Deliver a car across country! The topic of backpacker folklore.
Budget Travel ... and more. It's real. Here are the details.
How can overland travelers save hundreds of dollars in rental-car costs during cross-country or intercity trips? Easy: By linking up with the nationwide network of so-called drive-away companies that use independent travelers to deliver cars to a mutual destination for them.
The deal works like this: Drivers receive free use of the car for a certain number of days and miles in exchange for driving it to an agreed-upon destination by a set date. Besides a small processing fee, usually about $10, that some companies charge, the driver pays only for gasoline.
Example: While traveling recently from Portland, Ore., to New York City, I saved about $1000 in car-rental costs by lining up an auto with a drive-away company and using it for the nine-day trip. My total cost, excluding gasoline: $6.
In fact, not only did I use the drive-away vehicle, a 1991 Toyota Four-Runner with all the luxuries, to tour the country, but I also used it to move many of my personal effects, including a bicycle.
Similarly, I recently drove a drive-away car from San Francisco to Portland for $14, excluding gasoline. A rental would have cost about $110 a day, plus gas.
Let Your Fingers Do the Rockin'Here's how to line up a car: First, check the Yellow Pages for the telephone numbers of drive-away companies, usually listed either under "drive-away" or under "automobile transporters." Then start making calls. Although not all car-transportation companies use independent travelers, there usually are several that do in every large city. After finding such a company, tell them your destination and when you can leave. It's best to start calling at least a week or two before you plan to take off (even earlier for cross-country trips), but two or three days beforehand often works, too. But generally, the earlier you can start calling, the better. It helps to be flexible in the day of departure.
Certain requirements, which vary among companies, must be met to qualify as a driver. All companies require a current driver's license, and you will probably be asked to show additional identification while filling out their forms. You may be asked about your driving record and you may be fingerprinted. You should be prepared to provide references and telephone numbers for them in both your home city and your destination.
Most companies require a cash deposit of $200 to $350, which is fully refunded after the vehicle is delivered as agreed. Be sure to find out on the phone the company's exact requirements, especially the amount of the cash deposit, before you agree to transport a car for it. Some companies also require that you clean the inside and wash the outside of the vehicle before delivery.
DrawbacksAlthough drive-away companies can save travelers a lot of money, there are drawbacks. It may be hard to line up a car to your destination within the days you want to travel. You may have to be willing to depart according to their schedule rather than yours. And it's often tough to line up a car to destinations outside metropolitan areas. You'll find it much easier, for instance, to get a car from Chicago to Atlanta than from Chicago to, say, Augusta. So be open to taking the bus or train for the final leg of your journey.
While traveling, you must follow certain rules laid down by the company, such as limits on the time of day during which you can travel. Some companies, for instance, prohibit driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. to ensure that drivers don't crash the car from lack of sleep.
The company may also place restrictions on the routes you can take, but leeway in choosing the route increases with the length of the trip. On my San Francisco-Portland trip, I was required to take Interstate 5. Before leaving on my Portland-New York trip, however, I was allowed to choose the specific route, in consultation with the traffic agent, using the freedom to explore the Blue Highways of the northern states.
Many companies also forbid drivers to eat or drink in the vehicle, which doesn't seem like an unreasonable request until you find yourself in the middle of Oklahoma pining for a cup of strong coffee. While the companies will often insist that you follow such rules on short intercity trips, they may relax them for cross-country trips, acknowledging that you may not be able to avoid driving after 10 p.m. to make your next motel or campsite.
Another drawback is that you must delivery the car to the person or corporation that hired the drive-away company to transport the car. This could leave you stranded at a bus stop in deepest suburbia, a possibility that means you should travel light.
But for the flexible, money-conscious traveler, these drawbacks are minor compared with the benefits of using drive-away companies: inexpensive transportation and the time to drift across the country by car, exploring its cities and countryside.
By THOMAS HANDY LOON
St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002
Its nameplate read "Honda," but it was moonlighting as my workhorse.
It was somebody else's car, though I hadn't stolen it. And a couch was balanced on its roof, en route to my new apartment in Chicago. I had a vague sense that I'd better not scratch this Honda, at least not too badly, or I wouldn't get back my deposit on it.
This was a "driveaway" car, picked up in Washington, D.C., to be delivered to Chicago. After putting down a cash deposit of $250 and filling out some paperwork, I got the keys. I made a detour through mid-Michigan to load up my stuff and soon the Honda was sporting a thrift-store couch on its roof.
Beyond letting you move your own stuff from city to city, driveaway cars are a good way to see the country. All you pay is a refundable cash deposit -- I've driven dozens of these vehicles and have always gotten the deposit back -- and refill the gas tank as needed.
Actually, the first tank is provided, and don't underestimate the significance of that: Once I drove a huge F-350 diesel extended-cab Ford pickup from San Antonio to Denver, and it came with two full 25-gallon tanks, which got me all the way to Albuquerque.
Thousands of people and companies pay good money to have their cars moved every year. They pay several hundred dollars to have someone like me drive their car. I don't get the cash, though -- the driveaway company does, for serving as a clearinghouse matching those looking for cheap transport with available cars.
Sometimes it takes weeks to match a vehicle with a driver. Other times it takes minutes. Ten years ago I was in San Francisco trying to get to Houston. I had hitch-hiked from Anchorage with a Russian friend, after we crossed Europe and Siberia together. I wanted to show him the California coast, the Grand Canyon and the vast expanses of west Texas.
When I called the local office to get a driveaway car, they didn't have one.
"Call again; cars are always coming in," I was told.
Three hours and three phone calls later, I scored, and we left that afternoon for Houston.
Because of the agreed-upon delivery date, drivers cannot always use backroads, which are usually more interesting than the Interstates.
Just last summer I traveled with a friend in a new Mercury Mountaineer from Portland to Chicago. We took a scenic route and camped at my favorite Idaho hot springs, then, meandering along backroads, left a tobacco offering at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, traversed the Black Hills, and visited friends in Iowa City. And we still delivered the car in Chicago, right on time.
But even the super highways can offer interesting panoramas. Undulating skeins of sandhill cranes always seem to be etching the skies of central Nebraska along Interstate 80.
Ear-popping descents through beautiful Colorado mountain passes and valleys are fun. The forested hills of West Virginia, steamy Louisiana bayous, the urban wastelands off the New Jersey turnpike -- they all add up to America the beautiful.
On the other hand, doing driveways can be boring. I've driven a thousand miles in a day, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks, just watching flat landscapes and generic offramp service outposts from dawn to after dusk.
But once in a small pickup (heading from Oregon to Texas), I was swept aside by a trucker in a Wyoming blizzard. This provided me with one of those "life-flashing-by" moments as I spun sideways.
Who pays to have their car moved? Some of the vehicles are repossessions and are being returned to the banks where the loan originated. Many are company vehicles or rental cars.
Once a woman who lived in Houston won a car in a company contest, and I delivered it from Boston. I have delivered cars to students whose parents finally caved in to Junior's request for some wheels. I know of a man in Minneapolis who has his BMW driven to Long Beach, Calif., every winter; from there, it is shipped to Hawaii, where he spends winters.
People and their vehicles are always going somewhere.
If you go
HOW TO DO IT: Driveaways are found online, or by checking the Yellow Pages in many cities under "Automobiles-Transporters and Driveaway Companies."
Most companies ship only new vehicles and thus cannot help you, so your first question should be, "Do you do driveaways?"
Companies that do offer driveways include: Auto Driveaway, Auto Delivery, Auto Dispatch and Shultz International.
You may not find a car going the right direction, much less to your desired destination. Flexibility gets rewarded. Know how to work the system, such as calling nearby cities for a car headed toward your desired destination.
If you cannot find what you want, ask about "staging." This means driving a series of vehicles, from place to place, each toward your destination.
PROCEDURES: You will need to fill out some forms and provide references. You may have to be fingerprinted. And you will have to provide a cash deposit.
If you are traveling with a lot of luggage, or even moving, do not take this sort of load with you to the driveaway office. Retrieve it after you get the keys.
Accompanying family and friends usually are not forbidden by the companies, but they will take their names for insurance reasons.
Drivers are expected to cover about 400 miles a day, but if you offer a plausible story -- such as wanting to visit a relative along the way or near the basic route -- you might be allowed an extra day or two.
Before delivery of the vehicle, the driver is expected to clean it out and have it washed.
Make sure before setting out that you know where you are going; some destinations are far from town, and once you deliver the car, you are without wheels again. However, if you are delivering the car to someone's home, as is typical, the owners are usually pleasant and will sometimes offer a ride at least to a good hitchhiking place.
I suppose you could spend a month or even a summer just driving cars back and forth across the country (driveaways can also be arranged in Canada and Europe). Driveaways are not for everyone, but if you have some flexibility and an adventurous spirit, they can be a fun way to get there.- Thomas Handy Loon is a freelance writer living in Shevlin, Minn.
Bruce Todd finds it hard to resist driving other people's vehicles. "I've been driving people's cars for ten years now and ninety-nine percent of the time I've had fun doing it," he says. "It saves the cost of a rental car. And in the end, I always meet the owners, who are appreciative and congenial." Such was his summary of the automobile transportation industry's best-kept secret--the driveaway.
If rental car fees are a tad steep for your pocketbook, "driveaway" may be the way to go. What is it? It's a mutual favor that you do for someone you haven't met and may never meet. They let you drive their car for free with the stipulation that you take it where they need it to be (usually this involves long distance driving). It enables cost-conscious travelers to cut vacation expenses to a stunningly low figure.
How it works
While driveaway offers do pop up occasionally on popular internet bulletin boards such as Craig's List, most vacationers who engage in this activity don't go the casual, person to person route. Most contact one of the many professional auto delivery companies across the United States.
"We are a service almost like a matchmaker", says David Burke, owner of Auto Driveaway New York City (225 West 34th St., Suite 1201, New York, 212-967-2344,). "We connect people who like to travel, but don't like to spend a lot of money, with cars headed in the same direction."
Not everyone will be eligible to become a driveaway driver. As a general rule, drivers are expected to pass a screening test, which for most consists of driving record verification. Some offices will run your driver's license against a national listing of bad drivers. Participants must also be 21 or over to apply. If approved, they are required to leave a bond deposit of about $300, which is returned once the car is transported safely, within the expected time frame, to its destination. Finally, drivers are expected to cover anywhere between 300-500 miles a day.
It can also take a bit of time to find a car that's going in the direction you want to travel. Flexibility is the key here. If you can travel at the drop of a hat, or if you're willing to go to a nearby city to start your driving vacation, your chances of finding a match increase exponentially. Drivers should also look into "staging." If a car is not going exactly where they hope to go, they may be able drive one car from point A to point B, then another car from B to C, and so on.
Neatness also counts. Drivers are expected to keep the car tidy and to clean it before drop-off. If you deliver a car filled with crumbs and candy wrappers you can be sure that the driveaway company won't accept your application next time.
The "Big Kahuna" in Driveaways
Cornering the market for volunteer drivers, Auto Driveaway moves more than 18,000 vehicles a year just with its standard driveaway service and has over 50 offices in the largest traffic markets in the U.S. and Canada. No other company works with as many non-salaried drivers. It has built a regular clientele on both sides (drivers and car owners) of its driveaway business.
To ensure that vehicles are delivered in the same condition in which they are received, it requests that drivers fill out a condition report prior to departure. In addition, it supplies drivers with an itinerary plan and estimated mileage allotment. In return, the driveaway company gives its volunteers an additional mileage allowance for reasonable detours and occasional sightseeing. There's also a fairly generous amount of time allotted to compensate for unexpected road construction delays and inclement weather.
Each of Auto Driveaway's separate offices adheres to general guidelines, but is free to determine its own rules and regulations, so it is difficult to summarize a hard-and-fast policy.
If you pick up a car from its Los Angeles branch, you will not be expected to call them unless you have a serious problem on the road. Not so in Orlando, where the owners expect drivers to check in every day or two. In the words of Allan Cornman, owner of the Orlando office, "We are pretty liberal and understanding when it comes to unexpected delays, and we will waive most penalties if the driver gives us a good reason, and communicates with us regularly during the course of the trip."
All offices start you off with a free tank of gas (after that you must pay yourself) and require that drivers not be on the road from 10pm until 5am for safety reasons and insurance reasons. There's no drinking, eating or smoking permitted in any of the vehicles, and there can be no more than three passengers in the car at any one time.
With just three offices (in Dallas, Culver City and Highland, Indiana) Schultz-International (9905 Express Drive Unit #2, Highland, IN, 800-619-7707 or 219-934-2000) is a much smaller company, but still quite reputable. The deposit here is $335, of which you get $300 back when you deliver the vehicle to its owner (when driveaway companies have a limited number of terminals in other cities, they usually schedule a door-to-door delivery).
Upon departure, the company will specify the route you are to follow and supply you with a tank-full of fuel for free, after which you will be responsible for any additional gas, as well as your own food and lodging. With Schultz you are eligible for a "gas bonus" if you're driving a larger vehicle. The company, however, does cover the cost of insurance.
As is the practice in most driveaway companies, which advise that you drive no more than eight hours a day--leaving some time for rest stops and meals--Schultz-International also provides a time frame for delivery of the vehicle. Driving from Chicago to anywhere on the West Coast, for example, you would be expected to complete the trip in as many as seven days, while a trip to a southern destination like Atlanta will grant you four.
Things to keep in mind
One important thing to remember when planning a driveaway trip is that while its money-saving and sightseeing qualities are hard to rival, it is still a serious undertaking. When drivers lose track of time and miss the delivery deadline without a valid reason (driveaway companies strongly encourage communication and regular updates from their drivers so that they stay aware of any possible delays), or exceed the mileage allotted for their trip, they will be fined accordingly. "Knowing that you're running late and not reporting to us equals stealing a car," says Mr. Cornman.
But despite the time restraints, this is usually a hassle-free method of travel. "In all 15 years since we've been open, we've only had one minor driveaway incident," reports Don Harris owner of the Tampa branch of Auto Driveaway, "The A/C in the car failed, and the driver, whose companion was an elderly woman, had to stop at a nearby city and have it fixed." (The client paid).
According to Harris, the vast majority of drivers encounter no problems whatsoever. He goes on to say that driveaways attract a wide variety of participants from "winter residents returning to the Northeast to young international travelers touring the country, to elderly couples taking that long-planned trip out west."
Why not join them? Even with rising gas costs, there's no better--and cheaper--way to get where you're going."driveaway companies"
When I drove from Florida to Toronto last year, I got money for it and someone else even covered the gas. Even better, I was in a 2007 Lexus RX 350, a big comfortable SUV. How was it possible?
I applied to one of two snowbird services in the GTA that reward drivers for ferrying late-model BMWs, Mercedes, Audis and Lexuses to and from Florida. They also provide all the documentation required to cross the border.
If your timing is right, you might luck into a 2009 BMW X3, 2008 Cadillac or 2008 Lincoln, the cars Toronto Driveaway had on its books last week for dates this month. But you might end up with the choice of a late-model Malibu, Camry or Accord, still not bad if your own ride is a 10-year-old sedan.
The best range of vehicles is between now and Christmas, also the period you might get the maximum $400 from Toronto Driveaway or Cars to Florida.
Those companies arrange drivers for folks who want their cars in Florida for the winter but don't like making the long drive south themselves.
"We have a lot of customers in that period and we've got to make it happen for them," says Toronto Driveaway owner Ron Coady, who has connected snowbirds with drivers for 50 years. "Then we need plenty of drivers in the spring to bring them back."
I brought the Lexus back from Key Biscayne, just south of Miami, in March. It was a nice feeling, humming along and getting paid.
The sign-up process is pretty simple. Call Coady's North York number, ask about available cars in your time frame and select one, assuming he needs drivers at the time. Toronto Driveaway offers an online application and if you're accepted after a background check, the company sends out a contract plus information on how to get in touch with the owner of the vehicle you'll be delivering.
You need to put down a minimum deposit of $300 as part of the contract and agree to deliver the car within three days and in the condition you received it. You deliver it to the owner's Florida address and have the owner sign a document showing you've met all the conditions of the contract.
That includes a limit on how many kilometres you put on the vehicle. So no extensive side trips or you pay a penalty.
You mail that form with all gas receipts to the company and a few weeks later you get a cheque covering your fee, the gas and your deposit.
Cars to Florida, which Darren Francisco started in 2007 after driving several cars for Coady's company, may stipulate the car be delivered to connect with the snowbird's flight south. He already has a partial roster of drivers, many of them retired or active commercial airline pilots.
Crossing the U.S. border could be the toughest part of the trip. Even with all the proper documentation, a customs official may look long and hard at you, perhaps even search the vehicle.
"You know you are responsible for all contents of the vehicle?" I was warned when I crossed at Buffalo on a separate trip south.
Then he looked at a copy of the owner's passport and said, "Gee, this guy is 91," as if he'd be an unlikely source of contraband.
On this occasion, an elderly friend considered the snowbird services but they limit contents to the trunk and the floor of the back seat and he and his wife needed to fill the car, a 2007 Buick Lucerne CR/CXL.
It was a cushy ride and he offered more flexibility in time and would pay all my expenses, including return airfare, gas, meals and accommodation for two nights. That worked out to almost $700, better for me and better for him than the $850 Toronto Driveaway charges and the $800 Cars to Florida bills.
When returning the Lexus to Toronto, I had to stretch my $300, the amount I received from Toronto Driveaway.
But a cheap flight south to pick up the car and some economy motels made it possible to handle all travelling expenses.
In each of three trips delivering cars I added a few days of pure holiday, taking in spring training baseball, checking out Miami's South Beach, and exploring Fort Myers and St. Augustine.
As for misadventures, Toronto Driveaway's Coady doesn't like to dwell on them, but he does recall a comical episode when he was moving newer, used vehicles to British Columbia.
"The driver was taking a Cadillac convertible to Vancouver. He stopped at an orchard and as he was helping himself to some apples a horse came out of a field and began to eat the convertible top."
The owner's insurance took care of the damage.
Toronto Driveaway has a limited number of cars available for Arizona, California and western Canada too, but Florida destinations are the prime business.