Whether it's a long drive to visit friends, an extended family vacation to a national park or a ramble down the road just because you can — whatever your reason for hitting the highway this spring and summer, you might want to consider renting a car rather than taking your own.
And with gas prices at their lowest seasonal levels in at least seven years, you’ll have plenty of company on the road.
"Between 85 percent and 90 percent of holiday travelers drive, with flying and other modes of transportation, including bus and train, accounting for the remainder," says Julie Hall, spokeswoman for travel and motorists' advocacy group AAA. Holiday weekends are when the roads get most clogged. In 2015, Memorial Day weekend saw more than 33 million road warriors take to the highways, according to AAA data.
With the National Park Service celebrating its centennial in 2016, America's national parks will likely be among this year's most popular road trip destinations. In 2015, the 409 U.S. national parks — including historic sites, lakeshores and seashores — logged more than 307 million visits, a record that is expected to be broken in 2016.
Hall says the decision to rent a car for a road trip depends on a variety of factors, including the age and condition of your personal vehicle as well as fuel efficiency. Here are some considerations to take into account.
- Purpose driven. If you bought your car specifically to tote you and yours on road trips, vacation jaunts or sightseeing, driving it might be your best bet. Your immediate out-of-pocket costs are lower and probably limited to fuel.
- Wear and tear. A long road trip can be hard on a vehicle and could lead to future repairs. "You rent a car and you're putting the miles on somebody else's vehicle," says Mike Quincy, automotive specialist at Consumer Reports. And, of course, if you don't think your vehicle is reliable enough for a road trip, definitely consider renting.
- Cost. Here's one way to measure it. The IRS allows people to claim deductions of 54 cents per mile for business miles driven. The business figure is supposed to cover the spectrum of costs associated with owning and driving a vehicle. So, every mile you roll up on your own buggy, according to IRS data, takes an average 54 cents from your wallet or purse. That's $540 for a 1,000-mile trip — fuel, depreciation, insurance and accelerated maintenance from extra wear and tear.
- Lease. If you lease your personal car, all those miles driving cross-country to see a scenic wonder could hit your wallet hard. Calculate whether your trip could put you over the lease’s annual mileage limit. Those limits are dropping each year, according to Edmunds.com, an auto research and shopping site. They have steadily declined, as automakers try to keep mileage down and the value of used leased cars high. Exceeding your allowed miles means you could pay a high per-mileage penalty when you turn in the car at the end of the lease.
- Rent. If you go the rental route, know that rental companies typically use size designations bigger than you might. "A midsize car these days might be considered a Toyota Corolla. I always thought a size bigger, like a Toyota Camry, would be midsize," says Quincy of Consumer Reports. To save money on a rental, he recommends booking "as small a car as you can tolerate." Rental ads also often include "or similar" next to the example of the car that you plan to rent. Your opinion of what's similar to the Chevrolet Malibu or Toyota Camry that you thought you reserved might be different than the rental company's view.
- Rental prices can vary widely. Quincy says a recent Consumer Reports search showed that a one-week rental for a midsize car ranged from $258 to $478.
- Watch out for "upsells." Quincy cautions that the rental agent might try to get you into a more expensive, larger vehicle or even a different kind of vehicle, claiming the company just doesn't have any more of the size and type you reserved. Experience shows that at that point, it's horse trading: You hold out for price and size, and the rental counter tries to get you to compromise on one or the other. Or agents could push you to buy damage insurance. Your personal insurance or the major credit card you use to rent the car often covers rental damage. Check first to be sure. After a fender bender, it's too late.
- Tryouts. One final reason for going the rental route is to simply try out a vehicle that's different from your own car, whether for practical purposes such as added storage and roominess, or just for plain fun. In that case, pick your pleasure. Quincy remembers a time years ago when he rented a Mazda Miata in Northern California, where he intended to propose marriage. "I had visions of tooling around San Francisco with the top down, and that's exactly what happened."