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Does Renting a Car For Long Trips Save Money?

Broken town carAfter playing revolving automobiles for most of our adult working lives, we finally realized that buying or trading cars every few years is not a wise use of money. Sure the new car smell is great, but there is really no smell that is worth sacrificing our goals of financial independence. With that in mind, Jim and I are determined to keep driving our current vehicles until it doesn’t make financial sense to do that or one of them dies a permanent death. Our cars are getting older, though, and my question today is whether or not it makes sense and/or saves money to rent a car for long road trips.

Since we live in rural America, we drive a lot! There is absolutely no public transportation where we live unless you are a senior citizen who needs to go to the doctor. We don’t really live close to any major cities, with Denver, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City all being about 7 hours away. Albuquerque is the closest major airport, but it’s still a 4 hour drive to get there.

Sure we could move if it was a huge issue, but the low cost of living, small town atmosphere, and outdoor recreation are some of the reasons we choose to live here. We do like to travel during school breaks, though, and it usually makes more sense to drive. We like to visit southern California at least once a year. To fly out of the local regional airport, it generally costs $1200-$1500 for the three of us. Since it’s only a 12 hour drive, it doesn’t save much time to travel to a major airport either.

Our Cars Are Getting Old

Currently, we have my 2008 Altima with almost 120,000 miles and Jim’s Toyota Tacoma with about 125,000 miles.  We also have an old beater Civic with 205,000 miles that Jim drives locally. His job requires travel between four school districts. He gets reimbursed for mileage at the standard rate of 56 cents per mile, so if the weather is good, the Civic is a much better return on investment than the truck.

I expect our main vehicles to last for at least another 100,000 miles, but I also expect more problems. We already had one breakdown on the way home from a business trip this past summer. I realize any car can break down, but the older a vehicle gets, I feel it’s more likely to have problems.

Rent Vs Drive Our Own Vehicle

Jim has a couple of trips to Denver next month for work. He can either drive his own vehicle and get reimbursed for mileage, or his employer will rent a car and pay for gas. Denver is 425 miles one way. If we add another 3o miles for in city transit, that makes a round trip of  about 880 miles.  If he drives the Altima, gas would cost around $95, and he would get reimbursed $492. On the surface we would make a profit. However, it does put wear and tear on the car. We wouldn’t pocket anything if he gets a rental, but we aren’t risking a breakdown or wearing out tires on our car either.

Renting a Car For Vacation

We are planning a spring break trip to San Diego. A rental car would cost around $200 unless I can find a killer deal. We actually have broken down in a rental car before. Breaking down is never fun. You sometimes have to wait hours for someone to come find you, but with a rental, the tow truck driver brought us a new car. We took off in the new rental, while he hooked up the broken one. We never had to deal with finding a repair shop or paying for service.

Our car might make 20 more trips to San Diego without incident, but if it does break down, we would be forced to find someone to fix it. We could be stuck in some really fun town like Bumble Bee, AZ or Calexico, CA. Worst case scenario is that we’d still have to rent a car and wait for a part to come in, after which we’d have to go reclaim our car.

Renting a Car for Vacation is Still Cheaper Than a New Car

I can hear the arguments from our care free spending days now. My Mom has already started telling me that we need do get a new car. If ours isn’t reliable for long trips, it’s time to trade it in. I am not falling for it.

Even if we rent a car once a year for a vacation at $200 or even $300, it’s still tons cheaper than buying a whole new car. Our cars are perfectly fine for local or short trips. I am just questioning the wisdom of long distance travel with cars that are getting on up there in miles. Of course, I’ve never had a car with this many miles since the old Pontiac I drove in high school, but it certainly didn’t need to go on any road trips! Maybe it’s perfectly fine to take a 12 hour trip in a car with 120,000 miles and I’m just conditioned to think otherwise.

If I only had a crystal ball and could predict breakdowns, it would be simple. As of now, how do you know when it’s smart to get a rental car instead of driving your own vehicle?

Should Jim take a rental or mileage reimbursement for his business trips? Should we rent for a long road trip?

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About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. I have a 12 year old car… so any long road trips? Definitely getting a rental. My 2 cents!

  2. Rent a car! I used to be faced with this very same question when I drove more for business trips. At first I always took my own car and just got reimbursed. But then what happens is that all the things you wouldn’t normally expect to break start not working very quickly. Plus your car (even if it does have a few years or miles on it) just starts to get really old really fast! After about a year and putting some numbers on paper, I said forget it! Now I rent a car every time.

    • 120k miles doesn’t seem like alot, but if he has to go to Denver 5-6 times a year, we’ll be up into high miles before long. I think the rental does make the most sense, but I think he decided to take the car.

  3. After we switch down to 1 car, we’ll probably rent cars a few times per year without hesitation. If Jim’s really worried about something happening on the trip, then go ahead and rent in good conscience. But if you guys want to push it and try for the reimbursement – maybe pay a good mechanic to give it a once over and make sure there’s nothing urgent before he goes. The mileage reimbursement would easily pay for that =)

    • The thing is that he never worries. I’m the worry wart. It might have something to do with my lack of knowledge in anything mechanical, but he would probably set off for cross country in whatever car was available.

  4. My wife and I both drive really old cars — I have a 1996 Honda. She has a 2001 Grand Prix. We don’t take many trips out of town, but we have made a few in the 3-4 hour range. The last few times, we ended up back home with a costly repair bill, because the road trip inevitably broke something loose or caused a leak or some other maintenance issue that was setting us back a hundred dollars or more.

    So a few months ago, we switched to rental cars for any of our out-of-town trips. It works out to be a little pricier upfront — even though the new model rental cars get phenomenal gas mileage, there are extra fees to account for — but we get free roadside assistance, and if the car were to break down, they’ll bring us a new car and let us go on our way. No need to spend half your vacation sitting in a mechanic’s waiting room.

    It also has got the advantage of letting us test drive a wide variety of models (without having a salesman breathing down your neck), since we’re planning on replacing one of our cars in the next year or so. We’ve already decided that we hate the Ford Focus, are okay with the Chevy Cruze, love the Nissan Sentra, and the Mazda 3 was a ton of fun to drive, but has some tricky maintenance issues.

    • That’s a great point about trying it before you buy it. Taking a car for a test drive really doesn’t show you much about how it will feel several hours into a drive.

  5. I can see how an older vehicle gives you hesitation when going on a long trip. Ours are getting up there in years as well. I take renting a car on trips/vacations from a different perspective – it’s part of the fun of the trip. Driving a different vehicle somehow makes the trip more exciting. And the kids love it.

    • We somehow ended up somehow getting one of those smaller Cadillac SUV’s for a rental one time. It was super sweet and I felt like a high roller.

  6. I don’t think that renting a car is a bad idea. We’ve had older cars before and it can be scaring taking one for a long trip! Better be safe than sorry, right?

    • It’s one thing to break down on the road as adults, but to break down with a kid would be horrible, although I bet she’d think it was fun to ride in the tow truck.

  7. It sounds like having Jim’s employer pay for his trip would be a good option. I also have never thought about renting a car for a long drive for vacation…definitely an interesting idea! Both our cars are pretty unreliable and I would be hesitant to driving it for longer trips like visiting my relatives in Des Moines 4 hours away.

    • I never really thought about it either until they offered to rent a car for this next trip. It does seem to make some sense.

  8. I think Jim should just rent a car. It is a long trip as you said, so using another car can be a better option for him because older cars tend to have more problems when it gets used too much for too long, just like any old car.

  9. We did exactly this going to FINCON this year…..we rented a car for $200 – for that we got peace of mind that we had a more reliable vehicle as we drove across the country, and less wear and tear on our aging vehicle. I’d definitely do it again!

  10. My vote is to rent a car. Peace of mind is pretty priceless!

    • I think we will for our vacation trip. If you break down on a business trip, it would suck, but you aren’t missing your vacation!

  11. So… what exactly is “pubic transportation”? 🙂
    I’ve rented a car in Miami for $20 a day. I’d do it the hybrid way: rent a $20 car, and pocket the $300-odd profit. But if I had a conscience, I would rent the car, it is a lot of miles to put on an old car.

  12. My vote is to rent a car for long family trips. Peace of mind, plus you don’t add the wear and tear to your vehicles. Tougher call on Jim’s trip. Assuming he never loses cell reception on his trip and his car runs well, I would probably drive my car and put the reimbursement money towards my new car fund/repair old car fund.

  13. My car is over 10 years old with over 240k miles on it. It is a camry and I try to keep it properly maintained at all times. I really don’t want to get a new car since this one is still good but I will have to start shopping for one soon especially since I do a lot of driving.

  14. I vote for the rental. I just drove my wife over to Utah and I commented that we should have a rented a car. Last time I rented a car, it cost $67 one way. That’s a lot of miles to keep off your vehicle for a low cost. I did that last minute, so I didn’t even have a chance to try and get it lower.

    • It does seem to be making more sense to keep our old cars for local travel and rent a nice shiny one for long road trips.

  15. We thought about going the rental route before our trip to Texas last summer but we ended up buying a new car just before the trip.. the timing just worked out, as our family of five was bulging at the seams in our old vehicle.

  16. I’m team rent-a-car too. Seems like the more practical option and could save a lot of money in the long run. You could do a spin-off post about the up-sales they try to get you with when renting and whether or not to take the renter’s insurance!

  17. I would go with the rental. The measly repayment you receive is not enough to justify the wear and tear. Plus, I love driving rental cars as I get to pretend I have a new car temporarily!

    Also, the vacation rental is smart. If you can get a great weekly rate for a rental with unlimited miles, the $200-$300 you spend on the rental is nothing compared to the fact that you’re saving your own car from further damage.

    Also, a 2008 ain’t old! My 2002 Corolla is still going strong. It has over 176,000 miles and only has so few because the last 4.5 years it’s lived a city life without daily commuting. As long as you keep up with the recommended maintenance, your card should last a while longer. 🙂

    • I believe it should be good until at least 200K miles. I just don’t think I want to take long trips in it, especially since it usually requires driving across reservations with no cell service to get anywhere west or south of where we live.

  18. We usually always rent for long trips. I don’t want to put the mileage on my car, plus when we travel like that, we usually have a lot of stuff. We tend to get a bigger vehicle for space and I get a nice discount because I know a manager of a car rental place. I get a great deal and like not having to worry about wear and tear on my car.

  19. I have a pretty long commute…80 miles to work…so I’ve put on quite a few miles. I have 125,000 miles on my 2009 Hyundai Sonata but I still consider it relatively new. 2008 Altima isn’t too old. I think many cars can last 200,000 miles and beyond these days with good maintenance. Sucks that the trade in value will be nothing by the time I get a newer car though. But I often wonder whether it’s best to rent a car for a long road trip as I don’t want to add more wear and tear on my vehicle.

  20. I can see how this might save money in the long run – especially if you can usually commute to work, as you don’t have to think about year long insurance, servicing and MOT costs… just running the car for the short amount of time you have it.

  21. I’m getting ready to take a 16 hour road trip alone in a 9 year old car with 180,000 miles on it. I am really careful with maintaining the car, and I have a cell phone. I’m hoping to keep the car for at least three more years. Once it hits 200,000 I will start renting a car for road trips. It’s probably worth it for your hub to rent for his work trips. But with proper maintainable, you should be fine for another year or so.

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