Should I Rent a Car

As we get ready for our annual trip to Columbia, Missouri we came across a money decision that I did not think I would encounter as a vehicle owner.  During our annual trips we have taken the Amtrak train, driven our own vehicle, and rented a car.  My desire to crunch a few numbers and our car getting stolen a couple years back made me realize that a car rental just might be a smart financial decision for short trips in time frame, but long on the miles.  A great example might be a short road trip to see family in Missouri over a long weekend.  Which leads into my post today should I rent a car, when I own a car?

A few factors to consider can easily be broken down into 4 categories:  Gas Mileage Cost, Rental Car CostWear and TearSafety and Needed Repairs.  I will go over each one in detail to figure out if you should rent a car on your next road trip.*

Gas Mileage Cost

Above and beyond this should be the first question you ask yourself.  How much will it cost to drive to my destination and back?  I am going to make the assumption you own a vehicle so the first thing you should calculate is your own vehicle gas mileage costs.  If you are driving a Toyota Prius, 53 mpg city, it would be hard to find any vehicle that would beat this in gas mileage, but it certainly is possible with a Nissan Leaf at 103 mpg city for example, however I have not seen this a rental option.

The way to calculate your gas mileage costs will be to figure out your vehicle’s current gas mileage, average cost of gas on our trip, amount of miles roundtrip, and the car rental’s gas mileage.

First thing is your own vehicle’s gas mileage.  This can be done one of two ways; simple search for your year, make, and model via the internet in all its wisdom will give you a breakdown of your vehicle including gas mileage.


Since the internet is filled with every website and app you can possibly imagine, I decided to dive in a little more and came across Gas Buddy, which is the website used for my calculations moving forward.

Using the Trip Calculator I was able to enter a few details including Start and End Cities, Chicago and Columbia, enter the year, make, and model of the vehicle I was going to use and Gas Buddy not only populates the cost of the trip, but suggests gas stations that offer the best gas prices along your route(also important as we use mid-grade gasoline).  The total cost for my gas guzzling adventure mobile came to $114.71(this will vary based on gas prices from day to day).


Example of Gas Buddy Trip Calculator

After you have this cost it’s best to compare your rental vehicle information to receive your total trip cost to compare.  Usually when renting a car they give you very high level vehicle types, but it’s pretty safe to enter that vehicle they suggest and the most recent year available to get your estimated gas mileage for the vehicle.

In this case I used the 2016 Nissan Versa.  The major differences in my 2007 Toyota Sequoia vs 2016 Nissan Versa included:

  • Gas Mileage 35mpg vs 17mpg
  • Fuel Type Regular vs Mid-grade
  • Total Trip Cost $53 vs $114

This is one of the most important factors and the reason it is first on the list of categories.  The larger the difference in your total trip cost for gas mileage the better.  I also want to point out that GasBuddy gives you the best locations to purchase your gas along the way.  While it’s entirely possible to purchase gas from these locations only, it’s also very reasonable to purchase gas at different locations.  The calculated number they provide for both the car rental and my own vehicle has a variance of about $10 for the rental and $30 for my own vehicle.  These numbers were not calculated into any extra costs or potential savings.

Total Savings $61

Rental Car Cost

If we only calculated in the gas savings from switching the rental car we would be missing the big picture and possibly making a money mistake, nobody wants that.

The next step is to find out the total costs for the car rental.  In Chicago we have 2 choices, airport locations and non-airport locations.  Because of taxes and convenience I suggest you look into both.  For us, both the airport and non-airport are not very far, however for convenience sake we side with the non-airport location which happens to be Enterprise.  I do not have a loyalty to any car rental locations, so I will usually check Kayak to get a big picture and then search individually using Avis, Hertz, Budget to actually book the car.

Small Economy Vehicle Nissan Versa

My search resulted in 4 days for approximately $83 at the lowest rate regardless of location, but since we have a preference on dropping the vehicle off close to our home the available selection was $130.  Based on my previous rental experience, paying approximately $25 per day is common. Despite the convenience of picking up the vehicle near our neighborhood park, I decided to check if the vehicle could be obtained at a cheaper rate.  I checked Costco Travel and was able to save an additional $13(must be a Costco member), for a total of $117, this also added an another driver at no charge, which is nice peace of mind option to have.

For our schedule it makes sense to pick up the car Thursday night and drop off the car Monday late afternoon to early evening.   The car rental salesmen will walk around the vehicle and ask for me to upgrade the insurance, which we will decline because of the comprehensive insurance we have on our vehicle and we will be on our way.

Total Cost $117

Wear and Tear

As we get closer to factoring in all of the categories in our decision to rent a car, we currently stand at $61 in gas mileage savings and $117 in car rental cost for a total of $56 in extra cost associated with the rental.

To calculate the wear and tear of using my own vehicle, I leaned on this AAA study to calculate how much wear and tear costs we were saving.  In the study our vehicle is categorized as a SUV and gives two main numbers to focus on, maintenance and tires.  The maintenance cost is 5.55 cents per mile and tires cost is 1.20 cents per mile.  From Gas Buddy we know our round trip miles driven is about 800 miles, the calculations are easy enough.  In maintenance, the savings is $44.40 and tire savings is $9.60 for a grand total of $54.00.  As we finish the calculation portion of our decision we currently stand at a total difference of $2 compared to driving the SUV vs driving a rental car.

Total Savings: $54

Safety and Needed Repairs

The numbers are in!  At this stage of the decision you may have realized that you want to get a rental, but maybe your own personal numbers tell a different story.  This is where the last factor plays an important role.  Like most things in life there is always more to a decision than just the numbers.

Being a good little car maintenance boy and girl we take our vehicle to get an oil change on the regular, since we do not drive very often our car maintenance visits are every 3-4 months.  During our last oil change we requested for them to look over the car to make sure everything was in working order, especially since we recently did not have the car in our possession for a couple months.  The verdict came back that since our car is over 100,000 miles we should look into having a tune-up and oil gasket that should be replaced in the near future.

As we considered our options on renting a car or driving our own vehicle this certainly stayed in the front of our minds.   I couldn’t help but imagine driving down the road somewhere and our oil gasket starts leaking and unable to hold oil or something worse and we have to to wait for Saul’s towing to take me to the shop then spend hundreds of dollars to get towed and fixed, all the while waiting to have my car fixed before I get on my way.

It’s important to take a look at your current vehicle and ask yourself “Will I make it to my destination without a repair along the way?”  Obviously, it’s impossible to predict, but it’s certainly something to consider when you are looking at the dollars and cents of your decision.

Should I Rent a Car Summary

After going through each category, calculating the gas mileage costs, car rental purchase, and wear and tear of the vehicle we came within $2 of what we could expect to pay with our current vehicle.  This alone was enough to side with renting a vehicle, the safety and needed repairs certainly put us over the top.  In our case it was an easy decision to rent a vehicle for our road trip after all of the factors were considered.  Have you made a decision to rent a vehicle rather than use your own on a road trip?  Will you crunch the numbers to see if this is a good idea in the future?

One final thought.  I’m not sure what our car rental number breaking point would have been exactly.  I think the calculation before wear and tear was about as far as we were willing to stretch which came to $56.  In the end we will drive from Chicago to Columbia, MO with a rental vehicle that cost a cup of coffee more than had we used our own vehicle.  In the future any time we plan on taking a road trip, I plan on asking myself do I rent a car or use my own.

Total Cost to Rent a Car vs My Own Vehicle:  $2


*If you are traveling via plane and need a rental car to see your new location, these criteria will not apply.

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