Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Summer of Driving..?

Last summer, gas prices in cities across America hovered around $4.00 per gallon. This summer, recession has driven those prices way down, and while prices are ticking up, they remain only slightly more than half as high as we saw in 2008.

That's going to leave a lot of people wondering: is this, finally, the summer for that big road trip of American legend?

The answer, as always, is "It depends."

Without a doubt, there are bargains to be had. Beyond gas prices, hotel prices have also been slashed, even in popular tourist spots like Las Vegas (though one place you won't find a break is at Disney World; their appeal is basically recession-proof).

Before you jump in the car and go, though, here are a few points to consider.
  1. Mileage costs money. Gas isn't the only expense of driving. Wear and tear adds to maintenance bills and shortens the life of your car. What's more, driving a long distance in a short time is quite a bit worse than short trips over months.

    If you want to drive, it's often a good bargain to rent a car instead. The recession has driven daily rates even lower than usual, and a rental car is meant to be driven hard and then quickly replaced.

    Just be sure that your contract covers unlimited mileage--and that if you plan to leave the United States, you have special approval. Otherwise, driving into Canada or Mexico may get you into trouble, and at the very least will void your insurance coverage.
  2. Driving is exhausting. It's fun for the first few hundred miles, but as the odometer keeps turning, you're going to get tired. Change drivers often, at least every few hours. Bringing snacks is a good way to save money, but take time to stretch your legs.

  3. Plan your route. Part of the fun of a road trip is that you can detour to see things along the way, but aimlessly driving around wastes time and costs money. Whether you have a GPS system or a paper road atlas, you want to know where you are and where you're going.
There's a lot to be said against driving. It's slow. On a per-mile basis, it's more expensive for long trips than flying or taking the train, and way more expensive than taking a bus. But for better or worse, the road trip is part of the American psyche. If it's an experience you want to have, this summer may be your chance. The recession will eventually end, and $4.00-per-gallon gasoline may be back before long.

Happy driving.

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