Look, it’s summer and who knows where you are today. But if at one point you happen to be there, and you want really to see and understand some important truths about the United States of America, there is nothing like forgetting about the plane and hitting the road. Stay off the Interstate and make your way across the country on local and state roads, stopping frequently in small towns along the way, not just to sleep and eat but to walk around town and talk to people. Try to find bed-and-breakfasts instead of hotels. You will find a warm reception. And you can do it for next to nothing.
Here is a posting about how you can make that work. I did it myself, starting in LA, then hitching up to Missoula Montana where I picked up a VW Bug, which I then drove west to east across our great and sprawling country, all the way to State College Pennsylvania. Once there I turned over the car to a grateful owner, then hit the road again and hitched my way back to New York City. That was 1963 and was an unforgettable experience. And what is great is that you can do it in 2011. Have a look. See America. You will never think about it again in the same way.
Renting a car for a road trip is expensive, especially with hefty one-way fees. There’s a much cheaper alternative, if you’re flexible and a little adventurous.
Auto Driveaway isn’t the only company that does this, but it’s one of the oldest (since 1952) and one of the biggest, with locations in 28 states.
Toronto Driveaway has fewer destinations available but offers trips to and from Canada. For other options, you can try calling companies in MoveCars.com’s listings or look in the phone book under something like “automobiles – transporters and driveaways.” Note, however, that most car delivery companies use trucks or professional drivers to transport cars.
Before they turn over the keys, Auto Driveaway has a few requirements. But all things considered, they’re not asking much to let you drive off in somebody else’s car. Here’s how it works:
- Requirements. You must be at least 23, have a license and a valid passport if you’re a foreign citizen, and have a copy of your clean driving record, which is available from your state DMV for $5-10 or can be printed at the Auto Driveaway office.
- Deposit. A security deposit of $350-400 is required, and refunded after you arrive safely at the destination.
- Restrictions. These are common sense – no eating, smoking, or alcohol, and no all-night driving. You may not be able to use the trunk space, because the owners are allowed to fill it with their stuff. Friends can come along (and that can help you cut costs more) but if they’re driving, they have to give details up front just like you.
- Gas. The first tank’s free, but you can’t return the car on empty. Otherwise, you’re on your own. For a Miami-to-LA trip, you’re probably looking at over $500: 2,800 miles, assuming 20 mpg and $3.75/gallon.
- Distance. The trip could be coast-to-coast or as little as 200 miles. While there is a deadline and mileage limit, they leave wiggle room for drivers wanting to take a leisurely pace and detours. You should be fine doing 400 miles a day.
- One-way. There’s no guarantee that once you reach your destination there’s going to be another car headed back where you came from. You may have to wait a while, and the site only updates the car and destination list once a week, so you have to call for more accurate listings.
* Click here for explanatory video – http://blip.tv/mtn/driving-cross-country-for-free-5401997
Obviously, driveaways aren’t for everybody. You have to be flexible, adventurous, and trustworthy. If you’re going to stick with renting, here’s 5 Tips for a Better Deal on Rental Cars. But with some clever houseswapping or couchsurfing, driveaways can make for an almost-free road trip.
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And when you complete your trip and catch your breath, I hope you will write it up and share it with us. Tell us all what you saw and learned. Good and less good, eh?