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One-way car rentals are 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 you can be sure it will pass the associated costs on to you. One-way renters are typically 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 which companies offer them, how to minimize the cost and whether special arrangements called "driveaways" could be a less expensive alternative.
Who Offers One-Way Car Rentals?
Most of the major car rental companies offer one-way rentals, though availability varies significantly depending on which company you choose and on where you're traveling. For example, neither National nor Alamo permits one-way rentals in El Salvador, and Enterprise generally allows one-way rentals only within the same metropolitan area or state.
While smaller car rental companies may also offer one-way rentals, you will have the most choice if you rent with a larger chain that has more rental locations. Contact your car rental company or visit its Web site to ask about policies on one-way rentals.
One-way car rentals are pricey due to 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'll still pay more for your one-way rental because of higher base rates for one-way rentals.
We tested prices at the Budget Web site to see how significant the differences were for one-way versus roundtrip rentals. Here are the total prices with taxes and fees for a six-day rental in each of the locations below:
For that last itinerary, Budget displayed a "one-way fee" of $0, so there was no drop-off surcharge -- the sky-high price is simply due to higher base rates for one-way rentals.
Strategies for Saving
No matter what you do, you will almost always pay extra for a one-way rental -- but there are certain strategies you can try to lower your costs.
1. Shop around. We went to Kayak.com and typed in the same itinerary as we'd tried on the Budget Web site above -- and this time we came up with a total price of $298.51 with taxes (on Thrifty), which we verified on Thrifty's Web site. That one extra search saved us nearly $500, and if we'd continued looking we might have found even better deals.
2. Use coupons and discounts. Many of the major car rental companies offer special coupon codes to help you save on one-way rentals. Enter the code during the booking process and the company will knock a certain amount -- typically $25 -- off your total bill. Look for these deals in our Car Rental Deals and on your car rental company's Web site.
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. Call and see what's available.
4. Consider a driveaway. 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.
Most driveaway companies require that drivers be at least 25 years old and have a clean driving record. You will also need to post a cash deposit (usually several hundred dollars), which will be refunded to you when you deliver the car to its final location in good condition.
Most companies recommend that you drive no more than eight hours a day. Allowing time for rest stops, meals and some sightseeing, that usually means about 400 miles -- so the allotted time between New York City and south Florida would be about four days. Some companies impose penalties if you deliver the car late or go outside your maximum mileage allowance.
Driveaways are best for travelers who are flexible about their itinerary and don't mind making plans at the last minute.
To find a local driveaway company, check the listings for auto transport companies in your local phone book. (Keep in mind that not all auto transport companies use non-professional drivers. Be sure to ask if they do driveaways.)
Here are two driveaway companies that serve locations across North America:
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--written by Sarah Schlichter