With everyone feeling the crunch of high fuel prices this summer, it's seems a no-brainer to rent a hybrid car—you'll use less gas and get more for your buck, right? Actually, the answer may be no. With a bit of investigation, I found choosing an economy car over a hybrid was often the more economical choice.
The problem lies not in the gas mileage, but in the per-day rental car rates. Economy cars are typically the cheapest on the market—they're small, are relative gas-sippers, and usually have no frills (don't expect auto locks, a souped-up stereo system, or other gadgets), leading to a low per-day rental price. They're also available pretty much everywhere, so the supply and demand ratio is usually at a good balance. Conversely, hybrids feature desirable amenities such as excellent gas mileage, nice stereos, heated seats, and the like—and they aren't offered at many national rental agencies. (Hertz was the only provider I found that consistently rents such models.) When I did find them available for rental, their per-day rates were astronomical—more than $60 per day at some locations.
Here's a comparison of hybrids versus economy cars, taking the per-day Hertz rental rates and round-trip gas cost (using AAA's fuel cost calculator) into account.
San Francisco to Yosemite National Park
Total for two-day Toyota Prius hybrid car rental and round-trip gas: $194
Total for two-day Hyundai Accent economy car rental and round-trip gas: $139
Best value: Economy car saves $55
New York City to Cape May beaches, New Jersey
Total for two-day Toyota Prius car rental and round-trip gas: $258
Total for two-day Hyundai Accent car rental and round-trip gas: $257
Best value: About the same (Economy saves $1)
Seattle to Olympic National Park
Total for two-day Toyota Prius car rental and round-trip gas: $142
Total for two-day Hyundai Accent car rental and round-trip gas: $99
Best value: Economy car saves $43
The best advice? Don't book blindly. Take advantage of online fuel cost calculators and price-comparison sites (such as SmarterTravel.com's price-comparison tool) to research the best value for your upcoming trip.
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