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You’re probably in the process of mapping out your road trip and deciding what to bring. Another important decision is whether to drive your own vehicle or rent a car for your epic road trip. Knowing how much it costs to rent a car versus driving your own can help you make the best decision.
I had to make this decision last summer for a 5,000-mile cross-country drive. Renting a car was the better option as our daily driver is a decade-old gas guzzler with over 150,000 miles on the odometer. However, we made this decision to rent after comparing our potential rent and driving costs.
Related: Guide to Organizing a Car Check Before a Road Trip
Rental Car Costs
Several different fees and factors determine your total rental car costs. You should compare prices just as you search for cheap flights. Most cities and airports have multiple rental car agencies.
These are some of the cost factors you should pay close attention to:
- Vehicle type: Compact cars tend to be the cheapest rental class
- Pickup and dropoff locations: Airports might charge extra fees that off-site locations don’t
- Unlimited miles: Do you pay extra to get unlimited miles or pay later for excess miles?
- Length of rental: Most rental agencies charge a flat daily fee (weekly rentals may get a discount)
- Taxes and fees: A non-negotiable percentage of the total rental costs
- Insurance: Do you buy the rental agency’s insurance or use your credit card benefits?
- Add-on amenities: Satellite radio, GPS navigation, roadside assistance, and car seats cost extra
- Payment due date: Advance reservations usually cost less than paying at pickup
Most rental car agencies accept discount codes from car insurance and travel loyalty program partners. Try plugging in different codes if the agency partners with more than one travel partner.
Take a glance as well at the rental car agency’s current specials. Their specials can be cheaper than your discounts. For example, some agencies are waiving young driver fees this year.
Compare Vehicle Sizes
Calculating your rental car fees is easy but there can be a lot of variables. For instance, larger vehicles cost more to rent than compact cars. Renting a small or mid-size SUV usually costs more than a sedan.
Compare Prices for Different Pickup Locations
If you live near an airport, you should also compare rental prices for in-town locations and the airport location. Airport locations are notorious for charging extra “recovery fees” that airports require but cities may not. However, airport rentals aren’t always more expensive.
Another reason to consider renting from an airport is that their rental counters might be staffed 24 hours a day. If you’re arriving late, dropping off your car at 8 pm can be cheaper than waiting until the next calendar day to return your vehicle.
Book Directly from the Car Rental Agency When Possible
While the price comparison process takes longer, consider checking rates directly from the rental agency website instead of a third-party booking site. While you’ll have several open tabs for Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, etc., you’re less likely to pay hidden fees or encounter problems at pickup.
Here’s a quick personal story. I booked a car rental from a well-known third-party booking site for a full-size sedan. At pickup, I was given a compact car as that was the car the rental agency had in the database for me. As I booked through a third-party site, I couldn’t get a partial refund for the cheaper car class.
The rental agent recommends I book directly from the agency in the future, as the agent has more “negotiating power.”
Decline Rental Car Collision and Damage Waiver
One of the easiest ways to keep your total rental costs low is by declining the agency’s collision and damage waiver protection policy. Most credit cards offer secondary coverage that activates after your normal car insurance benefits pay for a theft or collision claim.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is one of the best options for booking rental cars. You get primary rental car insurance on most rentals in the US shorter than 30 days. The Chase Sapphire Reserve®, a premium credit card, is also a worthy option to consider. Get more details about both in the Chase Sapphire rental car insurance benefits guide.
Is It Cheaper to Rent a Car for a Road Trip?
Admittedly renting a car can make it hard to save money on your road trip. Booking in advance, getting a smaller car, and renting a fuel-efficient car are three ways to keep your rental costs low.
Here are some sample quotes for a 7-day roundtrip rental:
- Compact car or small sedan (i.e., Chevy Spark): $272.84
- Mid-size sedan (i.e., Toyota Corolla): $284.74
- Full-size sedan (i.e., Ford Fusion or Chevy Malibu): $315.34
- Small SUV (i.e., Nissan Rogue): $428.70
- Mid-size SUV (i.e., Ford Escape): $466.48
Weekly rentals can cost as much as $1,000 for larger vehicles and during high demand periods. Depending on current demand, SUV costs can vary widely between rental agencies. In some cases, SUV rentals are almost identical to a full-size sedan.
Don’t Forget Fuel Costs
When renting a car, your road trip transportation costs include your rental fees and gasoline.
By driving your own car, your only upfront cost is gasoline. However, the extra wear and tear mean you will need to change the oil, replace the tires, and perform preventative maintenance sooner.
GasBuddy has a trip calculator that estimates your fuel purchases. You can enter your vehicle information (or potential vehicle information) and your starting location as well as your intended destination.
Renting a car for a road trip can be cheaper than driving your own if you have substantial fuel savings. Getting 30 miles per gallon with a rental instead of 17 miles per gallon with your own car can save you money on a long-distant trip.
If you have an older vehicle like me, you’re also more likely to break down. Renting a car gives you peace of mind. Even if you spend several hundred dollars extra to rent a car, you buy peace of mind and avoid having to replace or repair your car sooner.
Related: Best gas credit cards
Should I Rent a Car for a Long Trip?
Renting a car makes more sense when you’re going on a long road trip. For instance, you might decide to drive your own car if you’re staying within six hours of home and your total driving distance is 1,000 miles or less.
However, renting a car makes sense if you’re driving across the country or driving several thousand miles and have to change your oil as soon as you get home. The case is more compelling if the rental car gets better gas mileage than your current car as the fuel savings can offset your rental costs.
Some examples include:
- Atlantic to Pacific coast
- New England to Florida
- Going across an arid or mountainous climate in several states
Also, if your car is unreliable or high-mileage, you should consider renting a car for these long trips. A one-time car rental fee is cheaper than a monthly car payment (if you finance your next car purchase).
Renting a larger car can give you and your passengers more legroom and storage space so you don’t have to leave items off your road trip packing list.
Unlimited Mileage Restrictions
No matter where you book a rental car, closely read the rental terms and conditions for cancellation and unlimited mileage policies.
“Discount rental agencies” like Thrifty, Alamo or Dollar might offer unlimited mileage—but only in the states where they operate. You pay several cents per mile outside the authorized area. Other rentals may only permit you to drive a select number of miles each day. In-car GPS tracks your movements.
Renting a car for your road trip can cost more upfront as you will likely pay between $300 and $1,000 for a weekly rental. However, you can save money long-term if you get better fuel economy and avoid repair bills.
Can I rent a car for a road trip?
Yes, it’s possible to rent a car for most road trips. However, you should review the rental terms and conditions for mileage and permissible activities. Some of the “cheap rental car agencies” only let you drive within nearby states or there are daily mileage limits. Breaking the rental contract can result in stiff penalties.
You can also rent an RV through a rental service like RVshare. You can check what rentals are available based on what amenities you’d like to have. This can be a good option if you’re looking to avoid hotels. However, note that credit cards don’t cover RV rental insurance so you’ll likely have to purchase that separately.
When should you rent a car for a trip?
Renting a car instead of driving your own can make sense in these instances:
- The rental car gets better fuel economy
- Want to avoid “wear and tear” on your car
- Your car is too small
- Want to “splurge” and rent a sports car or luxury car
- Desire “peace of mind” even if renting costs more money
How do I know if my car insurance covers rental cars?
Most personal car insurance policies cover basic car rental incidents. You can check your auto insurance policy or call your insurance agent to find out the current coverage amounts.
Most credit cards offer collision and damage waiver coverage. With the exception of the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve, you will likely have to submit a damage claim with your car insurance provider first.
One way car rentals typically cost a lot more than round trip rentals.