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Renting and Buying Cars
Plus pros and cons of driving

Tips and cautions

Travelling in peak season means booking accommodation ahead of time in the most popular areas. But, planning auto travel can be a problem.

Sure, it is easy to say, "We'll drive an average of seven hours each day," but soon you will not want to.

Cars offer maximum freedom, but can be tiring and monotonous to drive long distances when the scenery does not vary much, and expensive to boot.

If travelling across the prairie hour after hour becomes boring, the bus or train passenger can relax with a good book or even watch a movie on the train in the evening. In the car, however, someone has to keep her eyes on the road.

Travelling by car, though, permits inexpensive camping, which is not easy to do if travelling by airline, bus, or train.

And, accessing other budget accommodation is made easier by car. Furthermore, except in large cities and some places where auto travel is banned, reaching many places is easier with "wheels".


General hints

Cost may be a factor in the choice of transportation.

Although the cost of using a car may be prohibitive throughout a trip, renting cars at various points along an air, bus, or train itinerary may be the way to go.

In fact, Dr. Voyageur highly recommends this.

Using cheap one-way flights in combination with car rental permits a traveller with limited time to visit many more areas of North America. You get to focus on specific regions.


Renting cars

Lower weekend rates generally start at 12 Noon Thursday and end at 12 Noon Monday.

Rental companies vary by the amount of free miles included in the rental contract. Most offer unlimited miles at selected locations.

The lowest rates almost always require some advance booking, although you can try Priceline.com Rental Cars as well as Hotwire.com just prior to travelling for major airport locations and some city centre locations in the States.

Do not show up at a rental counter without a reservation and expect budget rates.

You will be sorry!

Travellers booking last minute airline Internet only weekend fares usually have access to related car and hotel deals, however.

Travellers with certain American Express or "Gold" bank issued credit cards may not need to pay the so-called "optional" collision insurance, which can run up to U.S. $20.00 per day. Check with your card issuer. Some travellers may have coverage through their own auto insurance company, but this is often nebulous.

Without credit card company coverage or personal coverage, be very careful about declining collision insurance, as the you may be liable for the full value of the rental vehicle—as calculated by the rental company—in case of a serious accident.

Another consideration for all rentals is the age of the driver.

In many areas—New York City, for example—drivers under 25 will have difficulty finding any cars available.

Always inquire about minimum age requirements, and, if applicable, the policies regarding having more than one driver.

Both priceline.com (Rental Cars) and Hotwire.com and rent to drivers 21 years old or over, instead of 25 or over. Hotwire takes Canadian and U.S. credit cards. Priceline accepts just ones with U.S. billing addresses.

At the time of booking, if you do not have an American or Canadian driver's licence, be sure to check that yours will be accepted.

Rental companies want drivers with a credit card with lots of credit available (The companies get authorization for amounts well above the expected rental charge, which can use up credit needed for other purposes).

If you do not have a credit card, be sure to check what cash deposit is required (which can vary with the age of the driver). Also, prospective drivers may face a check of their driving records posted in various insurance data bases.

Taxes and fees also should be gone over. These can really add up, especially in places like New York.

Various airports have instituted charges both for picking up a car on airport property and for having a van pick up a renter at the airport terminal and taking her or him to a rental car office off the airport grounds.

Sometimes these taxes can be avoided by picking up the vehicle 24 hours or more after arrival at the airport or by renting the vehicle at a non-airport location.

The rental rates themselves vary considerably by region. In peak seasons like spring break, you may not be able to find any rental cars available in parts of Florida at the last minute.


Picking the best rental company

For short weekend trips in or near an urban area, you may wish to grab the least expensive car available.

For weekly rentals that take you far from your rental location, on the other hand, use a company like Hertz with extensive nationwide coverage.

Otherwise, if your car breaks down, quite some time may pass before a replacement is available and you will likely not be compensated for meals and accommodation while waiting. All cars—even your own—break down at times, the companies say, so why should they compensate you? After all, you were able to drive from the rental location!

Also, if applicable, check on the policy regarding taking a car from Canada into the U.S. or from the U.S. into Canada. Some rental contracts in Florida, too, will not allow vehicles to be taken out of state. Check on this. Driving into Mexico is generally not allowed in a rental car.

Canadian citizens may not legally rent a U.S. car and use it in Canada. More accurately, they may bring one in, but must immediately exchange it for a Canadian vehicle at a Canadian rental location. Check with Customs Canada for the latest information.

Weekly rentals usually require a minimum use of five 24 hour periods. If returned early—even just an hour early—contracts may require payment of a much higher daily rate.

The number of free miles is an essential consideration. You should be able to find rentals with unlimited miles, although this is getting more difficult, as the profits of rental companies have not been robust in recent years.

Both week-end and weekly rates are usually better if booked ahead. Booking one week or more in advance for weekly rates is a common requirement.


Leasing a car

Because weekly rates are often limited to four weeks maximum, leasing should be considered for longer rentals.

Again, the number of free miles is a key consideration, as is the wide availability of service.

Monthly leasing may save you most of the taxes you would have to pay on weekly rentals.

Avis, Hertz, and National all offer leasing plans.

Leasing through a car dealer is an option, but what happens if the car breaks down? In general, we must wait for repair at an associate dealer, instead of receiving an immediate replacement. And, waiting for repair can take some time if exotic parts must be ordered in small town Canada or USA.


Buying a car

Buying a car may be an appealing option, especially if the traveller is already going to school or working in North America and thus has ample time to explore alternatives.

Knowing how to do minor vehicle repairs may be a determining factor in whether or not we risk driving a newly purchased "pre-owned" car on a long trip.

Be aware that in general used car dealerships do not enjoy a high ethical reputation in North America. The excellent film "Breaking Away" showed a typical view of this industry. However, stricter laws may be helping.

Always check out a dealer with the Better Business Bureau at no cost to you, or with your local auto club.

For new cars, according to one survey, Saturn dealers have the best reputation in terms of customer satisfaction with the car buying experience.

Note, however, that other dealers will bargain; Saturn dealers sell at a fixed price, which many Americans and Canadian like as they are not used to bargaining.

To get an idea of what you should pay, check the Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, and NADA websites. Check all of them.

If purchasing, purchase well. Itineraries in North America often involve very strenuous driving—You want good tires, a good transmission, and good brakes.

And, remember that adequate liability insurance is an essential part of the cost.

Having an accident without insurance that protects other drivers may lead to incarceration and a massive fine. If deaths result, the driver judged guilty could be locked up for years.


Joining an auto club

One reason to buy a car in good condition is to not be at the mercy of roadside repair shops and towing firms of unknown reputation. But, even the best vehicles may break down.

Therefore, whether renting or buying, membership in a provincial or state chapter of the American Automobile Association (AAA) or Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) is an excellent idea.

Besides providing good maps and hotel and camping guides to its members, the AAA/CAA provides minor roadside service as part of the membership fee (including lockout service). If significant repair is required, AAA/CAA will tow our vehicle to a shop whose good reputation has been verified (The various chapters have different policies on how far their trucks will tow). In addition, AAA/CAA membership brings with it significant discounts on car rentals, including excellent one-way ones from Hertz, etc.

To join, you need a Canadian or U.S. address.

Chapter fees vary with the type of climate and amount of member abuse of the services found in each area (New York state scores low on both counts with resultant high membership costs). Clubs in rural regions tend to cost less.

Check out the American Automobile Association and Canadian Automobile Association websites for more details and links to provincial and state affiliates. The AAA site will ask for your postal code. If you do not yet have a U.S. code, use 90210.

Other auto clubs exist, but the AAA/CAA ones are the best. Dr. Voyageur particularly likes the quality of the free maps available to members. AAA/CAA membership, by the way, brings discounts on accommodation, rental cars, major tourist attractions, etc.

Learn about the pros and cons of othe travel methods:
Go To >> Coach travel
Go To >> Rail travel
Go To >> Driving RVs
Go To >> Hiking

 
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