How can overland travelers save hundreds of dollars in rental-car costs during cross-country or intercity trips? Easy: By linking up with the nationwide network of so-called drive-away companies that use independent travelers to deliver cars to a mutual destination for them.
The deal works like this: Drivers receive free use of the car for a certain number of days and miles in exchange for driving it to an agreed-upon destination by a set date. Besides a small processing fee, usually about $10, that some companies charge, the driver pays only for gasoline.
Example: While traveling recently from Portland, Ore., to New York City, I saved about $1000 in car-rental costs by lining up an auto with a drive-away company and using it for the nine-day trip. My total cost, excluding gasoline: $6.
In fact, not only did I use the drive-away vehicle, a 1991 Toyota Four-Runner with all the luxuries, to tour the country, but I also used it to move many of my personal effects, including a bicycle.
Similarly, I recently drove a drive-away car from San Francisco to Portland for $14, excluding gasoline. A rental would have cost about $110 a day, plus gas.
Certain requirements, which vary among companies, must be met to qualify as a driver. All companies require a current driver's license, and you will probably be asked to show additional identification while filling out their forms. You may be asked about your driving record and you may be fingerprinted. You should be prepared to provide references and telephone numbers for them in both your home city and your destination.
Most companies require a cash deposit of $200 to $350, which is fully refunded after the vehicle is delivered as agreed. Be sure to find out on the phone the company's exact requirements, especially the amount of the cash deposit, before you agree to transport a car for it. Some companies also require that you clean the inside and wash the outside of the vehicle before delivery.
Although drive-away companies can save travelers a lot of money, there are drawbacks. It may be hard to line up a car to your destination within the days you want to travel. You may have to be willing to depart according to their schedule rather than yours. And it's often tough to line up a car to destinations outside metropolitan areas. You'll find it much easier, for instance, to get a car from Chicago to Atlanta than from Chicago to, say, Augusta. So be open to taking the bus or train for the final leg of your journey.
While traveling, you must follow certain rules laid down by the company, such as limits on the time of day during which you can travel. Some companies, for instance, prohibit driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. to ensure that drivers don't crash the car from lack of sleep.
The company may also place restrictions on the routes you can take, but leeway in choosing the route increases with the length of the trip. On my San Francisco-Portland trip, I was required to take Interstate 5. Before leaving on my Portland-New York trip, however, I was allowed to choose the specific route, in consultation with the traffic agent, using the freedom to explore the Blue Highways of the northern states.
Many companies also forbid drivers to eat or drink in the vehicle, which doesn't seem like an unreasonable request until you find yourself in the middle of Oklahoma pining for a cup of strong coffee. While the companies will often insist that you follow such rules on short intercity trips, they may relax them for cross-country trips, acknowledging that you may not be able to avoid driving after 10 p.m. to make your next motel or campsite.
Another drawback is that you must delivery the car to the person or corporation that hired the drive-away company to transport the car. This could leave you stranded at a bus stop in deepest suburbia, a possibility that means you should travel light.
But for the flexible, money-conscious traveler, these drawbacks are minor compared with the benefits of using drive-away companies: inexpensive transportation and the time to drift across the country by car, exploring its cities and countryside.
Chicago-area drive-away companies: Phone numbers and Addresses.