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Airport Car Rental Return (Gatwick, Heathrow, Bristol)

Pauline Kenny

When traveling in the US, you don't need instructions for finding the car rental return because it is always clearly signed (except for LAX which I always find confusing). In Europe the car rental return is not always well signed. This page describes how to return your rental car at two of London's major airports (Gatwick and Heathrow) and at Bristol Airport (in the West Country).


Book a rental car in Europe AutoEurope: Car rentals in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the rest of Europe.

Returning Your Rental Car at Gatwick Airport

Gatwick Airport is located south of London, near Crawley, off the M23 motorway. The M23 goes from the M25 (the ring road for London) to Gatwick and on to Crawley. Take exit 9 for Gatwick Airport; it is clearly marked.

Getting to the Airport

From the Cotswolds, the fastest route is to take the M40 from Oxford towards London, then get on the M25 ring road and exit south of London on the M23 to Gatwick. If you are coming from the south, the A272 scoots along south of Gatwick and lets you avoid going on the motorways to London which can be crowded with traffic. Recently we got caught in heavy traffic, on a Bank Holiday Monday evening, and ended up doing a difficult drive through the countryside from Basingstoke to Guildford to Crawley to avoid traffic on the motorways. We should have either done the drive earlier in the day, or gone south to the A272 to avoid the motorways.

Getting Gas (Petrol)

The Gatwick Airport website says there are "24 hour petrol stations at both North and South Terminals." I did not see them when we returned our car. We purchased a tank of gas for £48.85 when we rented the car (this was a good price). This made it easier returning the car because we did not have to look for a gas station.

Finding the Car Rental Return

As you approach the airport you will see signs for the North and South Terminals, but no "Rental Car Return" signs. Each terminal has its own car rental return, so follow the signs to your terminal. We were departing from the North Terminal.

Once we got close to the terminal we saw "Car Rentals" signs and followed them to a large Car Rental area across from the terminal. You return your car to the same place where you pickup your rental car. Drive into the lot. Spots are numbered and marked for each rental company. Find an empty spot with a sign for your rental company. We had booked through AutoEurope, but they are a broker and the company we rented from was National, so we found an empty spot with a National sign.

Note that you are putting your car in the same lot where cars are waiting to be picked up and there is no special area for returning cars (as we are used to in the US).

Take note of the number of the spot because you will tell them this when you return the keys. Record the mileage and gas on your rental form (this information is for your records, they go out and check the car). Unload your luggage, take the keys with you and go to the main Car Rental office at the end of the lot, closest to the terminal.

Rental Car Return at Gatwick Airport, North Terminal, May 2006

Rental Car Return at Gatwick Airport, North Terminal, May 2006

Now you have to wait in line, at the counter for your car rental company, with people who are picking up rental cars. Since most international flights arrive around the time you are arriving to return your car, there can be a few people in line. I found this totally annoying, waiting while several people did all the paperwork for their rentals until I could do the 60 seconds needed for dropping off the car, but it seems that is what you have to do (I asked the people at the desk and discussed it at length with the British businessman ahead of me - day 30 of my trip and I resorted to "well, this is not how we do it in the US!!"). Once it was my turn, all they needed was the parking spot number and the keys. They asked if we wanted to wait while they checked the car to get a receipt. We didn't. I took photos of the car in the spot in case there were any disputes later one. There were none.

In the Terminal

From the Car Rental office, walk across the road to the terminal. Go in at the "Arrivals" level (which was crowded when we were there) and make your way up to the Check-In level. We had to go up two escalators and they had narrow barriers in front to prevent carts going through, but they also prevented my 25" rolling suitcases from getting through unless I turned them around, which was hard because of the small duffel on top. It would be better to take the elevator.

On the Departures level, check the boards to find your check-in area and if you see a representative for your airline, double check with them (finding the Club World check-in for British Airways was confusing).

The restaurants at Gatwick Airport are not great, but there is a Starbucks and a casual place called EAT that has sandwiches. We had a sit down breakfast at the restaurant, but it was not great. There is a small Harrods for last minute presents (I always get tea and cookies to bring home) and a big book/magazine store to pickup stuff to read on the flight. The British Airways lounge is nice - spacious with good coffee, pastries, free wireless.

Returning Your Rental Car at Heathrow Airport

Heathrow Airport is located west of London, off the M4, just east of the M25 ring road. Terminals 1, 2 and 3 are located together; Terminal 4 is to the south and has a different entrance. British Airways flights to the US leave from Terminal 4.

As you approach from the west on the M4 just before the M25 interchange, you see signs for Terminals 1, 2 and 3 in one direction (continuing on the M4) and Terminal 4 in another (going south on the M25). There are no "Rental Car Return" signs. The Car Rental area is on the Perimeter Road between these two terminal areas. We followed the M4 towards Terminals 1, 2 and 3 (even though we were flying from Terminal 4 because it seemed the clearest way) and exited from the M4 at Exit 4, following the signs to the airport. You can get to the Car Rental area either way, from Terminal 4 or from Terminals 1, 2 and 3.

Getting to the Airport

From the Cotswolds or the West Country, the best way to get to Heathrow is on the M4 Motorway heading in the direction of London. From anywhere else, get on the M25 ring road and exit at the M4, heading towards London.

Getting Gas (Petrol)

The Heathrow airport website says there are "three petrol stations close to Heathrow which are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week: a BP station is located in the centre of the airport close to Terminals 1, 2 and 3; a BP station is located at Hatton Cross, Great West Road (A30), south of the airport."

When we drove here, I saw a gas station off a main roundabout after we exited the M4 and before we entered the airport, in the area where the airport hotels are located. We purchased a tank of gas when we rented the car. This made it easier returning the car because we did not have to look for a gas station.

Finding the Car Rental Return

When we were getting close to the terminals, in the area where many of the airport hotels are located, we saw the "Car Rentals" sign and followed it. This took us on the Perimeter Road around the airport. From here on it was clearly signed.

The car rental return at Heathrow is more organized than at Gatwick. We had rented from National (booking through AutoEurope) and followed the signs to their return area. We pulled up in a return area and there was someone there to check us in. Steve still had to go into the main office with the paperwork, so leave extra time for returning your car. A shuttle bus took us from the car rental area to the terminal.

Returning Your Rental Car at Bristol Airport

Bristol Airport is located south of Bristol off the A38. Coming from the north, take the M5 motorway and exit on the A4, on the southern edge of Bristol. You can run into traffic in the mornings on the M5 and on the A4, so leave extra time. From the A4, get onto the A38 south. This takes you to the airport.

In September 2004 when we were returning our rental car to get an EasyJet flight to Nice, the car returns area was a field (a muddy field the day we were there), but the moderator Jonathan flew out of Bristol recently and said it has been changed and there is a nice paved area for car rentals, in the short term parking lot near the terminal. As at Gatwick, you return your car in the same place where you pick it up and go into the main car rental office to hand over the keys.


www.gatwickairport.com: Gatwick Airport

www.heathrowairport.com: Heathrow Airport

www.bristolairport.co.uk: Bristol Airport

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