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The Best Way to Transport a Car Cross Country

Posted on 6/26/2015 9:34 EST

When transporting a vehicle long distance, you'll want to choose a safe and affordable way to go. Options range from door-to-door transport via large trailer truck to placing the vehicle on a train to hiring someone to drive it to the destination. After evaluating all the transport services, you might wonder whether driving the car yourself is the most economical way to go.

People who 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.

cheap car transport
Photo by KPG_Payless/shutterstock

Cheapism.com homed in on long-haul relocations and searched for the safest and cheapest way to transport a vehicle in one direction only. As a test model for price quotes we used a standard-size car that gets 28 mpg and must be moved 3,000 miles.

Drive It Yourself.

The most obvious transport solution is to drive the car yourself. Using the AAA's estimate for the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline ($2.75 in early June), the cost of fuel would be about $295. Cheapism's hotel guide lists lodging possibilities at $40 to $70 a night. Although the trip can be completed in 48 hours with two drivers rotating shifts, with only one driver the trip would require five overnights, for a cost of about $275. Figure another $130 budgeted for food, possibly less if snacks are packed ahead of time. Smaller fees such as tolls and an oil change (maybe a good idea after adding 3,000 miles to the odometer) total about $125.

Bottom line: $825 to drive the car. (The cost could be significantly higher if the driver must take unpaid time off work.)

Hire a Driver.

Hiring someone 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. Michael Ruiz of Auto Driveaway, a company that vets drivers and requires references and a deposit before signing them on, quoted $616 for a cross-country move. The vehicle owner pays the flat rate to the company and the driver pays for gas, lodging, and food. The owner of the vehicle -- not the driver -- is responsible for insurance.

Bottom line: $616 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. Still, you'll want to make sure the broker who arranges the trip is legitimate. The credentials of many brokers can be checked through the Better Business Bureau and online at Transport Reviews. Also check with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration by using the company's motor carrier (MC) number to be sure it's 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.

The cost of truck transport varies depending on factors such as type of car and whether or not it's in working order, the season, the distance, and the two locations (distant but popular routes may cost less than short trips between two small towns). Cheapism tried uShip, an online marketplace for people who need to ship or haul goods, which forwarded a range of quotes starting at $1,161 and topping out at $2,174. This site also posts auto transport reviews in the form of customer feedback.

Although door-to-door service is preferred, some companies arrange auto transport between two central locations. A quote from DAS Auto Shippers showed that terminal-to-terminal service is $106 higher ($1,061 total) than door-to-door service because it guarantees a pick-up date; the latter option requires owners to leave open a seven-day window. Terminal-to-terminal also lets owners make additional requests; expedited shipping or space on an enclosed trailer adds $600, and vehicle delivery to the owner's destination adds $48.

Bottom line: $955 to $2,174 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, D.C. and ride along on the convoy to a town near Orlando, Florida, where it's unloaded. A (one-way) southbound fare for person-plus-car ranges from about $196 to $440 during July.

Bottom line: NA

Miscellaneous Costs.

When considering whether to use a car transport service, remember that personal items usually cannot be stored in the vehicle. Aside from insurance issues associated with stowing personal possessions 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 one-quarter tank of gasoline. Excess weight from boxes or personal belongings 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. Driving the car yourself is the budget way to go, unless it requires taking an unpaid week off work, in which case hiring a driver probably is cheaper.

by Louis DeNicola (Google+ Profile)

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