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The Best Way to Transport a Car Cross Country

Posted on 10/21/2013 14:00 EST

Once you decide to ship a car from one place to another, you need to find a safe and affordable car transport service. The choices range from door-to-door transport via large trailer truck to hiring someone to drive the vehicle to its destination to placing it on a train. After evaluating all the options, you might wonder whether simply driving the car yourself is the most economical way to go.

Photo by flickr.com/Spike's Shoes

People who need to transport a car generally fall into two broad categories: those moving to a new location and those taking an extended trip. This second group, sometimes referred to as "snow birds," often includes older folks who move south for the winter and then back north when the weather warms up. There's such demand for car transport services by snow birds that rates jump on north-south migration routes during the relevant months.

We homed in on the group that relocates for the long haul and tried to find the safest and cheapest way to transport a vehicle in one direction only. As a test model for price quotes we chose a standard-size car that gets 28 mpg and needs to be moved 3,000 miles.

Drive It Yourself.

The most obvious choice is to drive the car yourself. Using the AAA's estimate for the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline ($3.35 in early October), we calculate you'd spend about $360 on fuel. Cheapism's hotel guide lists lodging possibilities at $40-$70 a night. Although the trip could be completed in 48 hours with two drivers rotating shifts, we're assuming only one driver and five over-nights, which sums to $275 for a room. Over the course of six days you have to eat, and we figure $130 should do if you stick to a budget and pack snacks for the road. Smaller fees like tolls and an oil change (maybe a good idea after adding 3,000 miles to the odometer) total to about $125.

Bottom line: $890 to be your own car transport service. (The cost could be significantly higher if you need to take unpaid time off work.)

Hire a Driver.

Hiring someone else to drive the vehicle reduces stress and saves time. But handing over the keys to a stranger can be scary, which is why working through a middleman who screens drivers is one way to minimize the risk. Lissette Morales of Auto Driveaway, a company that vets drivers and requires references and a deposit before taking them on, quoted $540 for a cross-country move. The vehicle owner pays the flat rate; the driver pays for gas, lodging, and food; and the company takes a fee for connecting the two. The owner of the vehicle -- not the driver -- is responsible for insurance.

Bottom line: $540 for a vetted driver to transport your car.

Ship by Truck.

Perhaps the most common way to transport a car cross country is to put it on a semi-trailer, which is what car dealers do. You'll want to minimize the risk here, too, and Morales suggested several ways to protect your property. First, make sure the broker is legitimate. The credentials of many brokers can be checked through the Better Business Bureau and online at Transport Reviews. Also check with the U.S. Department of Transportation using the company's motor carrier (MC) number to be sure the company is licensed. Always ask for proof of insurance and beware of a broker or driver who demands a lot of money upfront -- this could be a danger sign.

Photo by flickr.com/Martin Lonicer

The cost of truck transport varies depending on factors such as type of car and whether or not it's running, the season, the distance, and the two locations (distant but popular routes may cost less than short trips between two small towns). We tried uShip, an online marketplace for people looking to ship or haul goods, which forwarded a range of quotes starting at $995 and topping out at $1,585. This site also posts auto transport reviews in the form of customer feedback.

Although you'll likely prefer door-to-door service, some companies let you arrange auto transport between two central locations. A quote from DAS Auto Shippers showed that terminal-to-terminal service is $75 higher ($1,285 total) than door-to-door service because it guarantees a pick-up date; the latter requires owners to leave open a seven-day window. The terminal option also lets owners make additional requests, for expedited shipping (add $400), say, or for space on an enclosed trailer (add $357).

Bottom line: $995-$1,1685 for a truck to ferry your car.

Ship by Rail.

The last, and arguably least convenient, option is loading the car onto a train. For distances exceeding about 750 miles, train transport is cheaper than truck, according to representatives from Union Pacific, who were unable to provide a quote but estimate a savings of about $100 on a New York-San Francisco run. One rep suggested that rail service is probably safer because vehicles are in an enclosed car, although a shipper who has used train service cautioned that cars may be vandalized while sitting in depots. Train transport is primarily intended for auto dealers who move several vehicles at once, and while individual owners occasionally can find an open slot, it's near impossible to ensure a specific day. Plus, this transport mode is available at select locations only and pick-up and drop-off still involve a truck, probably for an added fee.

Amtrak runs a car transport service for snow birds who put their vehicle on a train near Washington, DC and ride along on the convoy to a town near Orlando, Fla., where it's unloaded. A (one-way) southbound fare for person-plus-car ranges from mid-$200 to about $600 during February.

Bottom line: NA

Miscellaneous Costs.

When considering whether to use a car transport service, remember that no personal items can be stored in the vehicle. Aside from insurance issues associated with personal items stowed in a transported car, truck drivers in particular are very conscious of the weight they are towing, so much so that they request the car hold only a quarter tank of gasoline. Excess weight from boxes or personal items is a legitimate reason for truck drivers to refuse to transport a vehicle or to demand more money for doing so.

Final bottom line: Several hundred dollars to ship a few boxes plus the price of a one-way plane ticket for the vehicle's owner (another few hundred dollars) make the true cost of using an auto transport company look like less of a bargain. Then again, for some people it's the only viable alternative.

by Louis DeNicola (Google+ Profile)

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