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How Much Does it Cost to Rent an Airplane? Tips for Frugal Flying

ben johnson Jun 17, 2020

It can be frustrating to try and calculate the financial costs of flying.  Doing an online search will leave most people utterly overwhelmed.  But in my years of involvement in the aviation industry, I’ve learned that there are a few important factors that will help you know how much you will be paying and what you’re getting for your money.

The wet, hourly price to rent an airplane depends heavily on the type of aircraft.  The following are general guidelines for what you should be paying for different size aircraft:

  1. Two-seat trainer: $90-120/hour
  2. Older model 4-seat trainer: $120-170/hour
  3. Late model 4-seat trainer: $125-179/hour
  4. Six-seat single-engine: $220-384/hour
  5. Six to 8-seat multi-engine: $290-479/hour

What is “wet-rate”?

Airplane rental prices depend very heavily on a number of factors.  The first factor is the difference between “dry-rate” and “wet-rate” pricing.

In the world of airplanes, having full fuel tanks is not always a desirable thing.  If you need to carry more passengers or baggage in the airplane, you may need to reduce weight somewhere else to make sure you are not over maximum weight limits.  One easy way to do this is to reduce the amount of fuel in the tanks.  Fuel is relatively heavy and levels can be changed easily.

However…it’s much harder to take fuel out of the tanks than it is to put fuel in.  Thus, when renters finish using a rental airplane, the rental company doesn’t necessarily want the renter to return the airplane with full tanks. 

Rather than making the rental customer responsible to pay for fuel, the rental company takes on this responsibility.  They add the price of fuel to the price of the rental.  The rental price before the cost of fuel is called the “dry rate”, while the price including fuel is called the “wet rate”.

Most rental companies, especially flight schools, will advertise their wet-rate prices.  But don’t make assumptions.  It’s very important to understand which price you’re seeing.  Misunderstanding this matter could result in pretty significant, unexpected costs.

Two-Seat Trainer:

The second factor affecting the prices of rental airplanes is the type of aircraft.  On the cheap end of the spectrum are 2 seat trainers.  Common examples of 2-seat trainers are the legendary Piper J-3 “Cub”, Cessna 150, Cessna 152, Piper P38 “Tomahawk”, and the Diamond DA20 “Katana”.

Typical rental prices for each of these aircraft are very similar at about $90-120/hour. 

The benefits of a 2-seat trainer is the low rental price.  But while your rental fees will be lower than other aircraft, these small aircraft will make you pay in other areas…namely weight.  With most of these airplanes, if you have two adults in the seats and full tanks of gas, you’ve already exceeded the airplane’s maximum gross weight limit.  This is a limitation you’ll need to seriously consider if you are a physically large individual.  It’s definitely a consideration for me!

Older Model 4-Seat Single:

The second group of aircraft are older model 4-seat single engine airplanes. For the sake of this comparison, I’m considering anything made before the year 2000 to be “older”.   Common examples of this group are the Cessna 172 “Skyhawk” and the Piper PA-28 150 “Warrior”. 

Cessna 172 “Skyhawk”:  $120-140
Piper PA-28 “Warrior”: $110-170           

Like the 2-seat trainers listed above, these 4-seat models are great for keeping rental costs low.  And they fix the problem of small weight limits. 

One of the trade-offs of this cost savings is the possibility of aircraft down time for maintenance.  Depending on how well it’s been cared for over the years, older models may need more TLC than a newer model.  This necessary maintenance can result in days when the weather is good…but you still can’t fly!

Late Model 4-Seat Single:

One way to avoid maintenance down-time is to rent newer model aircraft.  Many times, these models also have some nice technological updates that make them easier or more fun to fly.  Like the older model, 4-seat aircraft, newer models can include the Cessna 172 “Skyhawk”, Piper PA-28 150 “Warrior”, and the Diamond DA-40 “Star”.

Cessna 172 “Skyhawk”:  $125-159/hour
Piper PA-28 “Warrior”: 
Diamond DA40 “Star”:  $152-179/hour

The trade-off, however, is cost.  Rental rates begin to climb pretty quickly when you get into newer models. 

As you get into newer models of aircraft, you’ll also need to make sure you are qualified to fly them.  Some newer models add features and technology that require training or endorsements on your license that other aircraft don’t require.  For example, if the engine exceeds 200hp, you will need to add a high-performance endorsement to your license.

When looking into newer models, just make sure you are comparing apples to apples.

Six-Seat Single-Engine:

One of the painful lessons that many new pilots encounter is that just because the airplane has 4 seats, doesn’t mean you can actually put 4 people in the airplane!  Often, 4 adults will be more weight than the aircraft can handle.  The answer to this problem is to increase the size of the plane and the number of available seats.

Six-seat, single-engine airplanes are a great way to increase the kinds of things you can do with your airplane.  They increase both the functionality and range of the aircraft.  Common six-seat, single engine airplanes are the Beechcraft Bonanza A36, the Cessna 206 “Stationair”, and the Piper PA32 “Cherokee Six”.

Beechcraft Bonanza A36:  $239-265/hour
Cessna 206 “Stationair”:  $330-384
Piper PA32 “Cherokee Six”:  $220-250/hour

As is obvious from the numbers above, the increase in functionality of these aircraft also comes with a significant increase in price. 

It is highly recommended that you do not do your training in aircraft like these.  The obvious reason is the cost.  If you’re just trying to build hours, this is a very expensive way to do it! 

But more importantly, these aircraft are also much more complex to fly than a Cessna 152 or 172.  They have some very nice “bells and whistles”, but those added items can make your learning curve really steep.  If your goal is to fly one of these aircraft, you are far better served to start with a much simpler, much cheaper airplane and work your way up to these.

And even if you already have a license, these planes will require high-performance endorsements to your license.  So don’t plan to jump straight from your Cessna 150 trainer into these birds!  Make sure to speak with an instructor first.

It should also be noted, that as aircraft get bigger and more complex, it will become much more difficult to find airports with companies who have these aircraft for rent.  Just because they exist, doesn’t mean they will be available for rent in your area of the country!

Six to Eight-Seat Multi-Engine:

If you really want to get the most usability out of your pilot’s license, a six to eight-seat, multi-engine aircraft may be the way to go!  Adding a second engine allows you to fly over more dangerous terrain like mountains or open water with the assurance that if you lose an engine, you can still make it to a runway safely.  That second engine also increases the amount of weight you can carry and length of time you can fly!

Beechcraft B55 “Baron”:  $290-417/hour
Cessna 310:  $425-479/hour
Piper Seneca:  $309-329/hour

The engine is the most expensive part of the airplane.  One engine burns fuel.  Two engines burn twice as much fuel.  And the engines require the most maintenance of anything on the plane.  Doubling the engines doubles the maintenance expenses too.  You can see this difference in the prices listed above.

To fly a multi-engine airplane, you will also need a multi-engine rating on your pilot’s license.  It very important to understand the unique dynamics of flying with more than one engine if you’re going to fly safely.

And if we’re going to be honest, finding multi-engine aircraft that are available to rent is pretty rare.  Most people who really want to fly big-multi-engine airplanes have sufficient money to just go ahead an purchase one for themselves.

If this information has piqued your interest and has you wondering what it takes to get a pilot’s license, I would highly encourage you to check out my free video presentation, “What Does it Take to Get a Private Pilot’s License”.  To check it out, just click on the link below:



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