You’ve travelled around the world and have always got by using whatever bus, train, boat or tuk-tuk is available. However, the plan to use public transport will not get you far if you want to explore America and Canada.
That leaves you with only one option that will allow you to venture out to the national parks, must-see monuments and quirky towns in between. You need the freedom of your own vehicle. Renting is simple, but can be pricey. Buying is a hassle, but may work out cheaper. So which road should you take?
With the rental option, you pay your money and everything is taken care of from start to finish. The cost of several weeks rental isn’t too bad, but then add on insurance, under-25 fees, the extortionate one-way charges and tax (why do they never add that on!?), maybe you’re just better off buying your own vehicle?
A quick look at kayak.com, shows you can rent a car for one month in the summer, beginning in Los Angeles and dropping off in New York City starting at around US$1,800, without extra insurance.
Hiring a campervan for the month is much pricier at around US$2,700 (jucyusa.com), but the compromise in spending the extra is that the camper will provide a roof over your head, so you’re accommodation costs are mostly taken care off.
Looking at those prices, you’re thinking "what a waste of money", when you can buy a decent car for something in the range of US$2,000-4,000 and then sell it on at the end. After all, your first car at home was in that price range and that served its purpose, with just the odd problem here and there. But then you weren’t driving thousands of miles across a foreign country and Mum & Dad were only down the road to tow you home in case of a total breakdown.
For most people, the financial costs are the deciding factor, with the cheapest option usually winning, but what are the other pros and cons you should consider and may have not thought about, before deciding whether to rent or buy a vehicle in America.
✘ The cons of renting:
The costs are often much more than first quoted online. Every time friends, family or myself have hired a car, you get to the desk to pay the final amount and sometimes the price has almost doubled, despite the online quote stating ‘total price’.
Some US-based rentals will not allow you to enter Canada, the state of Alaska, or drive certain roads or enter certain events. Driving through Death Valley in summer or taking your vehicle to Burning Man festival are also banned by some companies. Or they charge excessive additional fees for the privilege.
✘ The cons of buying:
You've found your car - yay! But now there’s a lot of paperwork to complete. You will receive most of the paperwork the day you purchase the car but then you must take these to a DMV office in the state to complete this. The laws vary by state so make sure you look up what is required in your state. There are 4 major things you need before your car is roadworthy:
Title: this is a pink piece of paper that shows ownership of the vehicle. To sell the car, you will need the title As this can take up to 3 months to receive, it may not be possible to sell your car in the 3 months after first buying it.
Registration: this shows the car is legally approved to operate in the state. When purchasing a car, you'll have to register it somewhere (In the states of New York and California, they want a physical address, not a post office box as some people used to use). For the first 30 days, you are issued a temporary tag, but within this timeframe you will need to stop at a local DMV office to get the registration transferred to your name, which requires a proof of address in the state.
Inspection: Checks will be required to ensure the car is not stolen and it meets environmental regulations. Roadside assistance is another option and may be piece of mind, but the costs are now quickly adding up.
Insurance: Almost all states require you have at least minimal liability insurance. On a 20-year old car with minimum liability insurance, expect this to cost around US$100 per month. Some companies will require you to pay 12-months upfront and then you will be refunded the difference if you cancel early. Other companies allow you to pay month-by-month. You will also have to pay auto-insurance broker fees which are around $100-$200 one-off charges.
✘ Other cons of buying, after the paperwork:
Anything that’s in the US$5,000 price-range or less will mean an older car that’s not as reliable, with greater potential for mechanical problems. You may have no problems, but a big problem could ruin the trip.
Buying from a dealership, where the car comes with a warranty is more reassuring, but it might involve you getting the car back to them for any repairs, plus the time fixing it will take valuable time out of your travels.
You will need to sell the car when you leave. If you’re visa is close to running out or you have a flight booked, you’re on a limited schedule and may have to sell the car for a huge loss. Or worse case, you can't sell it at all.
✓ The pros of renting:
You will drive a new car, reducing the chance of mechanical problems.
You may book a cheaper rental, but then be offered a free upgrade, resulting in a much more luxurious car than planned.
If you do run into mechanical problems and have rented from a major-national company, they offer customer support wherever you are or may even replace the car to keep you moving.
✓The pros of buying:
You can make any modifications you want, from covering it in bumper stickers to drawing funky artwork on the side.
You have your own vehicle that will feel much more meaningful than a hire car and you’ll look back fondly on.
When you sell the vehicle on, you will get some money back to fuel the next part of your trip. If you’re in the right place at the right time, you may even get a similar price to what you originally paid, making it all the sweeter.
Other tips for buying a car/campervan in America:
Obtain an IDP (International Drivers Permit) before you leave may be useful in terms of getting insurance and at international border crossings.
Get the cash out before you leave your home country. ATM’s will not let you take out thousands of dollars, neither will banks that you are not with. By taking the money out at home you can research the best exchange rate.
Buy an American car, preferably a Ford or Chevrolet. If you run into problems on the road, "domestic" parts are much more readily available, whereas European and Japanese car parts are harder to come by and may have to be ordered in.
California is a great place to buy your car, as well as one of the most popular destinations where people begin their road-trip. Buying an old car in California, that has remained in California throughout it’s lifetime will mean the car will have less rust due to the warm climate. There is also an abundance of dealerships and mechanics in the big cities, helping keep costs competitive, hence cheaper.
After all the pros and cons, what should you do?
If you're visiting for 3 months or less, I would say do not buy a vehicle, and go for the rental option. Even once you have found the vehicle you want to buy it will take at least a few days, if not weeks, to complete the paperwork before you can set off on the road. Whilst rental fees are expensive, which can be frustrating, the convenience is absolutely worth it, even if you are wincing as you settle the balance. Fingers crossed for a free upgrade!
What did we do?
We were in North America for a year, so bought our vehicle - Jelly the Campervan, below. It definitely had some big admin-related hassles at times, but other than that, no regrets!