6 Ways to Get Around on Vacation and Avoid Sky-High Car Rental Costs

A woman hangs her head out the window to catch the breeze of the moving car she is in.
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Just as folks are ready to travel again, the soaring price of rental cars is making some vacations cost prohibitive. As of mid-May, in New York City and Jacksonville, Fla., a midsize SUV costs $193 a day to rent, while the same car rental is $249 a day in Indianapolis. And these prices are before taxes and fees.

When the pandemic put the brakes on business and pleasure travel, rental car companies sold thousands of rental cars that were sitting empty on their lots. Now there is a big shortage of rental cars, and prices are through the sunroof. Some travelers are even turning to renting U-Hauls and trucks from home improvement stores in cities where a rental car isn’t available, no matter what the price.

Mary Zweng is one of thousands of people experiencing sticker shock from rental car prices. Her daughter is having a small wedding in Napa Valley, Calif., in June. Zweng reserved a car rental in March for $60 a day in San Francisco.

“That was for my husband and me. I called in May to reserve one for my son and the price has more than doubled,” she said. “I’m worried they might not even have cars left to rent in San Francisco if other guests wait until the last minute to book.”

There are actually plenty of ways to get around on vacation without overspending with the traditional car companies. Don’t let the cost of car rentals make you cancel your trip or spend money you don’t have.

Here are 6 Alternatives to Traditional Car Rental Companies

1. Try a Car Sharing Company

Think Airbnb, but for cars. Clients access privately owned cars through an app or website. Car owners must have insurance coverage and required maintenance on their vehicles. Drivers who rent must meet standards similar to what traditional car rental companies require such as a valid driver’s license.

This is a proven concept in the sharing economy. Ten-year-old Turo is a national car sharing company while 11-year-old Getaround is in more than a dozen major cities. Some markets have their own car-sharing alternatives such as Colorado’s eGo CarShare in Denver and Boulder and Hui Car Share in Hawaii.

Here’s the cost of renting with car-sharing companies Turo and Getaroud compared to two traditional rental car companies for a four-day weekend rental in June in Chicago.

  • Turo

$50 a day for a 2018 Ford Escape SUV

$39 a day for a 2010 Toyota Corolla

  • Getaround

$61 a day for a 2016 Ford Escape

$47.50 a day for a 2013 Toyota Corolla

  • Hertz

$249 a day for a newer car similar to a Ford Escape

$108 a day for a newer car similar to a Toyota Corolla

  • Dollar

$249 a day for a newer car similar to a Ford Escape

$91 a day for a newer car similar to a Toyota Corolla

Turo and Getaround offer 24-hour roadside assistance if the customer or the car’s owner has opted for it.

Some airports won’t let Turo vehicle owners and renters exchange keys at the airport so you may have to arrange to pick up your car at a nearby location.

2. Try Zipcars Instead of Rental Car Companies

Zipcar is traditionally for people who think car ownership is overrated but need access to a vehicle for a few hours. The company, which is owned by Avis Budget Group, is especially popular with college students who don’t have their own vehicle, to grab a car on campus and use it for running errands. A special access code allows customers to unlock cars with their phone.

But now the daily rate of a Zipcar can be cheaper than what traditional rental companies are charging for cars.

Zipcars generally cost $11 an hour and $80 to $90 a day.  Even if you have to join Zipcar and pay the membership fee of $7 the month you rent, this is an alternative for saving extra cash on your vacation.

3. Borrow a Friend’s Car

Lara Cerri recently made a last minute trip from Phoenix to the Tampa Bay area for a friend’s memorial service. She let a few friends in her former stomping ground know she was flying in for a week and soon had alternatives to renting a car.

“Before I knew it, I had a friend on each side of the bay offer to let me use their car,” Cerri said. “I didn’t have to rent at all. It was so lovely of them.”

Since both owners and Cerri have insurance even if there was an accident, the car would be covered.

The lesson here is to spread the word that you will be in town and ask if anyone has a car they aren’t using, even if nobody offers. Just be sure to fill up the tank with gas when you return it as a thank you to the car’s owner and don’t expect roadside assistance at 2 a.m.

4. Vacation in a City with Good Public Transportation

You won’t need to worry about car rentals if you can get around on light rail, trolleys, streetcars, busses or underground. Not only are you avoiding the cost of renting a car, you save money by not paying for gas or parking.

Many cities have mass transit options for getting from the airport to the center of town as well as to popular locations and off-the-beaten path spots. Some are free while other cities offer a pass for around $5 a day that allows you to ride as often as you like.

And there’s no shortage of rental bikes in a major city or small town. Hundreds of locations have self-service bike rental stations. Many also have self-serve stations for renting e-bikes, which can assist the rider to reach 20 to 28 miles per hour on average with moderate pedaling depending on the style of bike.

5. Take A Bus or Shuttle to Visit Numerous Places

Instead of relying on renting a car to go from one vacation location to another, take the bus. For example, busses depart Boston throughout the day and night for various spots along Cape Cod for around $50 a person round-trip.

Even for a family of four going to the Cape for three days after a historic Boston weekend this saves money. It’s better to spend $200 for everyone to get there and back than $200 a day for a car rental equaling $600 over three days.

On the opposite coast, it costs $30 round trip to take Greyhound from Los Angeles to San Diego while a standard four-door car rental in Los Angeles is around  $170 a day.

6. Fly Discount Airlines Instead of Renting a Car to Reach a Second Location

Apply the same thought process from above to flying. Don’t pay $600 for a three-day car rental to reach your second destination. Fly instead and let the airlines buy the gas. Many airlines have one-way trips for $19 to $50. Here are tips for finding cheap flights, one of the fastest alternatives to driving.

Katherine Snow Smith is a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder.