Smart Money Podcast – Save on Travel Transportation: Your Guide to Rental Cars, RVs, and Public Transit


Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions. In this episode:

Get savvy about car rental services, pros and cons of RV rentals and navigating public transportation when traveling.

What are the best transportation options when traveling with a group?

When is it worth it to rent a car?

NerdWallet’s Meghan Coyle and Sally French discuss group transportation options and public transportation strategies to help you understand how to move your squad around efficiently and economically. They begin with a discussion of various modes of transportation, with tips and tricks for saving money on rental cars. Then, they discuss the ins and outs of RV travel and public transit in cities. They discuss RV delivery services, managing fuel costs, the practicality of Amtrak for group travel, and the advantages of public transit over car rentals in urban settings.

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Episode transcript

This transcript was generated from podcast audio by an AI tool.

You’ve got the airline tickets, you found a great place to stay. Now you’ve got to figure out how to get your large group from point A to point B. Today we continue our series on group travel by asking what are the best and most cost-effective ways to move a lot of people around on a vacation or getaway.

So you do want to make sure that everyone in your group will fit. You also need to account for that luggage. Who of your friends are the over packers who bring four rolling suitcases? Make sure that all of that can fit.

Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money Podcast. I’m Sean Pyles.

This episode continues our Nerdy deep dive into group travel. Meghan, how about we all just jump in a giant RV and tour around the country?

Sounds good to me. How many of us?

Let’s say 15, maybe some kids and grandparents in there.

I think you’re going to need more than one RV, Sean.

Okay, we can get a fleet.

Perfect. Well, that’s definitely one way to go when you’re traveling as a group, but it’s far from the only way. You’ve got rental cars, car sharing apps, and don’t forget trains.

Oh, I do love a good train trip, but I’m guessing what we’re exploring today is how to deal with the logistics of transportation when you have more than, say, four or five people,

Right. We’re going to talk about the pros and cons of different modes of transportation and the costs involved when you’re traveling with more than a few friends and family.

All right, well listener, we want to hear your thoughts about group travel. Are you organizing a trip for a bunch of friends? How are you going about it? And what questions do you have? Leave us a voicemail or text the Nerd Hotline at 901-730-6373, that’s 901-730-N-E-R-D. Or email a voice memo to [email protected]. So Meghan, where do we start our engines today?

Well, in a moment I’ll be talking with fellow Nerd Sally French, who covers travel, and we’ll explore the wide world of trains and automobiles for group travel.

Sally, thank you so much for coming back on the show.

Always a pleasure to be here, Meghan.

So we’re doing an entire miniseries on traveling with a group and this episode is all about transportation for a group. I think one of the first things that comes to mind for group travel and transportation is rental cars. So what are some ways to save on rental cars that you would recommend?

To be honest, upfront, rental cars are still way more expensive than what they were, especially pre-pandemic. We’re all very familiar with inflation and the rental car industry is no exception. What’s interesting though is that the rest of the travel industry kind of is. What NerdWallet has found is that airfares are actually down 3.6% versus 2019, but that is not the case for rental cars. Rental cars in fact are up about 20% since 2019, so you can get a great deal on airfare, but you often get a pretty brutal deal on rental cars these days.

So go in with the assumption that you’re going to have to pay pretty big to rent a car. If you are though set on a rental car, and I think we’re going to talk later about alternatives to rental cars, but if you’re really set on a rental car, there are some things that you can do to save. One is to seek out rental car elite status. With this, you can often get benefits that you would otherwise pay for like rental car upgrades, being able to skip the rental car counter, and as I say, time is money, and often you can get elite status automatically through your credit card. Many of those premium travel credit cards offer automatic elite status at rental car companies as a benefit simply for holding the car. Other things that you should know are just the best places to actually rent a car.

NerdWallet has extensively studied rental car prices and one of the big things that NerdWallet found is that it is significantly cheaper to rent a car from the downtown location versus the same company at the airport. Most people land and they immediately go to their Enterprise or the Alamo, get their rental car from the airport, but typically the lines are longer and they’re far more expensive than just picking up a rental car downtown. And that might not be convenient to then take a taxi downtown, but this is a really critical tip, especially if you only need the rental car for let’s say one day of your trip, take a taxi downtown and then only rent a rental car on the day you need it. That way you’re not unnecessarily paying for rental cars on days you’re not really using them, you’re not paying for it overnight if you’re not using it overnight, which you’re probably not, and you’re also not paying for parking.

Yeah. And there might even be a rental car location close to your hotel or something like that. It might be easier than people think, especially if you have a lot of people in tow.

Absolutely. There are so many rental car companies that are located just off the lobby of hotels. I was just in Mexico and we wanted a rental car for one day and my hotel had a rental car company there and so we only had the rental car on the day we needed it. We didn’t have to worry about finding parking in Mexico, which was really complicated. Many of the hotels charge parking fees that are $30 or $40 a night. So you figure, in our case we took an Uber to the hotel and the Uber ride was basically the same price as the parking and then we only paid for the rental car on the day that we truly used it rather than paying for the rental car for four or five days when it’s just sitting there.

What about renting an electric car? Can that help you save at all?

So many people have electric cars now that renting an electric car can make perfect sense. You do want to account for how far you are driving and understand what the mileage is on the electric car because you might not want to worry about having to charge it, especially if you’re taking a long road trip. However, if you are driving someplace that’s not too far, you might actually be able to charge it overnight. That’s because many hotels and vacation rentals now offer electric car charging stations. One of the best ways to find these is simply by using filter tools. In fact, both Airbnb and Expedia in their list of features allows you to filter by cars with that electric car charging.

So what happens if you can’t find a rental car that’s going to fit your group? For example, I was in Hawaii during the pandemic and rental cars were nowhere to be found. They were so expensive and even if you wanted to pay a lot to rent a minivan, you just couldn’t find one. So what are some of the other options people have if they just can’t find a car of the size they need when they’re renting?

Meghan, it is so interesting that you bring up not being able to find a rental car during the pandemic because that’s exactly why prices got so high and unfortunately rental car prices have largely stayed high. But one of the good things is that we’ve seen this proliferation of rental car alternatives, so companies like Turo or GetAround have been around since pre-pandemic and we’ve also seen a lot of other newer companies pop up in this similar vein. Now all these rental car alternatives operate individually from each other and have their own nuances, but generally what you’ll find is especially with companies like Turo or GetAround, these operate like the Airbnb for cars.

So someone who’s just a regular person like us says, “I’m not using my car this weekend, I’m going to post it on this site,” and then someone else says, “Well, I need this car so I’m going to rent it from you through the app.” What’s really convenient about these is that you typically do pay by the hour, so you could even use this in your hometown to go grocery shopping if you don’t own a car and you need one for that big Costco run. But it’s also really great when you’re going on vacation. One of the things to consider is that with a big rental car company, you’re going to see them at the airports as we talked about. You’re going to see them in the big tourist outposts near hotels. With these services like Turo or GetAround, they actually tend to not so much be in these places because these cars tend to be owned by regular people.

They might just be parked in their own apartment building. So that’s a pro and a con. It’s a pro if you need to rent a car in that area, of course it can be a con because you don’t want to check out a car that’s so far from your hotel that it’s inconvenient to even get the car.

What are some of the other pros though of using these rental car alternatives?

I mean, often they can be a lot cheaper. Often some of them actually have delivery services. With Turo, some, not all, cars will deliver the car to you. Kite is another company that they’ll actually deliver the car to you. Now this can be really convenient because you’re really not even waiting at the rental car counter. If you’re staying at a hotel, you’ll just see the car roll up to the porte-cochère and the driver will hand you the keys and with a service like Kite, they just leave either on foot or on a scooter and you get to take the car.

What are some of the cons though? This sounds like almost too good to be true.

Meghan, these things are too good to be true. They can definitely vary in quality and there are some cars that are excellent. We were in Denver and we splurged and got an awesome Mustang and it drove great, but I’ve also had cars that the brakes are squeaking and they smell a little musty and they’re not totally clean. Keep in mind, these are cars just owned by regular people in a lot of cases and it’s just unfortunate when I paid money to rent it out and then that’s the car I got. Other considerations to keep in mind are things like more limited customer service. When you are checking out a car at a real rental car counter, if there’s an issue, you can walk right back and talk to a real person. With the services like GetAround or Turo, they do have customer support and claim to have 24/7 customer support.

Often that person on the phone just can’t help you as well as someone in person. And then of course you do have to keep in mind what happens if you’re trying to rent a car in an area where you don’t have cell service. That’s also a concern.

So no matter where you rent a car, what are some things to consider when you’re renting a car for a group? Because there’s so much more than price, right?

Absolutely. So you do want to make sure that everyone in your group will fit. You also need to account for that luggage. Who of your friends are the over packers who bring four rolling suitcases? Make sure that all of that can fit. But of course you did bring up price and it’s important to consider that some people might say, “We’ve got six people in our group, so we’re going to get a big SUV.” Sometimes though it could be cheaper to do two compact cars than to have one SUV. Pricing can really vary based on availability, so sometimes it’ll be more expensive, but sometimes it’ll actually be cheaper. So just make sure that you understand and compare costs with your group. The other thing to consider about if you’re particularly traveling with a group is some of you guys might want to split off. So having two sedans can be more convenient over one SUV because if one group wants to go to the beach and one group wants to go on a hike, each half of the group can take their car.

Right. That’s definitely been a theme this entire miniseries is just when you’re planning group travel, you have to build in the flexibility for people to go off and do their own thing or stay behind. I love that you called that out. Let’s talk about another type of car, an RV, a recreational vehicle. I’ve actually never traveled in one, have you?

So an RV is great because you combine the rental car and the hotel into one. There are a lot of things to keep in mind when you rent out an RV. They’re definitely not for everyone. So I’ll go ahead and just jump into some considerations before you immediately say, “Yes, I need an RV.” So one, they can be really difficult to drive, they can be more difficult to park. The other thing to consider is that they take up a lot of gas. For example, Cruise America, which is one of the biggest RV companies, says that you should anticipate one of their RVs getting 10 to 12 miles a gallon. So factor in $4 a gallon of gas, that’s going to be pretty expensive. You might also need a second car if the nature of your trip is driving somewhere, unpacking, setting up the whole covered porch where people have the RVs and set up their chairs.

If you then want to leave, you’re going to need a second car anyway. So that could just be basically twice as much gas to consider. And then all the challenges that come with RVs, you’re likely not having that hotel housekeeper coming in every day. In fact, you are going to have to dump your own sewage in most cases. There are some ways that you can mitigate the challenges though of RVs. One of them is something that we’ve seen become increasingly popular, and this is the idea of RV delivery. There are a lot of people who want that experience of staying in an RV, but they don’t want to have to drive it. And so what you can actually do is connect with a company that offers a service. RV Share and Outdoorsy are some examples where you actually say, “You know what? I want the RV delivered to this campground at this beach,” and they’ll bring the RV to you and you drive your own car there and then you get to stay in an RV without ever having to drive it.

That makes sense. Just to get an idea, how many people can usually sleep in an RV?

Ooh. Well, this really varies. If you look at one of those little air streams that might just be one or two, especially the cars that are basically the Volkswagen bus that people have converted into a sleeping situation, that’s really going to be one or two, and even that’s cozy. The benefit of that is something like a Volkswagen bus is a lot easier to drive than on the other hand, those amazing RVs that are on HGTV and they’re like a small palace on wheels. You could totally do group travel that way, but just understand usually the bigger it is, the harder it is to drive.

Okay. Let’s move to a different type of transportation. We’ll get off the road and onto a train. What can you tell us about Amtrak travel and how well that works for a group?

Train travel is so much fun and you can take advantage of trains in any capacity. So something like an Amtrak, you could go from New York to D.C so easily, you could take a really scenic ride down the California coast. This can often be cheaper than flying, especially if you book early. There’s also far fewer restrictions on luggage. So again, if you’re one of those big over packers, this can be convenient. Even if your group involves lots of kids, it can just be less chaotic because there’s not the whole situation of having to go through the airport and go through security and all of that. It’s much simpler. So I really like Amtrak for big groups. And then there are trains that are really designed specifically for getting people between tourist destinations. So in Florida, they just opened an extension of Brightline and this is a fantastic train route.

It leaves out of Orlando and you can go down south in Florida. So that’s a really, really great way to get around.

I’ve actually been on a really unique Amtrak train called the Auto Train where you can literally drive your car, actually, not you, but someone who works at the train station drives your car onto the Amtrak train, and then you sit in the cabin like a normal Amtrak ride, and then the trip takes overnight, many hours, but you don’t have to drive that distance. And so my family took it from Virginia to Orlando, and then when we got off in Orlando, we had our normal minivan. So we just picked it up down there and drove around.

That sounds like the ultimate Disney vacation because there’s so many families that travel from places like Virginia down to Orlando by car, and I feel so bad for the parents that have to do this really, really long drive and then they have to muster up this energy to go through the theme parks. If you can sleep on the train and then your car is there, that sounds amazing.

Yeah. And talk about not unpacking, we just left all of our luggage inside of our car and then we picked it up and it’s right there.

This is a life hack. I learned something new today, Meghan. Thank you.

All right, and last but not least, let’s talk about navigating public transportation with a group, which can be a challenge if not everyone is on board with the public transportation systems. But what are some of your tips for keeping everyone together when you’re going through these stations?

I love public transportation. I already gushed about trains, but public transportation, whether it’s a subway train or it’s a bus or something like that, I think it’s great. I’m biased because I live in San Francisco and I don’t even own a car. I’m never looking to drive a car, I’m always looking for someone else to get me around. So keep in mind that public transportation can be your friend. It can be scary to people, especially if you’re not used to it. Some public transportation systems are easier than others. Many of the best ones will take you right from the airport to downtown. Some great cities where I recommend always taking public transit over a car include Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. There’s so many more that I could name, but all of these places have trains that leave the airport and will take you to downtown.

And often when you consider traffic, especially in these cities that I named that have a lot of traffic, you get there faster because you get to avoid the traffic. Many of them take mobile payments, so it’s really easy to just pay by your phone. For example, the New York Subway does mobile payments. And even if you’re saying, “I don’t know how to catch a train, I don’t know where it goes,” everyone has a smartphone in their hand, download Google Maps. They make it really easy to navigate public transportation. And so you can just enter your destination and they’ll tell you how long it’ll take to get there and walk you through step-by-step where to find the bus stop, where to get off. They make it really simple.

I was really impressed in Japan, the Google Maps is so good, it’ll tell you literally which train car to get on. If it’s a five car train, it’ll be like, “Get on the second train car to make the connection easier to the next train.”

That’s brilliant. I do feel that because in San Francisco, I go to their airport all the time and you have to go in the front car is a life hack because the front car is right next to the terminal. If you’re in the back car, it feels like it’s a quarter mile. It’s so far. So that’s such a good tip.

There is a little bit of a middle ground between renting a car or using public transportation with your group. What is it and why should people consider it?

This is one of those tour buses and often we see them called hop on hop off buses, but many major cities have these. A bus or we’ll call it mass transit, but it’s designed specifically for tourists. And I’m all about these and I know they’re dorky when you see everyone getting on the hop on hop off bus, do not worry because they’re so useful. What these buses do is they’ll pick you up typically at the big tourist hubs if you’re staying at a hotel in a major area, and they’ll drive around to all the popular tourist hotspots. This makes it easy to plan your trip because especially if you’re in a place like San Francisco, you don’t have to say, “Where should I go?” You just hop on the bus and they’ll take you to the Golden Gate Bridge and they’ll take you to Fisherman’s Wharf and they’ll take you to the ferry building.

This makes it really simple to have to plan. And then as we talked about, you mentioned your family hopping on the train to get down to Orlando. You really don’t want to stress yourself out on vacation by sitting in traffic, having to worry about driving, having to worry about navigating an unfamiliar place. So what’s great about these hop on hop off bus tours is you’re not necessarily on public transit and having to worry about that, but you’re also not having to worry about driving in an unfamiliar place.

That’s such a great tip. Sally, you are full of great tips today. Thank you so much for joining us.

It’s always a pleasure to be here.

I’ve got to say, I love Sally’s tip about getting your rental car from somewhere beyond the airport because not only are airport rental car locations often a hectic nightmare, but they’re more expensive too. And I’m all about finding a less expensive, less chaotic way to get a ride. But I do have a word of caution for anyone using a rental car alternative. Like Sally mentioned, your experience may vary. For example, I once booked a car through one of these services and had a fairly sketchy experience. The person that I was going to rent the car from first said that they were going to drop the car off at the airport for me. But then when I landed, they said there was some big car accident near the airport, so they wanted me to meet them at their home, a full hour away from the airport. And that felt like a really good way to get kidnapped so I didn’t go that route. And I now only go through rental car companies. So again, only one person’s experience one time, but it made me say, “This is not for me going forward.”

Yeah, I had a similar bad experience with a rental car alternative. My family rented a rental car on one of these platforms, and we actually ended up in a car accident, and it was such a hassle to deal with the insurance because the car rental insurance wasn’t quite the same as it would be for a traditional rental car company. So we learned our lesson there and it was really annoying to deal with all of that while we’re supposed to be on vacation.

Yeah, I bet. I mean, there’s so much uncertainty involved in travel as it is that I want to go with a company that I know is at least a little more reliable.

Totally. But it can work for some people in some cases.

So Meghan, tell us what’s coming up in the final episode of the series.

Well, to round out our look at group travel, we’re going to go all aboard on cruises. Giant honking ships are a natural way to get a big group together to see the world, or at least parts of it. We’re going to find out how to pick a cruise, save on excursions, and find a ship that has something for everyone. For now, that’s all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-N-E-R-D. You can also email us at [email protected]. Also visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode and remember to follow rate and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.

This episode was produced by Tess Vigeland. I helped with editing. Kevin Berry helped with fact checking, Sara Brink mixed our audio. And a big thank you to NerdWallet’s editors for all their help.

And here’s our brief disclaimer. We are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.



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