Free Wheelin'

Why rent a car? Take a "driveaway" vacation and you can drive across the USA without paying a cent.

By Gergana Koleva, Monday, Jan 19, 2004, 12:00 AM

Bruce Todd finds it hard to resist driving other people's vehicles. "I've been driving people's cars for ten years now and ninety-nine percent of the time I've had fun doing it," he says. "It saves the cost of a rental car. And in the end, I always meet the owners, who are appreciative and congenial." Such was his summary of the automobile transportation industry's best-kept secret--the driveaway.

If rental car fees are a tad steep for your pocketbook, "driveaway" may be the way to go. What is it? It's a mutual favor that you do for someone you haven't met and may never meet. They let you drive their car for free with the stipulation that you take it where they need it to be (usually this involves long distance driving). It enables cost-conscious travelers to cut vacation expenses to a stunningly low figure.

How it works

While driveaway offers do pop up occasionally on popular internet bulletin boards such as Craig's List (craigslist.com), most vacationers who engage in this activity don't go the casual, person to person route. Most contact one of the many professional auto delivery companies across the United States.

"We are a service almost like a matchmaker", says David Burke, owner of Auto Driveaway New York City (225 West 34th St., Suite 1201, New York, 212-967-2344, autodriveaway.com). "We connect people who like to travel, but don't like to spend a lot of money, with cars headed in the same direction."

Not everyone will be eligible to become a driveaway driver. As a general rule, drivers are expected to pass a screening test, which for most consists of driving record verification. Some offices will run your driver's license against a national listing of bad drivers. Participants must also be 21 or over to apply. If approved, they are required to leave a bond deposit of about $300, which is returned once the car is transported safely, within the expected time frame, to its destination. Finally, drivers are expected to cover anywhere between 300-500 miles a day.

It can also take a bit of time to find a car that's going in the direction you want to travel. Flexibility is the key here. If you can travel at the drop of a hat, or if you're willing to go to a nearby city to start your driving vacation, your chances of finding a match increase exponentially. Drivers should also look into "staging." If a car is not going exactly where they hope to go, they may be able drive one car from point A to point B, then another car from B to C, and so on.

Neatness also counts. Drivers are expected to keep the car tidy and to clean it before drop-off. If you deliver a car filled with crumbs and candy wrappers you can be sure that the driveaway company won't accept your application next time.

The "Big Kahuna" in Driveaways

Cornering the market for volunteer drivers, Auto Driveaway moves more than 18,000 vehicles a year just with its standard driveaway service and has over 50 offices in the largest traffic markets in the U.S. and Canada. No other company works with as many non-salaried drivers. It has built a regular clientele on both sides (drivers and car owners) of its driveaway business.

To ensure that vehicles are delivered in the same condition in which they are received, it requests that drivers fill out a condition report prior to departure. In addition, it supplies drivers with an itinerary plan and estimated mileage allotment. In return, the driveaway company gives its volunteers an additional mileage allowance for reasonable detours and occasional sightseeing. There's also a fairly generous amount of time allotted to compensate for unexpected road construction delays and inclement weather.

Each of Auto Driveaway's separate offices adheres to general guidelines, but is free to determine its own rules and regulations, so it is difficult to summarize a hard-and-fast policy.

If you pick up a car from its Los Angeles branch, you will not be expected to call them unless you have a serious problem on the road. Not so in Orlando, where the owners expect drivers to check in every day or two. In the words of Allan Cornman, owner of the Orlando office, "We are pretty liberal and understanding when it comes to unexpected delays, and we will waive most penalties if the driver gives us a good reason, and communicates with us regularly during the course of the trip."

All offices start you off with a free tank of gas (after that you must pay yourself) and require that drivers not be on the road from 10pm until 5am for safety reasons and insurance reasons. There's no drinking, eating or smoking permitted in any of the vehicles, and there can be no more than three passengers in the car at any one time.

The competition

With just three offices (in Dallas, Culver City and Highland, Indiana) Schultz-International (9905 Express Drive Unit #2, Highland, IN, 800-619-7707 or 219-934-2000, transportautos.com) is a much smaller company, but still quite reputable. The deposit here is $335, of which you get $300 back when you deliver the vehicle to its owner (when driveaway companies have a limited number of terminals in other cities, they usually schedule a door-to-door delivery).

Upon departure, the company will specify the route you are to follow and supply you with a tank-full of fuel for free, after which you will be responsible for any additional gas, as well as your own food and lodging. With Schultz you are eligible for a "gas bonus" if you're driving a larger vehicle. The company, however, does cover the cost of insurance.

As is the practice in most driveaway companies, which advise that you drive no more than eight hours a day--leaving some time for rest stops and meals--Schultz-International also provides a time frame for delivery of the vehicle. Driving from Chicago to anywhere on the West Coast, for example, you would be expected to complete the trip in as many as seven days, while a trip to a southern destination like Atlanta will grant you four.

Things to keep in mind

One important thing to remember when planning a driveaway trip is that while its money-saving and sightseeing qualities are hard to rival, it is still a serious undertaking. When drivers lose track of time and miss the delivery deadline without a valid reason (driveaway companies strongly encourage communication and regular updates from their drivers so that they stay aware of any possible delays), or exceed the mileage allotted for their trip, they will be fined accordingly. "Knowing that you're running late and not reporting to us equals stealing a car," says Mr. Cornman.

But despite the time restraints, this is usually a hassle-free method of travel. "In all 15 years since we've been open, we've only had one minor driveaway incident," reports Don Harris owner of the Tampa branch of Auto Driveaway, "The A/C in the car failed, and the driver, whose companion was an elderly woman, had to stop at a nearby city and have it fixed." (The client paid).

According to Harris, the vast majority of drivers encounter no problems whatsoever. He goes on to say that driveaways attract a wide variety of participants from "winter residents returning to the Northeast to young international travelers touring the country, to elderly couples taking that long-planned trip out west."

Why not join them? Even with rising gas costs, there's no better--and cheaper--way to get where you're going.