I should have known what to expect when I was looking for a rental car this summer. The rental car “apocalypse” has persisted for roughly a year, and prices are rising in almost every aspect of travel. Still, when I started looking in May for a car for my family trip to Montana this month, I was stunned at the cost. A rental car was going to cost almost as much as our rental house.
For a trip to Las Vegas in May, I spent $51 per day (plus taxes and fees) to get a car from Alamo for three full days by canceling and rebooking several times through the big car companies. The challenge with this trip was we would have six adults and a lot of driving to do, visiting Yellowstone National Park and other wilderness areas. We either needed one very big car — picture a minivan driving through the Rockies — or two cars. SUVs or vans that could fit all of us were listed for around $400 per day — plus obscene gas prices.
That’s when I decided to look into Turo, the peer-to-peer car-sharing app. Friends have had mixed experiences, from smooth to literally being scammed. With that in mind, I decided to give it a shot.
The first thing my family decided was to rent two vehicles, but I still wanted an SUV for storing luggage and managing the terrain of Montana and Wyoming. Options ranged from Teslas to pickup trucks.
I put in Bozeman, Mont., as our location, narrowed my search to “All Star” hosts and began saving listings like I would on Airbnb. I wanted to make sure we had both a clean, comfortable vehicle and a host with a history of positive reviews — I’ve heard complaints of car owners canceling right before a trip. I also made sure the listing had free cancellation so I could change if needed; most rentals I saw had this. I opted for a 2018 Buick Encore for $99 per day from a host with a five-star rating and more than 20 reviews. Compare this to nearly $300 per day for sedans on rental car sites.
I created my account, where I had to add my driver’s license information. I booked my vehicle and paid $636.78 for five days, which included my daily rate, trip fee ($10.54 per day) and the minimum protection plan ($17.82 per day). Then I waited for my host to accept my reservation, which took just a few hours.
There were other options to weigh when considering the cost: Some hosts charge for drop-offs, including at the airport for about $35 to $50, and some had limits on mileage. Our rental covered 1,000 miles and charged 50 cents per mile after that. I thought this was more than enough, but soon learned how much you drive in the Yellowstone area. The Jeep my brother rented through Tur0 had unlimited mileage but cost about $10 more a night.
For younger drivers, there are other considerations. Some hosts won’t rent to people under 30 — not an issue for us — or include extra safety checks for young drivers. You have to be 18 or older to rent from a peer host and at least 21 to rent from companies that rent on the platform. If you’re under 25, you will pay a minimum “young driver” fee of at least $30 per day. It’s $50 if you’re 18 to 20.
You could add items such as bear spray (necessary in Montana), camping gear, coolers and child-safety seats for a variety of costs. You could also prepay for refuel, which ranged greatly depending on the vehicle.
Insurance and fees
Your personal car insurance often covers you when you rent a car. But because this was my first time using Turo, and I was renting a car that belongs to a person vs. a company, I felt nervous rejecting all insurance. Plus, Montana is wild, as we know from recent Yellowstone floods. Weather, rocks and animals could all cause damage.
Turo has three levels of plans: premier, standard and minimum, which cost from 100 percent to 18 percent of your trip plan and set your damage responsibility from $0 to $3,000. I opted for the minimum protection, which cost less than $18 a day.
While our host advertised free delivery to the airport, I was surprised to learn that Turo may charge its own fee for that service. In Bozeman, Turo charges renters 10 percent of their transaction to have cars dropped off at the airport. Because I didn’t have the airport selected as my pickup location, this fee wasn’t on my radar. In my brother’s case, he paid $35 for drop-off service and more than $60 for an “airport fee.”
When I asked Turo about the airport fee, the company told me it’s applicable at some airports when Turo is permitted, but not all, and the cost depends on the city. The charge shows up before checkout when you have an airport set to your pickup location. So it’s another cost to consider when comparing rental companies to Turo.
Since I was picking up the car without the host present, he asked if I could upload a photo of my license to “trip photos” on my account a few days before the trip. Because my brother was picking up at the airport, his host asked for his flight information.
We calculated how much it would cost to have the car dropped at the airport and decided it was better to Uber to the pickup location. It was a $35 ride, but the trip allowed us to talk with our driver about how Bozeman and the nearby towns have boomed and the residents have been priced out as a result. And the Uber ride was much cheaper than the $95 my brother paid in delivery and airport fees.
The car was parked on the street in a neighborhood about 20 minutes from the airport. It was super clean and just as expected — no decorations or weird smells. I packed a charging cable, which I know from previous experience is not included, and connected to Apple CarPlay. And we were off.
The small SUV was just what we needed for all of the hours we spent driving around Yellowstone with four adults for five days. We didn’t have any issues and had no reason to reach out to our host during our rental.
The day before the end of our trip, I got an alert that I could request to extend our trip; we didn’t need this but it was nice to have the option. A few hours later, my host messaged with drop-off instructions — leave the car where we picked it up with the keys inside and message him after.
The car was caked in mud from driving around Yellowstone, and I asked my host if he wanted it washed. I had a motive behind this offer: I realized I had lost track of mileage, and we were probably over 1,000 miles. I hoped this goodwill gesture would prevent us from getting charged. My host said not to worry about it because they wash the cars between renters. No extra mileage fees for us anyway, but next time, I’ll remember to set the odometer.
As I stood in line at a rental-car counter in Chicago’s Midway airport last week, I dreamed of Turo. The line was long, plus you have to deal with the whole rental-car-agent spiel, which seemingly takes forever: Do you want insurance? Do you want to prepay to refuel? Do you want to upgrade? It’s the last thing you want to deal with after a long flight.
Overall, my Turo experience was more affordable, easy to pick up and drop off, and no different from booking an Airbnb.