Nothing Parties Like a Rental (Car)

To rent or not to rent?

To rent or not to rent a car for a road trip? As our annual 2000-mile road trip/camping vacation approaches, we’ve been crunching the numbers on car rentals.

For most of the last seven years, we’ve rented for the trek as part of our frugal approach to car ownership. We drive older cars and Neil does almost all the maintenance and repairs himself. So we usually rent in order to avoid the wear and tear of such a long journey. It’s a strategic move, carefully calculated to save money in the long run. And of course it doesn’t suck to enjoy a nice, new ride on vacation.

Yet our “new” van feels so luxurious and road-trip-ready, we both felt the itch to bypass renting this year. Reality check: our “new” van is actually 13 years old and has around 150,000 miles. Even if it were brand-new, would it make sense to drive it that far?

Here’s how we see it: if the cost of wear and tear on your vehicle is greater than the cost or renting (or even close), it makes sense to spare your daily ride and rent instead. How can you calculate the cost of wear and tear? The government currently pays $0.58 per mile which includes fuel. Subtract the cost of fuel for your vehicle and you have approximate wear and tear. Or AAA estimates around $0.61 including fuel and insurance.

Our van gets around 22 miles per gallon. If gas costs around $2.20 right now, we’ll spend about $0.10 per mile on fuel, leaving $0.48 per mile of wear and tear. So that’s:

$0.58 – (Price of gas per gallon/miles per gallon) = price of wear and tear per mile.

Multiply that by the total number of miles for your approximate cost of driving your own vehicle.

Or if that seems too rich, take a highly conservative estimate of $0.25 wear and tear per mile. Maybe you won’t spend as much on vehicle maintenance because you DIY. Or maybe your own car gets way better gas mileage than what you’d rent. Even with the more conservative figure, it rarely makes sense to drive your own vehicle on very long trips.

For our van, we’d put somewhere between $500 to $960 worth of wear during a 2,000 trip. We can definitely rent a car for less than $500 for our 10-day trip.

While renting a car sounds like an extra and unnecessary expense, it can really reduce the cost of car ownership throughout the year (and over the life of the vehicle). And if you DIY, you’ll also be spreading out the impact of the time you spend working on your vehicle. Breaking down on a long trip is always inconvenient–but much more so if you’ve got to stop and fix your own vehicle, rather than just swap out one rental for another.

And of course it’s quite a luxury to drive a newer vehicle that’s loaded with features. It makes vacation a little more fun. Plus we enjoy not needing to give it a deep cleaning and oil change immediately upon returning from camping and driving 2000 miles with little kids!

How can you save on the cost of renting? We’ve found that renting an SUV is much less expensive than renting a minivan. Until this year, we’ve fit into an SUV. This year with 3 kids plus camping gear we’ll have to splurge on the minivan rental. But using a Costco discount we were able to rent for $420–still coming in under the conservative estimate of $500 cost of driving our car.

In the past, we’ve saved by cashing in travel rewards from renting cars for work, or collected rental car company coupons throughout the year (also from work). Like so many things, it’s best to shop around, look for coupons or promotions, and book in advance.

Our camping vacation is rather expensive and inefficient in many ways, but our $420 vehicle rental (the most we’ve ever spent) is still cheaper than flying 4 people to our destination. And driving means we can bring all our camping gear, and our camp site cost for the week equals 1-2 nights in a hotel in the same city.

We do hope to be able to fit in an SUV again in a couple years when we’re not bringing a pack n play, stroller, infant carrier, and high chair along. We’ll see if we’re ever able to downsize again!

Have you ever considered renting a car to save money? Do you have any trips coming up?

5 Responses to “Nothing Parties Like a Rental (Car)”

  1. Tonya says :

    I would have never thought to do this in the past until I started reading other PF bloggers doing it as an option. It makes sense though! I don’t do many car vacations and the one I did do my friend had a brand new car. I’ll let you know when it comes up. Either way, sounds fun!

    • Kalie says :

      I never would have thought we’d save by renting until I saw the math! We started renting because we couldn’t take all the gear with our kid in our 2-door car. Then we realized it was way smarter financially for our situation. However, if you’re traveling alone and get good deals on flights, that could be the more cost effective option. Having to buy 4 plane tickets puts us in a whole different category now.

  2. Robin says :

    A very sensible and pragmatic approach but also with some nice benefits that put you right into holiday mode!
    Thanks for the tip!

  3. Daniel Brooks says :

    I would think a SUV would be larger than a Minivan. Of course, by today’s standards a RAV4 is considered to be a SUV… So I’m guessing that’s what you meant by the size and price difference? Also, I like the point you (briefly) touched on about the vehicle being a rental: If something goes wrong with it, the rental company is responsible, not you. That is if you get the right insurance package, which I think would be well worth it.

    • Kalie says :

      You’re right, there’s a huge range of sizes of SUVs. However, we are upsizing because we need room for 3 car/booster seats, and minivans have the best layout for that. Also, we want the option to drive an extra friend or two on outings while we’re at our destination. It’s a whole new world with three kids.

      And yes, it’s great not having to worry too much about problems with the vehicle!

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