Travelers flying into Montana can choose to land in one of the state's six major airports: Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell, or Missoula.
Montana's airports are dwarfed by Denver International Airport in Colorado and Salt Lake City International Airport in Utah. However, connecting flights are available from Denver and Salt Lake to almost all of the regional airports in Montana and Wyoming, and -- if you have time -- renting a car in one of these larger cities can make for a nice scenic drive to your final destination.
In Montana, I-90 runs west to east from St. Regis to Wyola, near the Wyoming border southeast of Billings. I-94 goes east from Billings to Glendive and the North Dakota border. U.S. Hwy. 2, called the "Hi-Line," is another east-west alternative, stretching across the northern reaches of Montana from Bainville to Troy. The major interstate traversing the state from north to south is I-15, from Sweetgrass to Monida.
Renting a Car -- You'll find rental-car outlets at the airports and in major cities in Montana and Wyoming, but there are great swaths of land in both states where you simply can't rent a car. National companies with outlets in Montana and Wyoming include Alamo (tel. 877/222-9075; www.alamo.com), Avis (tel. 800/230-4898; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 800/527-0700; www.budget.com), Dollar (tel. 800/800-3665; www.dollar.com), Enterprise (tel. 800/261-7331; www.enterprise.com), Hertz (tel. 800/654-3131; www.hertz.com), National (tel. 800/227-7368; www.nationalcar.com), Payless (tel. 800/729-5377; www.paylesscarrental.com), and Thrifty (tel. 800/847-4389; www.thrifty.com).
Car-rental rates vary even more than airline fares. The price you pay depends on the size of the car, where and when you pick it up and drop it off, the length of the rental period, where and how far you drive it, whether you purchase insurance, and a host of other factors. A few key questions could save you hundreds of dollars.
- Are weekend rates lower than weekday rates? Ask if the rate is the same for pickup Friday morning, for instance, as it is for Thursday night.
- Is a weekly rate cheaper than the daily rate? Even if you need the car for only 4 days, it may be cheaper to keep it for 5.
- Does the agency assess a drop-off charge if you don't return the car to the same location where you picked it up? Is it cheaper to pick up the car at the airport than at a downtown location?
- Are special promotional rates available? If you see an advertised price in your local newspaper, be sure to ask for that specific rate; otherwise, you may be charged the standard cost. Terms change constantly, and reservations agents are notorious for not mentioning available discounts unless you ask.
- Are discounts available for members of AARP, AAA, frequent-flier programs, or trade unions? If you belong to any of these organizations, you may be entitled to discounts of up to 30%.
- How much tax will be added to the rental bill? Local tax? State use tax?
- What is the cost of adding an additional driver's name to the contract?
- How many free miles are included in the price? Free mileage is often negotiable, depending on the length of the rental.
- How much does the rental company charge to refill your gas tank if you return with the tank less than full? Though most rental companies claim these prices are "competitive," fuel is almost always cheaper in town. Try to allow enough time to refuel the car yourself before returning it.
Some companies offer "refueling packages," in which you pay for an entire tank of gas upfront. The price is usually fairly competitive with local gas prices, but you don't get credit for any gas remaining in the tank.
Many available packages include airfare, accommodations, and a rental car with unlimited mileage. Compare these prices with the cost of booking airline tickets and renting a car separately to see if such offers are good deals. Internet resources can make comparison-shopping easier.
Surfing for Rental Cars -- For booking rental cars online, the best deals are usually found at rental-car company websites, although all the major online travel agencies also offer rental-car reservations services. Priceline (www.priceline.com) and Hotwire (www.hotwire.com) work well for rental cars; the only "mystery" is which major rental company you get, and for most travelers, the difference between Hertz, Avis, and Budget is negligible. Also check out Breezenet.com, which offers domestic car-rental discounts with some of the most competitive rates around.
Demystifying Renter's Insurance -- Before you drive off in a rental car, be sure you're insured. Hasty assumptions about your personal auto insurance or a rental agency's additional coverage could end up costing you tens of thousands of dollars -- even if you are involved in an accident that was clearly the fault of another driver.
If you already hold a private auto insurance policy in the United States, you are most likely covered for loss of or damage to a rental car, and liability in case of injury to any other party involved in an accident. Be sure to find out whether you are covered in the area you are visiting, whether your policy extends to all persons who will be driving the rental car, how much liability is covered in case an outside party is injured in an accident, and whether the type of vehicle you are renting is included under your contract. (Rental trucks, sport utility vehicles, and luxury vehicles may not be covered.)
Most major credit cards provide some degree of coverage as well -- provided they were used to pay for the rental. Terms vary widely, however, so be sure to call your credit card company directly before you rent. If you don't have a private auto insurance policy, the credit card you use to rent a car may provide primary coverage if you decline the rental agency's insurance. This means that the credit card company will cover damage or theft of a rental car for the full cost of the vehicle. If you do have a private auto insurance policy, your credit card may provide secondary coverage -- which basically covers your deductible. Credit cards do not cover liability or the cost of injury to an outside party and/or damage to an outside party's vehicle. If you do not hold an insurance policy, you may want to seriously consider purchasing additional liability insurance from your rental company. Be sure to check the terms, however: Some rental agencies cover liability only if the renter is not at fault; even then, the rental company's obligation varies from state to state. Bear in mind that each credit card company has its own peculiarities; call your own credit card company for details before relying on a card for coverage.
The basic insurance coverage offered by most car-rental companies, known as the Loss/Damage Waiver (LDW) or Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), can cost as much as $20 per day. The former should cover everything, including the loss of income to the rental agency, should you get in an accident (normally not covered by your own insurance policy). It usually covers the full value of the vehicle, with no deductible, if an outside party causes an accident or other damage to the rental car. You will probably be covered in case of theft as well. Liability coverage varies, but the minimum is usually at least $15,000. If you are at fault in an accident, you will be covered for the full replacement value of the car -- but not for liability. Most rental companies require a police report in order to process any claims you file, but your private insurer will not be notified of the accident. Check your own policies and credit cards before you shell out money on this extra insurance because you may already be covered.
Amtrak's Empire Builder (tel. 800/872-7245; www.amtrak.com) provides daily rail service along the northern tier of Montana, traveling west from Chicago and east from Seattle. The train stops at Wolf Point, Glasgow, Malta, Havre, Shelby, Cut Bank, Browning, East Glacier, Essex, West Glacier, Whitefish, and Libby.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.