Picking the Right Car to Take On Your Road Trip

Road Trips

I first wrote on this topic as response to a question on Quora. While I have restructured my thoughts here, I encourage you to visit the original where you can find other traveler’s opinions as well as mine!

Lots goes into planning a road trip whether it’s across America from New York to Los Angeles or just a few hundred miles between and with all the route finding, destination picking, hotel reserving, few people stop to really consider the car they’ll be taking. It is of course easy to dismiss the importance of car selection, electing to grab whatever cheap rental you can arrange or just taking the car you already own if that’s an option, but the experience and indeed the possibilities of your trip greatly depend on your choice of rides…

Frozen Jeep

My [frozen] Jeep on a winter drive across Canada’s Icefields Parkway. Nothing but a 4×4 was even allowed on the road!

As someone who loves to explore in winter, tour national parks and let the road signs lead me on a meandering scenic route to my destinations, it’s no surprise that I’m a Jeep 4×4 owner. At the same time, adventuring is just part of my travel profile and my 20,000 miles of primarily paved-road driving in the past year also explain why my Jeep is more crossover (Cherokee Trailhawk) than pure rock scrambler or rugged hauler.

Before you can decide on your own travel vehicle, you have to sort out a few things about your trip and yourself, your travel interests, your group, what it is that what works for you!

Find your travel profile:

  1. Do you plan on a smooth, summer drive or a rugged, possibly off-season adventure?
  2. Are you thinking about straight shots from city to city or exploring freely along the way?
  3. How much does fuel matter to you? Speed? Style? There’s no shame in any, it’s your trip!
  4. Will there be a group / family of you on the road or just yourself with a possible co-pilot?
  5. When it comes time to sleep, will it be in the passenger seat, a tent, motel or the Four Seasons?

Just running through these questions should already have you tossing away many types of cars and narrowing down like I did in selecting my Jeep. Fun as that Harley ride may sound, it obviously won’t accommodate the kids just as your large RV can’t stop at every small city.

As you start to think about your profile, the goal is to keep narrowing down until you find exactly what motivates you most. Most of us want to zip around at times but that may be less of a concern than saving some cash on gas and when push comes to shove, what you pick enables a radically different experience. Find your profile and get that adventure booked!

Road trip car

Back before my Jeep days, I drove a Hybrid SUV offering a balance of size and fuel efficiency. This is a great option for a long but paved summer trip.

The adventurer: 

Whether it’s heading out into parts unknown or just traveling at times when conditions are less than pristine, adventure travelers need a ride that can get just about anywhere and accommodate all the gear needed to explore outside the car along too.

While they can be harder to find, AWD and 4×4 SUVs are a must have, larger size for groups while something like my Cherokee is easy to slip in just about anywhere with 2-3 people and a Subaru will offer the best gas efficiency MPG. If you plan to hit snow, be sure your rental company offers winter tires or allows you to add chains — places like Yosemite require you to have those in winter!

Step it up by renting a Jeep Wrangler from a specialty shop, especially if off road is on the plan like on a trip to the Southwest or Hawaii.

The highspeed rider: 

For many, the goal of a road trip is to see the sights in comfort and frequently from the window of the Hilton. Don’t knock it either, this can be one of the most enjoyable ways to travel requiring far less gear or even planning as you head a few hours each day, making a couple more indulgent stops to truly take in the culture while letting someone else make the bed for you.

Rental companies stock a healthy number of Dodge Chargers and Ford Mustangs as zippy but more economical rentals while a higher end BMW is the common pick for combining power and luxury to cruise. Given the price tag, double check your insurance and / or credit card covers the full pricetag of the car.

Step it up by renting a Tesla and use their Supercharger network as your roadtrip map.

The budgeter:

When travel costs need to go down, the first trick is almost certainly to drop the car size, features and get that MPG up! Even with cheap fuel these days, stepping into a compact car can mean a combined savings of 40% or more versus the options above. Though it’s not just about gas — having enough power to avoid needing a tour and enough room to catch rest stop naps makes for the best overall deal.

Usually economy options have the most inventory so using a service like Priceline, Hotwire or just a Costco membership can open doors to even further dropping the price tag.

Step it up by going with Enterprise or another shop offering newer cars so your cheap ride is a modern one.

The overnighter:

The one exception to all previous rules is the willingness (or desire) to make the road your actual home for the duration of your trip. RVs are big, they’re bulky, slow, fuel sucking (though far less so than they once were) and they don’t get to nearly as many places but they also let you stay right where you go… steps from the park, under the stars, next to the casino. No hotels to plan, no shortage of room for gear or groups.

Unfortunately when you combine the price of the rental, the gas and a hookup side (there are many sites on free stays or “RV boondocking” but that’s not always possible), you’re not likely to save a ton but you will have a great adventure… and no tent to fuss with.

Step it up by getting yourself into a luxury ride. Many boutique and even a few of the bigger RV rentals offer something far more equipped to really support a long ride.

Space, distance, and getting there in one piece: 

No matter what group you identify with or how you’d like to travel, it’s vital to think through how you really plan to get from A to Z and not underbook. 5 people in a 5 seater car is pretty uncomfortable driving to the mall but it’s nearly impossible to keep a good pace doing it for two weeks and that’s without five people worth of luggage! The same is true for that luxury car, while they do fine on the dirt road, you’re going to pay an awfully big bill if the salt from your Scuba Diving trip gets left on the leather for 10 days.

Dirt roads on the trip

It’s not the destination but the journey that makes a great trip… Then again, if you can’t make it up the road, the journey tends to end!

That’s why I really suggest everyone thinks about the adventure traveler life first and last. What you loose in MPG with a bigger car, be it an SUV or just an aggressive crossover / fullsize, you make up for in versatility. Want to nap in your car? No problem. Want to explore that mountain? You may not get to the top but you can get to the parking lot. Want to get into the park on a busy day? Pick up the RV riders and they’ll almost certainly make you dinner.

Then again, if you’re ready to cruise between hotels or drive a small bus around, I can’t say I blame you… heck, I’m ready to jump in and share in the driving when you make it out west!