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Road trip: Should you rent a car or drive your own?

Kim Grundy is a mom, writer, expert laundry folder and sandwich maker, not necessarily in that order. Raised in Oklahoma, she is now a West Coast gal and lives in California with her husband and two sons, along with one dog, two fish (oo...

To rent or not to rent, that is the question

Looking to save money on your road trip? Whether you are making a cross country trek to Wally World with the family or taking a romantic drive down the coast, we chatted with experts to weigh the pros and cons of renting a car versus sticking with the car you already own.

The top reason most people give for wanting to rent a car is to save their own car from wear and tear. So, does the cost of renting offset the wear on your car? "Is your road trip an off-road scramble over the Rocky Mountains? Will you be tearing up a race course Tokyo Drift style? If not, the answer is almost certainly no," says Adam Griffith, car enthusiast and business analyst at Beepi, an online marketplace for buying and selling used cars.

Griffith says that car rental companies make money by marking up the ultimate cost of each mile driven for things like wear on the vehicle and the effect on the ultimate resale value. "Renting a car to save money on car maintenance would be kind of like hiring a tour guide to save you the cost of buying a map," he says.

Consider all factors

Before you put the gas in the family car, however, there are other factors to consider to make sure you shouldn’t rent, including the condition of your own car, starting with your tires.

"Tires and oil ought to be checked out about every 40,000 miles or so, and oil should be replaced about every 3,000 miles," he says.

Check the tread on your tires by doing the penny test, in which you place a penny in the tread of your tire, with Lincoln's face down. If your tread doesn't cover Lincoln's hair, it is time to replace your tires and/or consider renting for your road trip. If your tires are looking worn, but you want to travel in your own vehicle, make sure to replace them with something dependable, such as the Michelin Premier A/S, which doesn't lose its grip and stopping power even after thousands of miles of use.

Griffith says that one step that many people will miss is checking the spare tire, which should be replaced at least every 10 years. "That tire is your lifeboat, your savior, your one and only hope if things go sideways thanks to a mischievous nail lying on a back country road," he says.

Jason Lancaster, the editor of AccurateAutoAdvice.com, says you should also factor in the age of your car. "The average car lasts about 12 years or 165K miles," he says. "In my opinion, cars tend to be less reliable than average in the last 25 percent of their lifespan. Therefore, a car that's more than 8 years old and/or has more than 120K miles on it is more likely to suffer a failure than the average car."

He said to also consider how fuel efficient your current car is, especially if you drive a large SUV or truck. "The fuel costs associated with a 500-mile road trip can sometimes pay for the cost of an efficient rental car," he says.

Do the math

In addition, if you lease your car, do the math to ensure you won't be going over your allotted miles, which can equate to big bucks.

How comfortable is your family car? Lancaster says he drives his entire family more than 12 hours every year and renting a $200 minivan for the week translates into a more enjoyable trip. "While it's hard to put a price on comfort and happiness, I can tell you that renting a van for a week isn't that expensive. To me, it's a good trade," he said.

Practicality aside, another good reason to rent a car is for fun, says Griffith. Have you always wanted to drive cross-country, Thelma and Louise style (with a different ending, of course), with the wind blowing through your hair?

"Fun is often a secondary concern when we're buying cars," he says. "But, when you'll only be driving the car for a week anyway, you have more leeway to rent the car that has what you want, not what you need."

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