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Should You Rent a Car or Drive Your Own On Your Next Road Trip?

Trying out new wheels can be a blast if it makes sense financially

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Summer is road-trip time, and though the coronavirus pandemic is far from over there are people who want to get out and places that are encouraging travel by beginning to open some attractions.

The medical advice — especially for those 65 and older or people of any age with heart disease, immune problems, kidney disease, lung disease, obesity, sickle cell disease or type 2 diabetes — is pretty blunt: Don't go. Stay home.

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But if you have some spots in mind where you can keep your distance from others, count on sanitized accommodations, find food for takeout or delivery and determine that fuel stops will be open the hours you need them, then your travel question becomes: Should I drive my own vehicle or rent one instead? That depends on what your own vehicle is.

"Maybe you live in the city and commute ... in a small car and don't have another one. If you take a big trip, you want to rent an Impala or something big,” says Jon Linkov, deputy auto editor at Consumer Reports.

Or, “you're going to camp, so you rent a truck,” he says. A pickup might be too expensive and too cumbersome to have as your personal vehicle, but for a week or two with the gear tossed in the cargo bed instead of swiping passenger space, it could be just the ticket.

Or maybe you'd like to try a car or truck in the rental fleet. You might be considering buying one or you're simply curious. So, maybe a rental is the way to go.

The case and caveats for a rental

More people seem to think so. Ian Beavis, chief strategy officer at Los Angeles-based auto consultant AMCI Global and a veteran observer of the auto scene, says rental car business is up 20 percent to 25 percent from the COVID-19 nadir, mainly at sites away from airports.

In other words, companies are not renting to people who arrive by plane. The neighborhood sites generally cater to those who just want to rent a car.

If you intend to rotate drivers, keep in mind that you might pay more for each driver beyond you and your spouse or domestic partner. Renting has some other pause-and-think considerations:

Size. Rental companies typically designate sizes differently than their customers do. Avis and Enterprise consider the Ford Fusion a full-size sedan. People who drive, say, a Chevrolet Impala, would quibble.

An Impala is about 21/2 feet longer than a Fusion, bigger inside with more room in the trunk, according to automakers’ specifications. The auto industry and the federal government's Environmental Protection Agency call it large.

Fusion is ranked midsize. That's important because bigger means more expensive. Rental companies may call an Impala a “premium” car, and the price goes up accordingly.

Expect the same size shuffle if you're renting an SUV. Don't expect a roomier car than your own only to find it's not so. Check the numbers.

And keep in mind that whatever you ask for when you reserve the vehicle isn't guaranteed. The ads say, “or similar.” You and the rental company might disagree about what's similar.

Upsells. Though you can negotiate, the rental agent will be happy to rent you a bigger car for more money. Or they 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.

Toll roads. Note in advance any tolls on your likely route. If you have an electronic toll device from home — one like E-ZPass that is usually mounted on your windshield and lets you pass through a toll booth without stopping to pay, it could be accepted where you're headed.

Toll roads and bridges in parts of 18 states now accept E-ZPass. Among the benefits in this era of keeping your distance are not shelling out cash at every toll booth and not needing to encounter a person.

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If you accept the rental agency's offer to supply a device, it is likely to cost more than you expect. Rental-car transponders, such as PlatePass, say they charge a user the highest undiscounted toll plus a $5.95 fee for each calendar day that a toll is paid. And the tolls show up on your credit card bill one to three weeks after you've returned the vehicle to the rental company.

Taxes. They're often more than you'd think, driving up a seemingly cheap car rental into one that might have you second-guessing yourself.

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More than 40 states add excise taxes, daily fees or both onto the usual state sales tax as of August 2019, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 15 allow local governments to tack on their own charges because lawmakers see it as a tax on tourists, not residents. The total can mean 2 percent to 19 percent more on your bill.

Cleanliness. Rental companies have upgraded their cleaning, and some are aggressive about it. They're also making the whole process “touchless,” or as close as they can manage.

What to look at in your own car

Yikes, renting a vehicle sounds like a bad idea or at least stressful, you're thinking. But here are some reasons to think twice before driving your own car:

Wear and tear. A long road trip could accelerate your need for future repairs, especially if you head out with a vehicle that's between visits to the shop or already has an intermittent problem. Easy answer: Get service before you set off, even if it throws off your maintenance schedule a bit.

Cost. Here's one way to measure it: In 2020 the IRS allows people to claim deductions of 57.5 cents a mile for business use of a personal vehicle, half a penny less than in 2019. The business figure is supposed to cover the spectrum of costs associated with owning and driving a vehicle.

Forget about the business part and just use the 57.5 cents as a guide. That's $575 for a 1,000-mile trip — fuel, depreciation, insurance and accelerated maintenance from extra wear and tear. You might be able to rent a car for a week for roughly half that, but you'd still have to put gas in the tank.

Lease considerations. In normal times — remember those? — if your personal car was leased, you might rent for a road trip to keep yours from exceeding the mileage limit and having to pay an extra-mileage fee when you turn in your car. But lately because of work-from-home and stay-at-home rules imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19, few people have logged many miles. You might set the mileage-limit consideration aside this time.

Beavis at AMCI Global is a drive-your-own guy: “If you do go, take your own car. You know where it's been."

And you might like it better than anything you could rent, he says.

If you decide to rent an RV, think twice. Yes, they can spare you the worry of finding lodging and wondering if it's free of the coronavirus.

But they are big. A novice driver needs time before a trip to become smooth and skilled, especially at backing up. Most campsites require you to park backed in.

They also gulp fuel compared to regular vehicles — 6 to 12 miles a gallon, depending on their size and the terrain you're driving. Those numbers are likely to be a shock unless you normally pull a trailer behind a pickup.

Do this no matter what

"Whether it's your own car or a rental, you want to be mindful of cleanliness — wipes, paper towels, rubber gloves or work gloves that you put in a bag in the car and only take it out when you need it,” Linkov says.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials list touching surfaces as a threat. Gloves can minimize the chances of picking up the germs of thousands of users at gas pumps and doors to heavily trafficked spots such as convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants and rest stops.

Just be sure to dump the gloves and sanitize your hands before you touch your car's door handle to get back in and resume your travel.

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close up of a gold car parked near the water during sunset

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Shop for a car with safety features you want. Buyers can get a free AARP Smart Driver course.

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