One-way car rentals can be one of the priciest propositions in the travel industry. If you drop your car off in a different place than you picked it up, your car rental company has to get the vehicle back to where it belongs -- and it often passes the associated costs on to you. One-way renters may be penalized with high base rates or drop-off surcharges.
Despite the added cost, travelers choose one-way rentals for a variety of reasons: to avoid retracing their steps on vacation, to take the place of an even more expensive flight or to take a cross-country road trip without putting miles on their own car.
If you're considering a one-way car rental, read on to learn how to minimize the cost and whether special arrangements called "driveaways" could be a less expensive alternative.
What Do One-Way Car Rentals Cost?
One-way car rentals are sometimes priced more or less the same as roundtrip rentals, but in many cases you'll have to pay more due to one of two factors: drop-off surcharges and high base rates. The drop-off surcharge, which can add up to hundreds of dollars, is the penalty some companies charge for leaving your vehicle in a different location than where you picked it up. Even if your company doesn't sock you with a drop-off surcharge, you may still pay more for your one-way rental because of higher base rates for one-way rentals.
We tested prices on Kayak.com to see how significant the differences were for one-way vs. roundtrip rentals. Here are the total prices with taxes and fees for a seven-day rental in each of the British locations below:
Pick-up and drop-off in London: $156
Pick-up and drop-off in Birmingham: $163
Pick-up in London and drop-off in Birmingham: $242
The final rate, according to the Europcar website where Kayak found it, includes an unspecified one-way fee.
Changing countries could set you back even more. Check out these price differences (again based on a one-week rental, sourced on Kayak):
Pick-up and drop-off in Paris: $173
Pick-up and drop-off in Barcelona: $137
Pick-up in Paris, drop-off in Barcelona: $810
The cost break-down on the Paris-to-Barcelona rental included $161.93 for the car rental, $134.97 in taxes and a $512.88 "drop charge."
How to Save on a One-Way Car Rental
1. Pay in advance. Many car rental companies, including Hertz, Budget, Europcar and Payless, offer discounts to those who prepay for their rental at the time of reservation rather than when they return the vehicle. Discounts can total up to 35 percent -- but the prepayment is generally nonrefundable, so it's only worth doing if you're sure your plans won't change.
2. Use coupons and discounts. Many of the major car rental companies offer special coupon codes to help you save on various rentals, and sometimes these include one-way rentals (or other offers that might apply, such as senior discounts). To find these, we suggest using an aggregator or booking site such as Kayak or Priceline to figure out which rental companies have the cheapest rates on your itinerary, and then going directly to those companies' websites to browse their coupon codes. You can also use coupon sites such as RetailMeNot.com and Coupons.com.
3. Follow the seasons. At certain times of the year, car rental companies need to move their fleet from one part of the country to another. Just as travelers head south for the winter, rental car fleets generally move down to Florida and other Southern states from New England and other Northern regions. Then, in the spring, there's a mass exodus of vehicles going back up north. If you're headed in the right direction, you could get a good rate on your rental from companies looking to move their vehicles.
For example, on Kayak we found a rate of just $124 for a weeklong April rental starting in Miami and ending in New York City. We tried the same itinerary in July, and the price skyrocketed to $698. Similarly, a rental starting in Phoenix and ending in Seattle was $119 in May, but $644 in November.
4. Consider a driveaway. In the U.S., this is an arrangement -- usually facilitated by a driveaway company -- in which the owner of a car pays for a driver to move his or her vehicle from one location to another. Driveaways can be a great option for flexible travelers looking to take a low-cost road trip without renting a car or putting miles on their own vehicle. The driver typically pays only for lodging, food, tolls and any fuel costs beyond the first tank of gas.
The biggest driveaway company in the U.S. is AutoDriveaway.com, which relocates vehicles around the United States. You must be at least 23 years old and have a clean driving record. You will also need to post a cash deposit of several hundred dollars, which will be refunded to you when you deliver the car to its final location in good condition.
Ontario-based TorontoDriveaway.com is another option, requiring drivers at least 30 years of age with a clean driving record and references. This company also requires a deposit.
You won't have unlimited time for your trip if you're doing a driveaway; the companies will expect the vehicle to be delivered within a set number of days, with some time for rest stops, meals and a little bit of sightseeing. You may be penalized if you deliver the car late or go outside your mileage allowance.
Driveaways are best for travelers who are flexible about their itinerary and don't mind making plans at the last minute.
--written by Sarah Schlichter