Is Renting a Vehicle for a Long Road Trip Worth It? Our Math Says Yes

Hertz Rental Car Counter.  Photo by mrkathika.In the next few weeks, I’m going on a lengthy road trip with my wife, my children, and my parents. We’re going to visit several relatives that are spread out all over the southern part of the United States. Along the way, we’re planning longer stops in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, the New Orleans area, and the Memphis area (in fact, if you’d like to have me speak at your library or other event in one of those areas in early June, contact me).

Our trip, as currently planned, is 2,548 miles in length – and that doesn’t include the inevitable driving around in local areas or any side trips we decide to take along the way. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s fairly intimidating.

Originally, our plan for the trip had involved taking two vehicles – our Prius and my parents’ car. From our perspective, this was a good idea, since the Prius gets great gas mileage, but my parents’ car doesn’t do as well.

As we discussed the trip more, we came to the realization that it made much more sense to drive in one vehicle, for several reasons.

First, one vehicle at 20 miles per gallon consumes the same amount of gas as two vehicles at 40 miles per gallon. In short, even if one of the vehicles is our Prius, we’re still better off purely in terms of gas driving a minivan.

Second, maintenance costs over 2,500 miles are significant. The average car has 5.3 cents per mile in maintenance costs beyond fuel – oil, transmission fluid, coolant, tires, and so on. That’s a total of $132.50 per vehicle over the trip.

Third, 2,500 miles on your vehicle is 2,500 miles of depreciation. Again, the average car depreciates roughly $0.20 per mile – this is very hard to precisely estimate, but it’s a real value. Again, by reducing to one vehicle, we save $500 in depreciation. Note, here, that depreciation includes major repairs and other such factors.

Fourth, two cars means double tolls. On our trip, assuming no detours, each car would be paying somewhere around $15 in tolls. Reducing to one car saves another $15.

In total, we realized that we would save roughly $650 by using just one vehicle on this trip – and that assumes no fuel savings and also assumes no detours, no construction, and no environmental impacts.

At that point, we really beat the pavement to accelerate the purchase of our second vehicle. The problem, though, was that we couldn’t find a vehicle we really wanted.

So, finally, my wife raised the question: would it be cheaper to just rent a van for this trip?

The trip is scheduled to be nine days in length. I did some calling around to local rental services and found several vans that could be rented for $400-500 for the length of the trip – unlimited miles.

So, let’s look at the math. We would save depreciation on two vehicles ($1,000), maintenance on two vehicles ($265), toll on one vehicle ($15), and a small amount of fuel savings, too, for $400. That’s a total savings of $880.

In order to make sure there wouldn’t be any nasty surprises, I contacted our auto insurance provider, who told us that coverage while driving the rental would be essentially identical (in terms of our cost) to coverage if we were driving our own car. Thus, no need for the additional cost of rental car coverage.

Thus, for our purposes, the decision has been made – we’re going to rent for this long road trip and split the cost. This choice will save us $440 and also save our parents $440.

Sometimes, thinking outside the box a bit can save you a surprising amount of money.

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