No discounts for rental cars

There’s still money in rental cars, according to the latest from the New York Times. In May, the average rental rate (airport) for a compact ride was $345.99 for a week – as long as you booked it seven days in advance. That’s an increase of 73 percent from $199.65 in May 2008, according to Abrams Consulting Group, which watches this stuff. As of mid-June, the 2008-to-2009 change was narrower: $210.38 to $347.44 (up 65 percent).

The price increases, it seems, are our own fault. Demand is down 15 percent, which forces the rental car companies to cut their fleets back – ultimately engineering a shortage that pushes up prices. So, if we were renting more cars, they would be cheaper.

One of the side-effects of this dynamic is that cars are staying in the rental fleets longer. Remember when you’d never see a rental car with more than 30,000 miles on it? Well, don’t count on that threshold any more. The average rental car’s age is now up to 11 months – that has to be forever in dog years – as companies try to extract as much value from each ride as possible.

There are a few ways you can find a cheaper rental car, which you can learn after the jump.

Start looking early. If a rental car company isn’t sold out for when you want it (always a possibility), you’ll pay a fortune for the little remaining inventory.

Skip the airport lots. You could wind up paying an extra 30 percent that way. Head into the local city instead – or even better, the ‘burbs. A friend of mine used to manage a rental car location outside Boston and used to tell me just how accommodating they would be: discounts, pickup and drop-off and so on.

Don’t be afraid to upgrade. The last thing you want to do is sink even more money into this endeavor, but a few extra dollars can go a long way, especially if you need to be comfortable on a long road trip.

Want more tips? Read the original article in the New York Times.

Stories from and for the road: NPR Road Trips

If you’re like me, you already think that an NPR story is a good listen. But add a quirky travel destination or persona to the mix, and you’re one happy NPR-listener.

A new CD series–NPR Road Trips–has just been released by NPR and HighBridge Audio. It includes: Roadside Attractions, National Park Adventures, and Postcards from Around the Globe.

I imagine the stories being enjoyed best at the source of their inspiration: on a good cross-country trip–the kind where you’re six hours in, and the only thing keeping you from insanity is counting sheep and sucking down that mediocre cup of coffee you picked up from the last truck stop.

Travel along to the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas or camel-racing robots in Dubai. And to keep things lively, the stories come in short bursts–eight minutes at most.

You can pick up one of the CDs from bookstores–either the real thing or online–or the publisher or NPR itself.

On the road with the Lincoln MKS

When Ford contacted us about taking Lincoln’s new MKS out for a test drive, I thought that they had the wrong website. Autoblog, our sister site, takes care of all things automotive, and they would certainly be better equipped to handle a test drive. And in addition to being an airplane person, well, I’m not a very good driver.

But they made a good point: everyone on Autoblog has seen the MKS a dozen times and travelers go on road trips too. The content is just as valid. Further, since I was driving across the state of Michigan several times for Easter weekend I had ample time to test the vehicle out. So I agreed to take a look. But I made no promises about editorial content.

For those (myself included) among us that are not in the vehicle testing circles, I first have to comment on the kick of getting a test vehicle delivered. A third party company in the greater Detroit area handles the entire transaction, calling you before delivery and dropping off the vehicle wherever you want. They came to my office one sunny morning with a Mercury chase car and a pleasant woman tossed me a set of keys, asked me to sign a form and disappeared within five minutes. I was left with a bright red MKS for the weekend to do with as I pleased. Road tripping across Michigan over several days seemed like a good opportunity to acquaint myself.


As luxury vehicles go, the MKS has all of the amenities that one comes to expect: a smooth, quiet ride, powerful V6 engine, heated and cooled comfortable, leather seats, wood trim, push-button starting and embedded navigation. Where I was surprised was in the features above and beyond.

Microsoft Sync is installed in the vehicle, and navigating though the touch screen AV system I was easily able to link up my iPhone via it’s Bluetooth link. Thus, for the duration of the trip when someone called the phone in my pocket the music automatically turned down and the call when through the speakers. Similarly, if I wanted to make a call I just pressed the talk button on the steering wheel and annunciated “DIAL” etc etc. Audio quality was decent, and I only lost one caller who happened to be inside of the noisy Detroit Metro Airport.

In fact, much of the interior control was handled from the steering wheel, including adjustment and selection of the MP3 audio system that I was constantly grazing about. It’s a nice feature that many manufacturers overlook.

Though hardly necessary, there is also a backup camera and very sensitive parking system that automatically beeps with increasing intensity as you approach a stationary object. This makes parallel parking a breeze, though it’s strange getting used to looking down instead of behind you when backing up.

Part of the MKS features I learned from the simple transition from my Audi TT – that is, the complete opposite in suspension and handling. Pulling onto I-94 on my maiden voyage to Buffalo Wild Wings, I got up to cruising speed and proceeded to start messing with the navigation. Only when my passenger pointed out that I was driving 95MPH did I realize that I was speeding – I had assumed my normal “comfort speed” as tuned to the TT on the expressway. That same vibration and feel was 20 MPH faster in the MKS.

Of the road trip? I enjoyed seamless navigation, an excellent ride and ultimate comfort as I drove from Ann Arbor to Kalamazoo to South Haven to Flint to Detroit in a head turning, modern car. My weekend couldn’t have been spent in a better piece of machinery. Oh and about the bad driver comment? I was lucky enough to get through the entire state without getting any speeding tickets or bumping into anything. My girlfriend? Not so lucky.

Talking Travel with Road Trip USA writer Jamie Jensen

Avalon travel writer Jamie Jensen, whose travel guidebook, Road Trip USA, hit book stands earlier this month, took time from his busy book tour to answer a few questions about travel, writing, and road tripping across the country.

Don’t forget to enter the Gadling Giveaway of the latest edition HERE, or read my glowing Travel Read review of the book HERE.

Enjoy the interview!

BY: What is the most scenic/interesting/enjoyable stretch of road you’ve encountered?

JJ: One lifelong favorite (well, 30 years and counting…) is the famous stretch of Hwy-1 along the central California coast, through Big Sur. This is an amazing engineering and construction feat – carved out of the cliffs beginning in the 1920s; it offers incredible views and takes drivers to places we couldn’t otherwise reach. The combination of the natural world and the manmade improvements (not just the roadway, but the many rustic lodges and historic sites) is simply amazing – just take it slow!

The Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina is another amazing road to drive, winding through the forests along the Appalachian crest, and for something very different I like to head down to Florida to drive the “Overseas Highway”, which is basically one long bridge over the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, from near Miami and the Everglades all the way to the tip of Key West.

New England has tons of great two-lane country roads-and perhaps the country’s most beautiful stretch of Interstate Highway, I-93 thru Franconia Notch. And even higher up in the mountains, the Rockies have at least two unforgettable roads, the wonderfully named “Million Dollar Highway” in Colorado, and the sinuous “Going-to-the-Sun Road” through the heart of Glacier National Park.

I could go on – but these are a good starter.

BY: What compelled you to travel nearly half a million miles of asphalt?

JJ: I don’t think I ever intended to spend so much time driving around – and certainly not to accumulate so many miles – but over the years I’ve kept looking at maps and wondering what these places really looked like, and then with Road Trip USA I’ve been going back again and again and keeping track of what’s new. So it has all added up. Then again, there is something like 6 million miles of paved roads across the country, so I’ve really barely scratched the surface.

BY: How did you gather all of the information about the places you traveled?

JJ: Because I’m interested in older roads, the ones that were main roads before the Interstate Highway system came thru in the 1960s, my first best source of ideas for places to travel was a series of 1930s and 1940s travel guides covering all the old US Highways-these were put together as a “New Deal” project for out-of-work writers, and were written by the likes of Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Jim Thompson.

The WPA guides are great stuff – and full of insights that still resonate today.

More practically, since I cover places to eat and sleep and have fun, as well as the history and culture of these different places, I used to write or call the sundry Chambers of Commerce and tourist promotion organizations for each state, region, city and town, and ask for their brochures and maps.

Now of course, all of that information is on the Internet – but nothing is as valuable as actually visiting these places and seeing (and tasting!) them for myself.

BY: What is the biggest advantage and disadvantage to traveling by car?

JJ: The advantages of traveling by car – especially in a country as huge and car-dependent as the USA – are numerous and probably obvious. Cars offer freedom to go where you want when you want, in comfort and at your own pace. And because it costs about the same to travel with four or more people as it does to go alone, the economics of driving over buying airplane or train tickets is pretty compelling.

That said, the downside of traveling by car is closely tied with the advantages – namely, what with sound systems and air conditioning, etc., cars are so comfortable that is sometimes means it can be hard to stop and actually experience the places you pass through.

So, despite the inertia of buzzing along at 70 mph, for a memorable road trip it’s important to make every effort to stop and get out of the car, even for a few minutes, so the sights and sounds can sink in, and really leave an impression.

BY: How did you score the gig to travel across the country and write this book – and what advice do you have for aspiring travel writers?

JJ: Before I wrote Road Trip USA, I had already established myself as a travel guidebook author, writing and overseeing guidebooks to California and all of the USA for a number of “traditional” publishers (Rough Guides, Michelin Guides, Fodor’s, and those nicely illustrated “Eyewitness Guides” from Dorling Kindersley) so I had a pretty good track record. When I started working on what became Road Trip USA, I never thought I would find enough sights to make a 900-page book, but nowadays the challenge is to keep it from getting too big!

My advice to aspiring travel writers is simply to write. Unfortunately, it is very hard to get paid very much for travel writing, but if you can combine it with other things, it may work out. Once you’ve written something, you’ll have it forever, but if you don’t write things down and tell your stories (even it’s just for yourself right now), the stories start to fade away. And who knows! Maybe tomorrow you’ll find a publisher who wants a whole book of your adventures. If you’ve written your stories along the way, you’ll be much better placed to take advantage of opportunities.

On a more positive note, with the wonderful world of the Internet, it is a lot easier for people to be “published” and reach interested readers directly (through websites and blogs etc), though I don’t know of anyone who is making anything like real money doing this.

BY: What will be your next project? More road tripping or are you growing roots in California?

JJ: That’s a good question. Since I finished the last edition of Road Trip USA, I switched gears a little, and have taken a 6-month trip to Berlin, where the relationship between history and tourism are so much more complicated than they are compared to say, getting your kicks on Route 66. For me, growing up in southern California during the Space Age 1960s with all the fear of Commie infiltrations and imminent nuclear war, it’s been fascinating to spend a length of time where so much horrible stuff happened. Though I don’t think I’m going to do a “Guilt Trip” alternative of my “Road Trip” work, I’m more interested than ever at looking into the mechanics of how we (as individuals, communities and as countries) “remember” history, through monuments and parks and preservation of “historic” places.

Gadling is currently accepting entries to a giveaway of Jamie’s Road Trip USA guidebooks. Entries are due by Friday, April 24 @ 5 p.m. EST!!!

Check out my review of Road Trip USA while you’re at it.

Road tripping to be easier this summer with lower gas prices

Fill your tank, cut down a redwood and kick a polar bear in the ‘nads … gas is likely to stay cheap this summer! So, let the environment be damned, load up the Hummer and take the longest road trip of your life.

The Energy Information Administration has great news for motorists: gas is expected to hang around an average of $2.23 a gallon this summer (more if you live in New York or California, I imagine). Peak driving season – late in the summer – could see a rise to more than $2.30, but it’s still a far cry from last summer’s insanity … when the average gallon would set you back $3.81.

What’s behind this embarrassment of fossil fuel riches? A barrel of crude is likely to cost about a third of what it did last summer ($53 versus $147), and U.S. crude oil production is supposed to come back up – by 440,000 barrels a day.

But, it pays to have a backup plan. Howard Gruenspecht, acting administrator of the EIA, concedes that an early broader economic recovery could lead to more pain at the pump, though you’d probably be able to afford it.

An EIA spokesman was on hand to confirm, “We’re not in the crystal ball business.” If they were, they probably wouldn’t be talking about fuel prices anyway.