Parenting: Traveling With Kids - Renting a Car

Renting a car for that road trip saves your personal vehicle miles and wear.
July 7, 2010 8:52:24 AM PDT
While driving is often cheaper than flying, especially for a large group, the thought of weighing down the family car and plowing across thousands of miles of sun-baked highway can be a little worrisome, when it comes to the beating this sort of thing will give your car.

If hot weather requires you to blast the A/C most of the way, the wear will be even worse.

For these reasons, it's probably worth considering whether using a rental car for the voyage makes sense. It will likely add another $400 - $600 to your budget for every week of the trip, assuming you require a minivan, but you may find the expense is justified by the break it gives your personal vehicle's odometer. A rental also makes sense if you don't have a car with enough room for everyone to spread-out. Also, a rental may be newer and more reliable than Old Bessie out in the driveway. For kids, the prospect of traveling in a shiny, newer vehicle can also add to the fun of the drive.

Keeping your rental pristine will probably be impossible, especially with kids, and I wouldn't sweat the inevitable, messy little accident. But before you turn the car in, have the kids help retrieve any lost raisins or bits of Good N' Plenty that were crammed into the seats along the way, and try to clean-up any serious spills, too, so that the inspector at the drop-off doesn't give you a hard time.

Special Memories

This is not to say that rentals are always an upgrade. We've rented about two dozen vehicles over the years on our many fly-and-drive vacations. Among the more memorable? The minivan that had just come back from a fishing trip (and smelled like it), and the one with the moth. The very large Midwestern moth. I thought my wife was going to kick out the windshield when it flew out of the air-conditioning vent as I was motoring down the interstate. Like rental homes, you never know what you're going to get until you actually get into a rental car. Most of the time, however, our rentals have been moth-free.

No Limits

There are a few things to keep in mind if you rent. First, make sure your rental has unlimited miles. This might seem obvious, but I've found that it's easy to lose focus during those long internet hunts for the best deal. Before you pull the trigger, make sure you haven't overlooked this essential detail. A limited mile contract will almost certainly cost you hundreds of extra dollars. What's more, you'll probably spend far too much of your vacation worrying about it. Once you've got the no-worries deal lined up, though, take as much advantage of it as you like. We sure did. We once drove from Philadelphia to Montana and back over a 16-day period in a minivan we rented through Priceline.com at Philadelphia International Airport. 6,000 miles later, we returned the unlimited-mileage van with no questions asked. I almost felt like a criminal, considering what a "steal" that deal was. This was a few years ago, but I doubt we paid more that about $600 for the two weeks. Meanwhile, the tires, engine, and suspension on our personal vehicles got a major break.

I'm a big fan of comparison shopping for rentals online and trying to find the best deal. But in general, I would stick with well-known, national outfits. There's a good reason for this. Should you have an accident or a mechanical problem along the way, you stand a much better chance of getting quick service and a replacement car, if yours is one of those rental companies with offices and vehilces all over the place.

Pay attention to the gas mileage you can expect from any rental. Going bigger may also mean you wind up spending a lot more on gas than you were planning, and no one likes unpleasant surprises once those charge bills come in. I had this experience once in Colorado, where the rental company offered me a free upgrade from a minivan to a large SUV, which was great---until we pulled-up to the gas pump and realized how many thousands of gallons we had just burned to drive a lousy five hours. To say that car blew our budget a bit is an understatement.

To Insure Or Not To Insure?

You can usually skip that expensive car insurance the rental companies offer, assuming you have rental coverage on your personal car's insurance policy. Call you insurer and check. In most cases, if you have coverage that supplies a rental in case of an accident, that same clause also covers rentals in general. It might even be worth adding that clause to your policy, if only for the trip. The rental clause on my car insurance policy, for example, costs me dollars a year, while a rental company's insurance costs those same dollars every day. There are some exceptions. Some companies, for example, will not cover problems outside the U.S.. You should make sure your policy follows you to Quebec, for example. And by the way, if you fly outside the country and then rent, the same rule applies. Check with your insurer about coverage. There's nothing worse than having an accident in, say, Costa Rica, and having to haggle over expensive repairs that aren't covered.

Keeping your rental pristine will probably be impossible, especially with kids, and I wouldn't sweat the inevitable, messy little accident. But before you turn the car in, have the kids help retrieve any lost raisins or bits of Good N' Plenty that were crammed into the seats along the way, and try to clean-up any serious spills, too, so that the inspector at the drop-off doesn't give you a hard time.

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