Should I Rent a Car For My Next Big Trip? Help For Life With a High-Mileage Car.

You’ve Got an Old Car. Will It Make The Trip?

Ideally, when you’ve got an old high-mileage car, you’ll take it into the shop and ask them to get it in tip-top shape before any long trips. But what if you know what the car needs and have been delaying major repairs due to budgetary concerns? Or what if you don’t have time to get it into the shop before you need to leave? Should you rent a car for your trip instead?

I’ve been in this situation several times myself. Here’s a look into the thought process I go through when trying to decide whether to pay for a rental car or risk driving my old car on a trip.

Warning! If you’ve been told that a repair your car needs is critical to safety, you must not drive it on a long trip. Period.

In this case, proceed directly to a rental car! Or reschedule your trip. Not all car maintenance needs are critical but some are a serious accident waiting to happen. Some will simply strand you if they break (a bad alternator or battery) or are uncomfortable (bad shocks in the back). Others can cause you to crash and die if they fail suddenly (broken steering or front suspension parts, bald or corded tires, brake line leaks) or mean the end of your engine (large oil leak, no oil, serious coolant leak, overheating.)

So, Drive The Beater or Rent a Car?

First, you’ll need to consider a few questions. Jot down answers to the following . . .

Do you have AAA or other roadside assistance? What’s the included free towing on the plan you have? Is your destination farther away from your favorite shop than the included towing on your roadside assistance? How far over the mileage limit is it? (AAA’s basic plans include five miles of towing free, but you’ll pay $2.50-$5 per mile over what is included with your roadside assistance plan for distances farther away.)

How comfortable are you having an unknown shop do a major repair on your car? If you know what’s likely the next thing to break, how much was the estimate for that work from your shop? Are you ready to pay at least that much at a shop or dealership between home and your destination? Or would you much rather be sure your own shop can do that work?

How Interruptable Is Your Trip?

Now, think about the trip itself. On a scale of “Hello? I’m the groom!” to “No plans, it’s just the two of us, just for fun,” how interruptable is your trip? How much trouble will you be in if a car break-down delays your arrival at your destination?  Are you traveling through populated areas with a common-as-dirt minivan (2010 Honda Odyssey) where there’s likely to be a shop almost anywhere that can work on your car? Or are you traveling through rural America with a French-built rear-engined Renault that was only sold in the US for two years in the 1980s? (A quiet shout-out to my internet-friend Fodder for that suggestion. And thanks to him, I spent way too much time on Wikipedia just now!)

“Adventure, yeah. I guess that’s what you call it

when everybody comes back alive.” – Mercedes Lackey

Make Some Ballpark Cost Estimates.

Now that you’ve thought about all of that, estimate what a breakdown, tow, and repair at a shop (if you have an estimate for the next chunk of work) might cost you. Then price out your theoretical car rental.

If you want to be really nerdy and methodical, consider the difference in gas mileage between your own car and the class of rental car you’d pick. On my last trip, the difference was 18 mpg on my car versus 40 mpg on the Jetta we rented! It made about $30 difference in fuel costs, recouping some of our rental car costs in fuel savings.

Write your two numbers side by side and look at them. Is the breakdown and tow number scary enough to make the rental car estimate seem like smart insurance against spending the larger number?  Or is the cost of a rental car high enough that risking the repair away from home seems like the smarter option?

Measure the Financial Aspects of Your Decision Against Time And Bother Factors.

Can you afford a delay in the trip? If so, maybe risking the potential repair on the road isn’t a huge deal and maybe can be a potential for a new adventure. Sometimes the best vacation memories are the ones that happen unplanned. Note that some roadside assistance programs offer trip interruption reimbursement, too, offering coverage for a rental car and an overnight hotel, if needed. Check the fine print of any plan you have. But if you’re traveling for the wedding of your baby sister, arriving on time is critical; time to reserve that rental car!

A Quick Case-Study From My Own Old-Car Life.

In spring of 2017, we had an out of state wedding to attend. At the time, we owned an early 2000’s Ford Crown Victoria with about 175,000 miles on it. We knew it would need rear wheel bearing work soon; you could hear it howling, especially at highway speeds. We also knew, from owner forums, that due to the design of the wheel bearing, there was a risk of the axle snapping if you let things go too long.  Although it was an additional expense, my gut told me that renting a car for the trip was good insurance against that wheel bearing blowing apart in weekend traffic on crowded, busy interstate through Chicago. So we did the rental car. It cost us, with a discount through Costco Travel, about $100 for the three days. A new rear-end (axles, wheel bearings, differential) on our car, at a Chicago-area shop, could have cost as much as $1500, and that’s not even considering the potential for a crash, injury, and damage to other drivers’ cars.

My gut instinct was proven correct a couple months later when we sold the Crown Vic in advance of buying our anniversary car.  (I’ll tell that story sometime, too.) A couple weeks after the new owner paid us for the car, he messaged me with pictures: the rear axle had indeed failed, at about 50 mph, causing the rear wheel to come off, causing body damage and flying debris, which cut through the neck of the gas-filler tube. Thankfully, nobody was hurt; the new owner was able to wrestle the car to a stop safely. I felt absolutely awful, even though we had advised getting the repair done immediately, and the new owner had even gotten estimates for the work before paying us for the car. But my thought process on deciding to rent proved to be really valuable.

If You’re Still Not Sure, Ask Me!

I can’t guarantee your old car is safe to drive on a long trip. But I can look at your shop estimates and decipher them for you. I can describe what can happen if that particular thing breaks. I can definitely help you clarify your decision to rent or drive your own car. If renting is out of the question due to costs, then I can help you mentally prepare for a big trip in an old car too, so if the worst happens, you can handle it with as little stress as possible. I even offer affordable on-call services so you can phone-a-friend while traveling if something comes up unexpectedly! Message me on Facebook for a free quote.

Leave a Comment