The season for planning a USA road trip seems to start every spring. I receive many enquiries each day about car hire starting on one-side of America and ending on the other, or in Las Vegas! In this article I will share a few points to help you discover how to save money on your car hire. Also the best places to start – if you still have a choice…
Starting Location – Cost
The state where you collect your hire car governs both the weekly rental rate that you will pay for the duration of the hire, and any allowances or restrictions that come with the rental.
For example, if you collect your car hire in California then you will have four drivers on the fully inclusive package for the whole hire even if you are driving all the way to New York. This is due to a state law in California requiring free additional drivers with all rentals. This is the only state where this is universally true of all suppliers. Alamo also interprets state law to include a free additional driver in Nevada, Illinois, Missouri, Oregon and Wisconsin.
California car hire rates are usually the second cheapest in the USA after Florida. So by starting in California you get best value with the rate and the additional drivers.
Conversely, if you start your trip in New York state then you will pay the highest weekly rental rate for the duration of your trip.
On the east coast it is financially better to start in Florida and travel north or west from there.
Starting Location – Choice
Young drivers aged under 25 cannot hire any car larger than a standard category from New York. This eliminates the popular SUV’s and minivans from our Young Driver Package.
Car restriction does not just affect the young drivers though. Convertible cars are rarely available to hire in the northern states, even in summer months. If you plan a trip down Historic Route 66 with the wind blowing through your hair, then you need to start in Los Angeles and head north rather than trying to start in Chicago. An even better reason to drive to Chicago rather than from Chicago is that Dollar has now removed all one-way fees for cars driving to Chicago.
Finally – collect your car from an airport* for the very best choice of vehicles. Because of space issues, airport locations are usually the ‘hub’ for downtown (city) car hire depots. The cars have maintenance and services at the airports and then go to the depots for rental. Downtown locations can be within tight central city blocks, or hotel car parks – with limited stock.
This is particularly important in San Francisco. During the summer months the popular downtown locations get overwhelmed when people try to collect their car. Waits can last 3 hours whilst the low-loaders bring vehicles in 10 at a time. For the biggest choice, particularly of convertibles or SUV’s I always encourage clients to head to the airport if at all possible.
*Chicago O’Hare Airport charges a Customer Facility Charge of $40 per week and $8 per day that is not included within pre-paid rental vouchers from Alamo and National. Alamo and National have a location at 203 North LaSalle that can have better pricing and avoids the CFC charge. I recommend checking this location before making a reservation.
Young Drivers aged 21 – 24
We offer drivers in this age group our Young Drivers Package with Alamo or National. I find young drivers often take longer trips in both distance and duration. The initial cost can look very scary because this price includes all surcharges for up to three drivers aged 21 – 24 years.
Once you recover from the shock, give careful consideration to car size. It is tempting to try and keep costs down by taking a smaller vehicle. But the actual difference between car categories might be as little as £50 or £60 over a long rental. When you are in the back of a small car with your knees around your ears and luggage on your lap for 1,000 miles you might feel a little differently about the value of that extra £50 or £60.
There are many iconic road trip routes and apart from Route 66 as mentioned above, there is what is often called the Golden Triangle. This refers to journeys between California, Nevada and Arizona, but I find San Francisco or Los Angeles to Las Vegas (or vice versa) to be the most popular overall. Suppliers know that cars are on the move between these three states constantly and so there are usually no one-way charges for rentals travelling between these locations. Please see our One-way page for the exceptions to this generalist rule during Summer months.
For other routes, one-way fees apply. The fee is a cost paid directly (in US Dollars) to the car supplier’s depot whose car you displace. The fee is related to how far away your final destination is (not how many miles you may cover as mileage is unlimited) and is set in price bands. If you plan to travel over 1,000 miles it is certainly worth considering which supplier you use. For instance, National has a blanket rate of $399 for all distances, Alamo charges $500 once you cross 1,000 miles – Dollar charges $750 over 1,000 miles. Local sales taxes apply to one-way fees, so allow at least another 20% on top of the stated fee.
If you have children who require car seats then you must comply with state law in each state that you travel through. We have a guide to car seat restrictions here. It is a guide only and was created in 2014. You must check yourself with each state to make sure that you are in compliance.
We have an article about Roadside assistance here, so I won’t repeat it all in this one. I do advise you to give this issue careful consideration before you travel. That way you do not face pressure to make a decision when you collect your car.
Your pre-paid rental voucher provides roadside assistance, but covers mechanical breakdown only, not things like punctures, flat batteries and lost keys. Whilst there is a philosophical/moral argument about who should be responsible if a tyre blows out – the important thing to remember is that the car hire suppliers have decided what they will and will not cover. All that is left is for you to choose if you want to pay a bit extra to include those events not considered ‘mechanical’.
Now you have the nitty-gritty of the most cost effective way to take your trip. You can enjoy the fun part. Plan what you want to see, where you will stay and even where you might eat! Enjoy the planning, and if I can help with any of the nitty-gritty, please don’t hesitate to ask.