Last spring, I rented a car at the Fort Lauderdale airport and made a road trip to Orlando, Fernandina Beach in the northeast corner of Florida, and Charleston — where I dropped off the car a week later and took the train home.
In April 2012, I made a meandering drive to New Orleans, exploring the beaches of the Florida Panhandle, Alabama and Mississippi, before I boarded a steamboat in New Orleans and flew home from Memphis.
Both times I paid only $10 to $12 a day for the car and no dropoff fee, even though I left the car hundreds of miles from where I picked it up. With taxes and fees, total rental car costs for each trip — each about a week long — were less than $150.
I love road trips. And since I live in Florida, I’m a big fan of the drive-out-of-Florida deals that some of the big car rental brands offer each spring. They make the one-way road trip affordable and let you go farther when your time is limited without having to retrace your steps.
If you like road trips, pay attention to this deal. It’s generally offered only in Florida and Arizona, places snowbirds flock to for the winter, then depart in the spring, leaving a huge fleet of rental cars behind. Car rental companies need to disperse that fleet across the country, so they offer a special deal to people to drive the cars out of Florida and leave them in another state.
National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car have been discounting spring drive-out-of-Florida programs for 15 years. Each year has seen an increase, said Ned Maniscalco, a spokesman for Enterprise Holdings, which now owns both brands as well as Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Last year, the three brands moved a combined total of about 7,500 vehicles out of Florida, most of them to North and South Carolina, Atlanta and the New York area.
Hertz has operated spring drive-out-of-Florida programs for about 20 years — although not every year — as well as periodic drive-into-Florida programs in the fall, said Paula Rivera, manager of public affairs. Most cars end up in the New York tri-state area, but in response to customer demand, Hertz has expanded the program to Chicago and the rest of the Midwest, she said.
The programs are not heavily advertised. The deal is good for a limited time, starting more or less after spring break and usually lasting two weeks to three months so that the cars are in their new spots before summer vacation.
Each rental company that offers the deal has its own rules. But generally speaking, these are the conditions:
• The vehicle must be picked up in Florida (sometimes North Florida is excluded) and dropped off in another state. Each car rental company has its own list of eligible dropoff cities. Avis isn’t including Savannah and Asheville this year, for example — but keep looking, as another company may allow them.
• Usually the vehicle must be picked up and dropped off at an airport or other major rental facility, not at smaller outposts such as hotels or neighborhood offices, although Enterprise says that’s changing.
• Most sizes, including trucks and SUVs, are available. Often you can get a midsize car for the same price as a tiny compact. This year, for example, National offers five sizes, from economy to full size, for $9.95 a day.
• The usual taxes and fees apply, and the agents will still try to sell you insurance.
So far this year, Avis, Enterprise, National and Alamo are offering deals starting April 1; Hertz, which also owns Thrifty and Dollar, has not said whether it will (although it currently has a similar spring program under way in Arizona). Go to each car rental brand’s website and look under deals or specials.
LOGISTICS: NEW ORLEANS
The charm of leisurely road trips is the freedom they give me — to detour onto back roads, to spend an extra day or two when I find a place I like, to be spontaneous. I love stopping in out-of-the-way places I’d never see if I stuck to flying — or interstates. For me, the drive is often the destination, and the interim stops often are more important than the end point of the trip.
That was the case with my New Orleans road trip. My reason for going there was to board a newly renovated steamboat, the American Queen, for a weeklong cruise. I could have simply flown to New Orleans. But I’d been looking for an opportunity do some sightseeing in the Florida Panhandle, where I’d spent little time.
• Getting home: I flew home from Memphis, where my cruise ended.
• Luggage: Packing was complicated because I’d be dressing up on the steamboat, but not on the road trip. I packed most of my cruise wardrobe in a large suitcase that would stay in the trunk during the road trip, and my road trip clothes in a couple of duffel bags. The night before the road trip ended, I did laundry in my motel, transferred necessities to the cruise suitcase, packed my road trip wardrobe and the duffel bags into a large box I’d brought in the car, and mailed the box to myself for less than the cost of the second piece of checked luggage. My carry-on was my backpack, which mainly held my electronics.
• Lodgings and deals: I made no hotel reservations in advance. I wanted to be impulsive and spontaneous, to spend as much or as little time as I wanted to in each spot.
Mostly I stayed in budget to moderately priced hotels including Best Western and La Quinta because I wouldn’t spend much time in the room. When I decided to take a breather in Pensacola Beach, I got a pricier room at Margaritaville. For my second-to-last night on the road, I needed a motel with laundry facilities, which was La Quinta.
Since I didn’t plan in advance, I couldn’t use any of the deal-a-day programs. The AAA discounts I got, though, paid for that year’s membership. I’ve had good luck with both Priceline and Hotwire on other occasions, but on this trip, I wanted the price to include Wi-Fi, parking and breakfast, with no resort fee, and neither agency would promise that on an “opaque” booking.
• Where I went: Wakulla Springs, near Tallahassee, where I saw a manatee in the wild for the first time; Panhandle beaches, which were populated on weekdays mostly by older couples in campers; Navarre Beach pier, where I saw triumph in the eyes of a boy who caught a larger fish than anyone else on the pier that afternoon. In Mobile I toured the retired warship USS Alabama at Battleship Park. In Biloxi, I played a little blackjack and went out on the Gulf in a shrimp boat for tourists.
The original reason for this trip was to see attractions for a summer story on what was new at the theme parks. Later I extended the trip to Fernandina Beach for some sunset-watching R&R, and later yet, to Charleston. I was late in the planning process before I realized I’d be in Charleston Memorial Day, and even later that I realized the Spoleto Festival would be going on. I began fearing hotel rooms would be scarce and expensive.
• Getting home: On my last night in Charleston, I dropped my rental car at the airport. At dawn I boarded Amtrak’s Silver Meteor and made the 12-hour train ride back to Fort Lauderdale. Did I mention I love trains?
• Luggage: Although Amtrak is generous about how much luggage you can check for free, I still had to lug it around. I packed my electronics in my backpack and everything else into a full-size suitcase.
• Lodgings and deals: My dates on this trip were not very flexible, plus it was Memorial Day weekend, so I made all my reservations in advance. In Orlando, where I’d be gone by the weekend, I bought two nights at $50 each at a timeshare through Miami Herald Dealsaver. Lodgings on Amelia Island were already heavily booked, and I ended up at a newly renovated Best Western in Yulee, about 15 miles from Fernandina Beach. In Charleston, where hotels in the historic downtown run pretty high even when it’s not a holiday weekend, I booked a room at the Radisson by the airport through Orbitz for Business for a relatively reasonable $97 a night.
• Where I went: SeaWorld, Magic Kingdom, Downtown Disney. Sunset celebrations at Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island and a re-enactment of a troop garrison at Fort Clinch State Park. A concert and a play at the Spoleto Festival and great meals at a couple of Charleston’s best restaurants.