Transport doesn’t stop once your plane parks at the gate. It merely shifts from air to ground, and a wide collection of options present themselves. While hotel shuttles, private buses, and public transit can be researched in advance and generally offer a solid ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, when it comes to affordability and feasibility, one big debate looms: is it cheaper to rent a car or take a ride-share with a platform such as Uber? On a broad scale, it is impossible to claim that one is cheaper, better, or more appropriate than the other. It all comes to down to specific situations and locations. Let’s break it down.
How much does it cost to rent a car?
The simple answer is that it varies, a lot. The location, the make and model of vehicle, and the car rental company you use are all factors that will impact the price. To make matters even more frustrating, there are often multiple price points for the same car at the same rental shop in the same city. If you’re a member of a rewards program such as Hertz Club or Avis Preferred, for example, odds are you can snag a cheaper rate than a non-member. Also, prices tend to be higher during the week than on the weekend. Sometimes, even age plays a factor in car-rental cost — a 50-year-old with a long driving history can command a lower rate from certain companies than a 25-year-old. Advance booking makes a big difference as well — walking up to the counter is going to land you the most expensive rate possible.
But, what really matters in making a choice between renting a car and using ride-hailing app is how many miles you plan to travel. The general formula starts with a strong lean towards ride shares, with the pendulum moving towards rental cars the more miles you drive.
Let’s run through a quick scenario: You’re flying into Kansas City for the weekend. (We picked Kansas City for two reasons: the airport is located 25-30 minutes from the city center, which is typical in both American and international cities. Additionally, median transit costs in Kansas City can be easily shifted to other US cities.)
You plan to stay downtown the first night, eating and checking out the nightlife within walking distance of the hotel. An Uber ride from the airport costs $30.
But the next day your group hopes to head over to the Kansas side for BBQ. Your Uber ride out there costs $9 each way, plus $7 for three additional sightseeing stops. Your total Uber bill sits at $69. That night, you take an Uber out to a restaurant during peak hours, costing another $30 round trip.
With an Avis reservation made two weeks in advance, you’re looking at about $115 for three days in a compact car, so you’d have saved money by renting a car. But if you were to stay downtown throughout your stay and make cheap use of public transit, Uber would have cost you about half as much a car rental.
A quick note on international car rentals
International car rentals are typically more expensive than Uber, partly because insurance laws vary by country. In Costa Rica, for example, most car rental companies require international tourists to buy mandatory insurance before they are allowed to rent a vehicle from them. Whether or not you have comprehensive coverage back home in the US, the company will not rent you a car unless you buy the insurance that they require. This is not a legal requirement implemented by the country, it is a policy of the individual car rental company itself. This typically adds upwards of $20 per day onto the total cost of your rental, and is often not included in the original quote (which may appears to be quite cheap).
Many countries, including Italy and Indonesia, require an international driver’s permit. Additionally, most US car insurance companies provide limited or no coverage beyond Canada or Mexico, with coverage in Mexico often being extremely limited. The burden of buying additional insurance often tips the hat in favor of using Uber or a local ride-sharing platform such as Grab in Asia, at least when it comes to cost.
When making travel plans, research the car rental regulations in the country you are heading to before taking off. Hidden fees and requirements at the checkout counter are a real bummer when you aren’t expecting them.
So, which is the best option?
The biggest factor you can employ when deciding whether it’s cheaper to rent a car or take Uber is how many stops you plan to make, and the total miles driven. Frequent stops skyrocket the total cost of ride sharing, while in a rental car the only added cost is the additional gas you’ll have to put in the tank before returning the vehicle. On the contrary, if you can get around on foot, bike, or with public transit throughout most of your trip and only need a car to get between a couple spots across town, Uber is the way to go.