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I would like to visit a few places in the states sometime next year, and I was thinking of doing a road trip while I'm at it. I could start in either Los Angeles or Montreal, and then I would like to visit Philadelphia, Phoenix and Las Vegas during my trip; plus whatever there is on the way between - national parks would be on top of the list. I had about $2000 in mind for transport (excluding fuel).

So my question is: how would I get around? I could take the trains or public transport between the States and Montreal because I don't want to have any hassle with importing/exporting a car, and only drive a car in the states.

The 2 options I see here are either buying a used car and then sell it at the end of the trip, or rent a car.

I had a look at hertz.com, and they quoted me ~$3500 (including insurance) for 1 month and this car: look mate, the orange car goes much faster!

But it seems like I have to return the car to the pickup location with Hertz, because if I choose a different drop off location it shows "not available" for this car. Did I just pick the wrong drop off location here of is A->B really not an option? Do I get different rates at different locations? Has anyone advice on how to get this cheaper? I searched for "relocation" on their site, but didn't find anything.

The second option would be to buy a car for $3000, and then sell it at the end of my trip, and hopefully get more than $1000 back for it. Has anyone experience with this? Are there any places better for buying or for selling a car? In which state would I get "more car" for the same amount of money? Would there be any paperwork involved if I buy a car in one state and sell it in another? Anything else I need to know when buying or selling a car?

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Do you want to rent the car in the USA and drop it of in Canada (or vice versa)? –  user766 Nov 25 '11 at 8:31
    
i would just need a car inside the US to avoid trouble of taking a car into another country; and the use public transport to/from us-montreal –  iHaveacomputer Nov 26 '11 at 9:28
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7 Answers

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Buying option

For a one-month trip, I do not recommend buying and selling a car. Although it probably could be done, let me address some of the complications with that first, then I'll discuss rentals:

  • A $3000 car will be old, and probably not very reliable. I would not trust a car in this price range to get me safely around the country without thorough inspection, or a long test-drive/break-in period first. Certainly you could get lucky, and have absolutely no problems with a $3000 car for a month of road trips. But it would really ruin your vacation, I expect, if the car broke down in the middle of Arizona, or wherever.
  • Selling a car takes time. If you're willing to lose $2000 in the selling process, though, it would be easy. You could probably unload it at any car dealership for $2000 less than you paid a month before.
  • Registration is a pain. Typically when you buy a car, you will get a temporary tag, and then have 30 days (although in some states fewer, I believe) to get an official registration. If your stay is 30 days or less, this may not be a problem, since you would not be required to get an official tag. But if you have the car 31 days or longer, you'll have to stop by a DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) in some state, and get a license plate. And doing that typically requires proof of residence of that state, which you probably won't have. It will likely also require a vehicle inspection, at minimum to ensure the car is not stolen, and in many states, to ensure it passes environmental regulations. If you register the car in the same state where you buy it, it will probably pass environmental regulations. But if you register it in another state, it's anybody's guess.
  • It may be difficult to find a company that will provide you (affordable) insurance for a car you just bought, if you are not a U.S. resident.
  • Depending on the states where you buy and sell your car, it may actually be impossible to sell your car so quickly after having bought it, because you may not have the title in your possession yet. And even if you have a title signed over to you, that may not be sufficient to sell it--you may have to get the state DMV (wherever you register the vehicle) to send you a new official title in your name before you can sell it again.
  • Selling the car in another state may be difficult, but I don't know. If you sell it to a dealership, they will likely take over most of the paper work involved--assuming it's possible.

Rental option

There are much cheaper options for rentals than the one you quoted. A quick look at kayak.com shows that a rental from LAX (Los Angeles, CA) and drop-off at LGA (New York City, NY) a month later can be had for as little as $1792 including tax. Of course that does not include fuel, and likely does not include extra insurance. You also may or may not be able to take this vehicle into Canada. Different rental agencies will have different policies (and possibly extra costs) for taking it into Canada. You'll just have to ask.

This rental option may take you over your $2000 budget, but you might be able to cut corners by renting multiple vehicles at different times during your stay. If you'll be staying in L.A. for a week, for instance, maybe use public transport while you're there, and only rent a car at the end of your stay for the next leg of your journey.

You can also count on a more reliable car. If you pick a nation-wide rental company, they might change your car along the way in agencies and you have customer support if you have any mechanic problem. You also drive a quite recent car.

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Yeah; i think the insurance and registration when buying would be a dealbreaker for me. Didn't expect it to be so difficult; could get a car, registration and insurance done in AUS and NZ in 3h an then i'm on the road... –  iHaveacomputer Nov 26 '11 at 9:35
    
In Australia you might get it done that fast if it already has a roadworthiness cerfiticate, if you're buying it in the state it's registered in, and depending on what state you're talking about in fact. For instance the best deals are found by buying a car from a traveller about to return home, but these are the most likely to have iffy paperwork or be from interstate. –  hippietrail Nov 27 '11 at 14:33
    
Some credit card companies insure your rental car for you so you don't have to buy additional coverage; if they don't do so automatically, research to see if coverage from the credit card company is available - it's often significantly lower than what the rental company charges. –  jkl Nov 29 '11 at 1:10
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Be careful that they're quoting the "total price" (including taxes, etc) and not just the car rental rate. I just checked Travelocity and for a rental of pick-up at JFK, drop-off at LAX for the month of May, the lowest total price was for a compact car from Avis at $2050. The car rental cost only for the compact was quoted as $789. For Avis, a premium car was quoted as $3300 while a luxury was $4737. Both are "total prices."

When purchasing a car, you'll also have to register it somewhere and carry insurance (I assume), plus pay sales tax. All of which will cost more money. You might check on renting for shorter periods for a regional area, then fly or take a train/bus to the next region.

From my personal experience, Hertz usually has the highest rates.

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I'll just mention that you are not likely to experience any problems in crossing the US/Canada border by car. As long as the car is legally registered in one of the countries, you can drive it in the other. There should not be any "import/export hassles" at the border, as long as you are only going for a short visit and not taking up residence.

The only thing to check is whether the rental company's policies allow you to take the car across the border, and whether their insurance is valid in both countries. In most cases I expect the answer will be yes, though an additional fee may be required.

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(The last paragraph is the TL;DR version...)

I have bought a car in the US as a tourist four times, but twenty years ago.

The first time I was only there four six weeks but I expected to go to all kinds of odd places at odd times so never considered doing it another way given the country's bad reputation for public transport.

As pointed out in another answer, the biggest problem is selling the car again when you leave. The solution to this is to buy a very cheap car and expect to sell at a big loss and as a worst case scenario just leave it behind. In the early '90s I paid between about $500 and $700 and usually sold the car for what I paid. Maybe there are still decent cars that cheap or maybe the price has doubled in those years. The cars I bought were about 25 years old. I bought them through classified ads in local papers and had a rental car for the first couple of days to go car shopping.

Now the problem with a $500 car is reliability, but I don't think it's much worse than a $3,000 car. In fact there's never a guarantee of reliability even if you pay ten times that amount. A more expensive car from a dealer might come with insurance but if it takes a week to fix your car under warranty that's still a quarter of your trip gone! As it happens, with the three cars I used for normal transportation, I had no reliability problems I couldn't fix myself. With the car I bought for the six week trip I had no issues whatsoever. It was just ugly!

I do have some basic mechanical skills. I would only advise you to try this trip with a cheap car if you also have such skills, and if you would consider it part of the fun dealing with minor breakdowns.

If you do decide to buy a car, especially an old car, buy it in southern California and make sure it's from California. Cars there do not rust quickly and at least when I was doing this the smog test was super easy compared to a roadworthy test in Melbourne Australia. LA also has a squillion cars on the road so old cars are cheap, especially unfashionable ones. Plus spare parts and mechanics are very cheap. If you can fix your own car and spend the first few days in LA you'll have heaps of opportunity to do the minor repairs before your road trip.

Another important thing is buy an American car, preferably Ford or Chevrolet. If you run into problems on the road, "domestic" parts are always available everywhere. European cars might require you to wait days for parts to arrive, Japanese cars may be somewhere between but might be less reliable by the time they're old enough to become this cheap.

Then if you do have a major breakdown, on such a cheap car, it's time to cut your losses. Just sell it or give it away to a tow truck driver or such and go back to the standby plan of renting. I once sold a car for $100 to a tow truck guy when it broke down in a way I could normally fix myself but was too close to when I was about to go home.

In short: If you're a car enthusiast, don't mind getting dirty, expect something to go wrong sooner or later, but will find it a fun challenge, and you can afford to write off the price of the car if it dies or you can't sell it - then do it... But for most people it's probably not worth it.

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The modern substitute for classified ads is Craigslist. Selling can go very fast in a large city if the car is attractively priced. I once sold a car on Craigslist in San Diego; two hours after posting the ad, I had handed over the keys and had cash in my pocket. Of course, this assumes you have the title in hand. –  Nate Eldredge Nov 27 '11 at 16:56
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We rented an RV (though it was basically a car with beds in the back) for two months in Australia. It was awesome, and although it was expensive, we never had a single problem with it - it got us where we wanted to be, when we wanted to be there.

But the biggest thing was that we didn't need to sell it afterwards. The market was flooded with cheap RVs and no-one was buying. In short, we not only rented the (newer, better equipped, more reliable) vehicle but we also offloaded the need to sell the thing afterwards.

If you can afford it, it'll make the trip a little less stressful.

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Your quote for car hire seems exceptionally high - is that just a premium for using a brand like Hertz or are they hitting you for the insurance costs + drop off fees?

Try using one of the UK based companies such as Netflights or Car Hire 3000 who will offer quotes including full insurance (that are valid for all non-us based drivers) at way lower rates than what a us based company will do.

For example you can get a fill size car (Dodge Charger) at LAX for the whole of March for around £550 (= about $900).

Another advantage of these companies are that their deals usually allow free drop off to any other location within California / Nevada / Arizona if that is enough to suit your needs. A longer drop off will still incur some fee but at a much lower rate than what you were quoted.

If you really want to see both east and west coast locations without doubling back, an alternative solution is to split your trip into multiple segments - hire one car for what you want to see on the west coast then take a low cost internal flight (eg Southwest) and hire a second car for that area.

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I would recommend you to make a plan mixed with car rental and by train and buses available in the states. The reason for this is the cost that would get decreased.
LA, Montreal are one of the most expensive places in the country and can make your trip different from what you are thinking in terms of money. The entire journey on car can be costlier than you might have planned now, however, the bus, train tickets would be the same even for next 2-3 months, means no additional payments required.

I would recommend, start from Philadelphia and then visit the LA in the last part of you journey. For trains and buses, there are number of operators are working in country to get you the best deals on. The time frame is the key, the earlier you book the car,train ticket or the bus journey would cost you less which is a universal truth in the travel business these days.

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Downvoting because this is an extremely generic answer that doesn't answer any specifics. –  Ankur Banerjee Jan 18 '12 at 15:26
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protected by iHaveacomputer Jan 18 '12 at 22:03

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