What should you drive for a summer road trip? The benefits (and drawbacks) of RVs, rental cars and other options

·6 min read

It's going to be another summer big on driving vacations. But what should you drive?

Lucas Travis is renting a car – specifically a "rugged" SUV. He'll need it. He plans a week-long road trip across Alaska in July.

"I would love to venture into the wilderness to get away from the crowds," says Travis, the founder of a skateboarding website in Leesville, Louisiana.

A recent survey by RVShare suggests most Americans will follow Travis by driving somewhere for their summer vacations. About two-thirds of consumers prefer road trips over flying. And 54% of respondents said they'll avoid air travel.

How they get there is another matter. You can drive a car – either your own or a rental – or splurge on an RV. Each transportation option has its pluses and minuses, which have never been more evident than now.

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Drive your car this summer – or upgrade to a new one

A vast majority of Americans will bring their personal vehicle on a summer road trip. For Benin Lee, that means driving his Hyundai Sonata from Columbus, Ohio, to Brooklyn, New York. Lee says he likes the smaller car because it's more fuel-efficient and handles well.

"The ride is smooth, and it's easier to park," says Benin, a physician's assistant from Columbus.

Toby Russell, the co-CEO of the car-buying site Shift, says he's noticed more consumers want to buy a new vehicle before their summer road trip.

"We've been seeing a steady stream of car buyers who are ready to upgrade and hit the road," he says. "Even in normal times, summer is historically the busiest time of the year to purchase a car."

But this summer will be even busier. Russell's advice: Don't wait until Memorial Day or the Fourth of July to go car shopping. By then, supplies will be low and prices will be high.

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Drive an RV (but good luck finding a place to park it)

And then there are RVs. Even though I prefer to stay in a home or hotel, I admit I've had my eye on the new Airstream Flying Cloud 30FB Office travel trailer. It's a "work from anywhere" travel trailer with room to sleep six and a tech-connected office setup. Alas, with a price tag of $107,500, it's a little outside my range.

I may be able to just rent one through a site like RVshare. According to company spokeswoman Maddi Bourgerie, interest in RV sharing is up 114% from last year. But many people are waiting until the last minute to book their vacations, which could be a mistake this summer. And even if you can find an RV to rent, it's difficult to find a place to park it.

"Finding a campground managed by the National Park Service usually requires booking a spot three to four months out," she says.

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Warning: Rental cars are expensive

How about rental cars? That's always an option, but this summer it may be an expensive choice. Car rental prices are soaring, thanks to a series of pandemic events. First, demand dropped, prompting car rental companies to downsize their fleets by selling off cars. Then they couldn't buy replacements because of a microchip shortage that stalled the delivery of new vehicles. It's not uncommon to hear of car rental rates that are four times the regular price.

"We've been working closely with our manufacturing partners since last summer to continue to add vehicles to our fleet to meet the ongoing increase in demand," says Lisa Martini, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Holdings, which owns the Alamo, Enterprise and National brands.

Until then, Martini and other car rental experts say careful planning can help control your expenses.

"Book your car rental as far ahead as possible," says Jonathan Weinberg, CEO of AutoSlash.com, a car rental site. "We're finding that a month ahead is generally a safe bet, but in the last few weeks, we’ve been seeing sell-outs farther and farther out."

The problem, says Weinberg, is that most consumers still tend to book rental cars at the last minute – and they're getting hammered with high prices.

One alternative is a car-sharing site like Getaround. Dan Kim, the company's COO, says the car rental shortage has prompted Getaround to encourage its hosts to move vehicles into communities that need them the most. "It allows us to serve areas that rental car companies and other mobility solutions often neglect," he says.

How to save money when you drive this summer

Buy your insurance ahead of time. Car rental insurance can add to the cost of your already expensive vehicle. "A very real way to save money is by purchasing your rental car insurance in advance," says Daniel Durazo, a spokesman for Allianz Travel. The company's Rental Car Damage Protector offers primary coverage for certain collisions, as well as loss and damage up to $75,000 and 24-hour emergency assistance for $11 per day, about half what car rental companies charge. You can also save money through a site like Insuremyrentalcar.com.

Drive an electric vehicle. EVs can cost less than half as much to drive as gas-powered vehicles. True, there are range-anxiety issues. But this spring, Volkswagen of America’s Dustin Krause and Tod Xelowski drove the company's new ID.4 electric vehicle from New York to Sacramento, California. VW employees did it by recharging at 32 Electrify America charging stations, among a few other opportunities that included overnight charging at hotels.

Look into the latest alternative car-sharing options. Traditional car-sharing options have expanded just in time for the summer. For example, Avail is a car-sharing company that lets you borrow a car from a private owner. On a standard car rented for a week in early June in Dallas, I saved about 20% compared to a car rental company. Avail handles the transaction electronically, so you never have to deal directly with the owner. As a bonus, Allstate insures all Avail vehicles (Allstate is an Avail investor).

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Summer road trip: What to know about RVs, rental cars, EVs

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