Does Renting a Car For Long Trips Save Money?

Broken town carAfter playing revolving automobiles for most of our adult working lives, we finally realized that buying or trading cars every few years is not a wise use of money. Sure the new car smell is great, but there is really no smell that is worth sacrificing our goals of financial independence. With that in mind, Jim and I are determined to keep driving our current vehicles until it doesn’t make financial sense to do that or one of them dies a permanent death. Our cars are getting older, though, and my question today is whether or not it makes sense and/or saves money to rent a car for long road trips.

Since we live in rural America, we drive a lot! There is absolutely no public transportation where we live unless you are a senior citizen who needs to go to the doctor. We don’t really live close to any major cities, with Denver, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City all being about 7 hours away. Albuquerque is the closest major airport, but it’s still a 4 hour drive to get there.

Sure we could move if it was a huge issue, but the low cost of living, small town atmosphere, and outdoor recreation are some of the reasons we choose to live here. We do like to travel during school breaks, though, and it usually makes more sense to drive. We like to visit southern California at least once a year. To fly out of the local regional airport, it generally costs $1200-$1500 for the three of us. Since it’s only a 12 hour drive, it doesn’t save much time to travel to a major airport either.

Our Cars Are Getting Old

Currently, we have my 2008 Altima with almost 120,000 miles and Jim’s Toyota Tacoma with about 125,000 miles.  We also have an old beater Civic with 205,000 miles that Jim drives locally. His job requires travel between four school districts. He gets reimbursed for mileage at the standard rate of 56 cents per mile, so if the weather is good, the Civic is a much better return on investment than the truck.

I expect our main vehicles to last for at least another 100,000 miles, but I also expect more problems. We already had one breakdown on the way home from a business trip this past summer. I realize any car can break down, but the older a vehicle gets, I feel it’s more likely to have problems.

Rent Vs Drive Our Own Vehicle

Jim has a couple of trips to Denver next month for work. He can either drive his own vehicle and get reimbursed for mileage, or his employer will rent a car and pay for gas. Denver is 425 miles one way. If we add another 3o miles for in city transit, that makes a round trip of  about 880 miles.  If he drives the Altima, gas would cost around $95, and he would get reimbursed $492. On the surface we would make a profit. However, it does put wear and tear on the car. We wouldn’t pocket anything if he gets a rental, but we aren’t risking a breakdown or wearing out tires on our car either.

Renting a Car For Vacation

We are planning a spring break trip to San Diego. A rental car would cost around $200 unless I can find a killer deal. We actually have broken down in a rental car before. Breaking down is never fun. You sometimes have to wait hours for someone to come find you, but with a rental, the tow truck driver brought us a new car. We took off in the new rental, while he hooked up the broken one. We never had to deal with finding a repair shop or paying for service.

Our car might make 20 more trips to San Diego without incident, but if it does break down, we would be forced to find someone to fix it. We could be stuck in some really fun town like Bumble Bee, AZ or Calexico, CA. Worst case scenario is that we’d still have to rent a car and wait for a part to come in, after which we’d have to go reclaim our car.

Renting a Car for Vacation is Still Cheaper Than a New Car

I can hear the arguments from our care free spending days now. My Mom has already started telling me that we need do get a new car. If ours isn’t reliable for long trips, it’s time to trade it in. I am not falling for it.

Even if we rent a car once a year for a vacation at $200 or even $300, it’s still tons cheaper than buying a whole new car. Our cars are perfectly fine for local or short trips. I am just questioning the wisdom of long distance travel with cars that are getting on up there in miles. Of course, I’ve never had a car with this many miles since the old Pontiac I drove in high school, but it certainly didn’t need to go on any road trips! Maybe it’s perfectly fine to take a 12 hour trip in a car with 120,000 miles and I’m just conditioned to think otherwise.

If I only had a crystal ball and could predict breakdowns, it would be simple. As of now, how do you know when it’s smart to get a rental car instead of driving your own vehicle?

Should Jim take a rental or mileage reimbursement for his business trips? Should we rent for a long road trip?

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Written By
Sydney White is a Texas-born stay at home mom who enjoys spending time with her family, bargain hunting and, of course, writing. She is currently the editor-in-chief of


  1. I’m getting ready to take a 16 hour road trip alone in a 9 year old car with 180,000 miles on it. I am really careful with maintaining the car, and I have a cell phone. I’m hoping to keep the car for at least three more years. Once it hits 200,000 I will start renting a car for road trips. It’s probably worth it for your hub to rent for his work trips. But with proper maintainable, you should be fine for another year or so.

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