meanwhile, Alamo is rolling out "Go Guides" that provide renters with detailed directions to each of its return facilities.

Airports insist that they are looking for ways to accommodate customer needs and maintain order at the same time. Indeed, as many as 22 more consolidated car centers are on the drawing board at airports across the country, according to car rental companies.

Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which serves 60-million passengers a year, expects that number to soar to 100-million in the next decade. So this March, the airport merged all of its rental companies into one central 200-acre location, a move the airport says "reduces traffic" because all renters share the same facility and shuttle buses.

San Francisco International Airport moved its rental lots from a cluster around the terminal to make room for airport construction.

That's little solace to Thom Nulty, president of travel agency Navigant International in Englewood, Colo. He left his hotel on one trip thinking he would have his car "dropped off in no time" at Denver International Airport. Instead, he found himself driving endlessly through the airport hunting for the new facility, which is about 10 miles away. By the time he returned the car and caught a shuttle to the terminal, Nulty says, he was in "a sheer panic" to make his flight.

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