Here's what I can tell you about the middle of the United States. In Texas on a Sunday morning, you can't go two stations on the radio dial without hitting a live church broadcast. The white sands of New Mexico, near where they set off the first atom bomb, are as fine as icing sugar, and they sell toboggans that kids use to sled down the dunes. In Oklahoma, there's not much left of Route 66, but they do have a very nice museum.
And it's all more enjoyable when the gas and car are paid for. Yes, it's possible to take a road trip across the U.S. with someone else paying most of the bills, thanks to a little-known phenomenon called the "driveaway." As snowbirds and rental agencies move their cars south for the winter, they need people to take the wheel - which means a money-saving opportunity for good drivers with an itch to travel.
The fastest route to a driveaway is through a company that specializes in organizing them. Catering primarily to snowbirds who want their cars moved to warmer climes for part of the year, these services recruit drivers for subsidized trips, saving their customers the trouble of driving their own cars south.
"We get drivers from all walks of life," says Ron Coady, who has been running Toronto Driveaway for half a century. They frequently include cops, firemen and retirees, he says. But he adds, "We don't want to talk to anybody under 26."
Working with a tight-knit staff in a strip mall, Coady matches about 400 cars with drivers every year - mostly headed to Florida, but some (including the one I drove) to points west. Like snowbirds, cars move south and southwest in the fall, peaking between October and December, and come back in the spring.
The exact arrangements vary from one company to the next, but in general the client provides the car and pays the gas, while the drivers pay their own accommodation and food. On top of that, drivers are paid a small stipend. In my case, a five-day trip from Arizona to Ontario cost less than $500 in motels and food; the stipend was just enough to cover the airfare for the outbound leg.
For snowbirds, driveaways mean convenience. "We work with the customer's exact pickup date and time," says Darren Francisco, owner of Cars To Florida, a Toronto-based driveaway firm that caters to Florida-bound Canadians in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. And at the other end, the car is delivered right to the customer's door.
The company, which moved about 160 cars last year, encourages would-be drivers to sign up online. By running background checks and handling the onerous paperwork involved with shipping a car across the U.S. border, firms like Coady's smooth a process that might otherwise be handled informally.
Auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers points toward a burgeoning sector of casual driveaway operations, with cars being driven by fly-by-night operators, or even the next-door neighbour's son. "The formal part of the industry might be the small part," he says.
Yet small firms aren't the only ones offering one-way deals. Car-rental companies also need to move their fleets seasonally as demand shifts from one area to another. And to entice drivers, they offer some enticing deals on one-way travel.
As Florida and Arizona - both snowbird hot spots - cleared out in March of 2008, for instance, Budget offered rates as low as $4.95 (U.S.) a day on one-way trips across the country. At other times of year, one-way rentals can incur punitive fees that can run into the hundreds of dollars.
"While this is something we offer customers most years, we don't always announce it," says Alice Pereira, a Budget spokeswoman.
Last year, Budget outlined its seasonal deals in a press release on its website. This year, though, the deals are simply hidden the companies' reservation systems for customers to discover.
Other companies have similar practices. In mid-June, for instance, National Car Rental ran a "Drive Out" program that sent cars out of Florida for rates starting at $10 a day - gas included.
Announced via press release, these deals can be found as easily as searching Google for "one-way rentals" at the right time of year. The keys to a cheap road trip are out there if you know where to look. Past that, it's an open road.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Drivers must apply online, go through background and reference checks and have a clean driving record. Toronto Driveaway www.torontodriveaway.com. Car shipping and "driveaway" one-way driving assignments from Toronto to destinations in Florida and the southwestern U.S. Cars To Florida www.carstoflorida.com. Driveaway car deliveries from points across Canada to Florida. Apply online.
Budget Rent-a-Car www.budget.com. Steep discounts on one-way car rentals from Florida to points in the U.S. in March. Sometimes advertised online. National Car Rental www.nationalcar.ca. Seasonal "Drive-Out" programs.