How to Find a Free Rental Car for Your Next Road Trip

By Ethan Maurice | April 12th, 2018

In school, we were taught about the migratory patterns of animals—south for the winter, north for the summer, etc. What we were not taught was that animals are not the only migratory inhabitants of Earth.

Little-known for its migratory nature, the rental car also heads for more temperate climates in the fall and spring each year in search of more frequent renters. Unlike most migratory species, though, the rental car is unable to migrate without a driver.

This is where we come in.

At the right time of the season, we can enter into a symbiotic relationship with a rental car and drive from one climate to another, at little cost to us. This gets a rental car where it wants to go, and gives us an abnormally inexpensive opportunity to fulfill our great American road trip dreams.

Most noteworthy, a third-party has recently been spotted in the rental car's ecosystem encouraging this symbiotic relationship to a greater extent than ever before: a website called Transfercar, which offers free rental deals for drivers willing to help a rental car relocate for the upcoming season.

For rental cars and drivers alike, this is a particularly wonderful development. Rental cars answer their migratory call and drivers have greater opportunity to explore and experience the open road at a lower cost than ever before.

As the days grow longer this spring, we're in the midst of a massive northern rental car migration. In North America, nearly six-hundred rental cars are currently looking for a driver to relocate them to their summer habitat via Transfercar. Take a look at Transfercar's North American Map here. You can conveniently see where each vehicle is and where instinct calls it to go (as well as apply to assist with any rental car's migration).

If you're not looking to follow any migratory routes on Transfercar's map, do not fret, as rental cars are just beginning to learn how to use Transfercar. Most rental cars still haven't adapted to directly sharing their migratory routes on the web and still migrate by lowering their prices in the direction they want to go to entice drivers.

Last May, I assisted in the northern migration of a heavily discounted 2017 Chevy Malibu from Phoenix, AZ to Bozeman, MT over four days for $52, taxes and fees included. I was moving up to Montana for another season at The Range Rider's Lodge. The trip was symbiotic in the greatest sense: the car was then able to roam the north with ample renters for summer, and I traveled a thousand miles for a fraction of the cost of any other method of transport of all my stuff.

 
 Me feeling cool because I got a great deal on a rental car.

Me feeling cool because I got a great deal on a rental car.

 

Like any other species, rental car migrations follow typical patterns. Last week, I called Transfercar to speak with an expert on North American rental car migration. He explained it as follows:

The Great Northern Migration: March into early June
The Great Southern Migration: Late August into November
All Other Times: Low-season, but still stragglers and rental cars in unusually scarce environments look to migrate elsewhere

The rental car's migratory patterns are particularly noteworthy for drivers in seasonally popular places, Phoenix, AZ being a perfect example. Renters flock to Phoenix in its temperate winter and avoid the summer when Phoenix is a dry, fiery inferno with temperatures climbing above 100 degrees every day. Ever-following renters, rental cars do the same, arriving in Phoenix during the fall and fleeing north in the spring to be where renting is best.

For Phoenicians, this presents the opportunity for ridiculously cheap road trips twice a year (away from Phoenix in the spring and returning in the fall). Combined with a cheap one-way airline ticket or a free flight from a credit card airline mileage bonus, drivers in seasonally popular places like Phoenix have serious road trip subsidization.

How to Find Ridiculously Cheap Rentals:

First off, check Transfercar to get a sense of current migratory patterns. Are you looking to follow any advertised migratory routes? If yes, that was easy: apply and go!

If not, head over to a rental car search engine (I use Kayak).

Now, you'll need to think like a rental car. Think locally: what time of year will rental cars find the most renters where you are? The least? Think in major migratory patterns: Where are a majority of rental cars currently trying to migrate from or to (look at Transfercar's map)? Can you work your location into the general migration pattern?

Rental cars nest in especially large numbers in major cities, making them both good start and end points for your search (choose cities, not airports, as cities include airports, but airports do not include other rental locations in a city).

An example: If I were looking to drive a rental car up from Phoenix to Yellowstone as I did last year, I'd choose Phoenix as my start point and compare prices between the biggest cities/towns surrounding Yellowstone:

1 Week Phoenix, AZ to Cody, WY
($423)

1 Week Phoenix, AZ to Billings, MT
($250)

1 Week Phoenix, AZ to Bozeman, MT
($88)

*click to expand an image.

At $88 for a week's rental, by far, Bozeman would be the best deal to move me and all my stuff up to Montana for the summer.

Also worth considering is the length of your trip. For two weeks, this deal stays ridiculously good at $172 (which would allow for a very roundabout road trip as well), but at three weeks the rental car begins to worry that you might drive 10,000 miles before getting where it wants to go and astronomically raises its price to $749.

2 Weeks Phoenix, AZ to Bozeman, MT
($172)

3 Weeks Phoenix, AZ to Bozeman, MT
($749)

That's the game. Play around with locations and dates, considering rental car migration patterns via Transfercar, and see if you can find a killer deal.

To Insure or Not Insure?

Regarding rental insurance: this is my understanding. It's up to you to make your own decisions and examine your insurance situation yourself.

Essentially, though, here's the deal: if you have car insurance, your policy applies to your rental car, too. If you have liability coverage only, you might not want to risk paying for the destruction of your rental car, but if your insurance covers your car as well, there is no need to pay for additional insurance.

Here's more info on rental car insurance if you're curious.

A Few Parting Notes:

1. You don't have to pay for a place to stay out on the road. A tent and FreeCampsites.net almost always leads me to a free place to crash for the night. Couchsurfing also rocks.

2. You still have to pay for gas. If you have a car, the real savings here is not putting thousands of miles of wear on it. And if you don't have a car, well, obviously, now you do!

3. Avoid major interstates, drive backroads and two-lane highways. Local flavor off the beaten path is an experience. Get coffee in local shops. Grab a beer at a local bar. Corporate chains are less expensive (and good for cheap grub), but they're the same everywhere by design.

4. Get outdoors. I love cities, but for me, road trips are primarily about experiencing the wonder of nature. Camping under the stars, wandering among awe-inspiring landscapes, catching sunrises and sunsets etc. If you plan on visiting more than two National Parks, an annual pass (available at any entrance gate) will save you money.

Well, that's all I've got! Remember those rental car migration patterns and best of luck in your search for a killer deal. I leave you with a little line from Jack Kerouac's On the Road:

“What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

 

 

 

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