Road trip season doesn’t have to end when summer does – in fact, there are many reasons to get out onto the open road all year round. In this episode of Out Travel the System, host Nisreene Atassi gets the insider scoop on where and when to time your car rental to coordinate with your larger travel plans or score epic reverse road trip savings. She’s joined on the journey by Paul Tomasiello, Expedia’s Sr. Director of Global Car Supply, and Megan Lundquist, an extremely expert road tripper.
Listen in for tips on road safety, packing like a road trip superstar, and even their confessions about road trip indulgences – all that and more in this episode of Out Travel the System.
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Hack the Reverse Road Trip for Major Savings
Nisreene Atassi: There’s something incredibly poetic about road trips, whether it’s the thought of unlimited possibilities, the idea of adventure just around the next curve, or just the chance to bond with your loved ones, the appeal of hitting the road never ends. In this episode, we’re going to tell you how taking the road less traveled could really pay off. I’m Nisreene Atassi and this is Out Travel The System.
I’ve never personally been a big road tripper, and that’s probably because my husband doesn’t like to drive and I’m not necessarily the person who wants to sit behind the wheel for more than two plus hours. But I’ve always really dreamed of having one of those epic road trips that has memories that last a lifetime, which is why I’m super excited to dig into this topic today. There are lots of things to think about when it comes to planning a road trip, including safety on the road or how to pack like a super savvy traveler. And of course, how to spend your travel budget in a smart way. Luckily, I have some travel companions with me today who can help with all of this. I’ve got Megan Lundquist of Legit Trips, she’s an expert road tripper and a boutique travel planner. Thanks for joining us on Out Travel The System, welcome Megan.
Megan Lundquist: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Nisreene Atassi: Also here, we’ve got Paul Tomasiello. Paul’s a Senior Director of Global Car Supply at Expedia, which essentially means Paul knows everything there is to know about car rentals. Welcome to the show, Paul.
Paul Tomasiello: Thanks Nissy, it’s great to be here.
Nisreene Atassi: Paul, let me start with you. When it comes to thinking about a trip, a lot of people focus on booking their flights and their accommodations and car rental can almost be a bit of an afterthought. Is that a mistake, you think?
Paul Tomasiello: It is. Recently Nissy, I was talking with a friend about his upcoming trip. They’re flying to Austin, renting a car one way to Kansas City and then flying back from there. Their flights are all booked and the trip is only two weeks out, but he had not even searched for the car rental yet, he had no idea what to expect in terms of pricing and he hadn’t considered whether one way versus round trip car rental might affect the price. Yet he’s completely dependent on being able to rent a car for that direction and dates having locked in all of the other plans.
When you’re booking that other travel component, usually it’s the flight that comes first. If you can book the car rental at that time, you can often save because you can get a package deal on the car rental. But if your plans aren’t totally firm yet on the ground transportation, what I suggest you do is book a pay later reservation, which is risk- free, you could cancel it at any time. Then once you know what your exact plans are, you could either keep that reservation if you’re happy with the rate, or you could look and see if there’s a lower price for paying upfront. If your plans are firm and you go that route, you can save some more money and you just want to make sure that you pay attention to the cancellation rules at that point, just like you would for a flight or a hotel.
Nisreene Atassi: I think we all have friends like that. And to be totally transparent, Paul, I am exactly your friend who does not think about the car rental and then a couple of days beforehand, I go and I start looking and I get completely caught off guard because the prices are maybe a little bit higher than expected. We hope for the best instead of trying to plan out the details. So tell us a little bit why people shouldn’t act like me and your friend. They should really start booking their vehicle rental as a priority and make it part of the first things that they look at to try and book.
Paul Tomasiello: Sometimes those prices can jump a lot and that’s why it’s important to start looking as early as you can.
Nisreene Atassi: So the thought is, go ahead and based on what you know of your trip, book and reserve your car, but make it a pay later reservation. Then as you get closer to your trip and if your plans have adjusted or you have the details more solidified, go back in and rebook to a pay now reservation. At least this way you’ve got the rate locked in, but if you switch to a pay now reservation, you might actually see a cheaper rate, but regardless, you don’t have to worry about waiting too long because you had the reservation all set and locked in.
Paul Tomasiello: Exactly.
Nisreene Atassi: We’re going to dive back into some more money saving options in just a minute, but before we do that, I want to switch and ask Megan a few questions about road tripping. So Megan, at one point you spent three years road tripping in an RV and now you often take your camper van out for extended periods of time, so you are by far and away an experienced road tripper. What are some of the key things that you think people should be really thinking about when they’re planning out their route or their road trip in general? Is it drive time, rest stops, the food options along the way? What do you recommend?
Megan Lundquist: Yeah, I think it’s what you’re most comfortable with. For example, I’m super comfortable driving 16 hours but most people think that that’s completely crazy. So definitely looking up routes in advance, how far you’re willing to go. The sleeping accommodations depends on where you want to park. If you’re comfortable to park on the side of the road, or if you want to RV park, you just have to decide how far you’re going to go and then be prepared for what’s going to happen when you get there. With COVID, if you’re comfortable using a public bathroom or not, so those are all new factors that have come into affect these weird times.
Nisreene Atassi: What are some of the most memorable road trips that you’ve done in the past?
Megan Lundquist: I visited five different national parks in the US in the summer and Wyoming was just absolutely unbelievable. Somehow I had never been to Yellowstone and as I was driving through, it’s a one lane road. So of course, after driving 16 hours, you’re like, ” Oh, I just wish people would drive faster,” and all of a sudden everyone stopped and you’re trying not to be frustrated because you’re in this beautiful place. Then all of a sudden this massive buffalo comes cruising down. It’s a two lane road so it’s just taking up the entire lane of the other road and all of the cars are just crawling behind it. And you’re like, ” Oh right, I am in a national park and it’s so cool.”
Nisreene Atassi: I love national parks. I think they’re super, super popular these days. Megan, what other really interesting road trips have you had that have been really memorable?
Megan Lundquist: I’m obsessed with scuba diving so I’ve been trying to find some cool places in the US. In Florida, when you get to Crystal River, they have a protected area for the manatees and you get in a 10 ml wetsuit, which makes you feel like a marshmallow person. Then you float in the water next to them and we’re behind a barrier, sort of, of noodles that they swim under towards you. It’s crazy. They’re huge. I mean, I can’t even tell you how big they are, massive puppy dogs, because they’re not afraid of you. So they’ll come up and they’ll lick you on the face. They’ll bump into you. They don’t really have any concept of how big they are or that you’re there so it’s a really cool experience. They’re all over that area, but the snorkeling is one of the best ways to experience them, I think.
Nisreene Atassi: Paul, what about you? Have you done any road trips recently or in your past that have really stuck in your mind?
Paul Tomasiello: I find myself often urging anyone going to Vegas to take advantage of the fact that the incredible Zion National Park in Utah is actually a two and a half hour, 170 mile drive from Vegas, and Vegas is the closest major airport to the park. So this trip to Zion is the perfect antidote to a few days of casino or convention center air, and the chance to take in something really unique and really breathtaking.
Nisreene Atassi: Have you ever done a trip internationally by the way, Megan?
Megan Lundquist: Yeah, actually we did a van trip around the South Island of New Zealand, which is the highlight of my entire life, to be honest. It’s the only reason why I own a van. I just loved that everywhere you turned, it was absolutely beautiful. New Zealand, it has to be the prettiest place in the world. There’s just so many opportunities to pull over, take a hike, stay in the town that you’re in because it’s pretty small so the drives are two to three hours each between stops. All of the water is crystal clear and turquoise and everywhere you turn is like a Mount Cook- looking mountain.
Nisreene Atassi: So dreamy.
Megan Lundquist: That’s pretty dreamy, yeah.
Nisreene Atassi: Well, so Megan, let’s talk a little bit about road trip planning again. With the holidays, I’m sure there’s a decent amount of people who are probably thinking that they don’t want to fly home for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Maybe they look at driving, so obviously weather conditions may not be ideal depending on where you are in the US. So how do you plan winter road trips, knowing that the weather may not be as conducive?
Megan Lundquist: I’m a single woman so I typically am by myself driving. I’ll always choose like the longer way if it means there’s a larger freeway that I know is taken care of instead of taking a back road or something that Google would maybe recommend faster. Specifically that for winter, I think that that’s important because you could pull up in Colorado to a mountain and it’s happened to me, where they’re like, ” This road’s closed,” and the other road is a hour and a half backwards the other way. So you have to turn around and go back and get to the main road, so much more careful now with planning.
Nisreene Atassi: Paul, what about you? Do you have any safety tips in terms of taking road trips and things, that travelers should really take into consideration?
Paul Tomasiello: If you have any concerns about the maintenance of your current car, you might want to consider seeing if renting a car for that trip makes sense. Because it could be pretty cheap, save mileage on your personal vehicle and the vast majority of car rental agency’s vehicles are quite new, like six months old or less with pretty low mileage. So that might give you some extra comfort.
Nisreene Atassi: That actually might be a good tip. As Megan was talking about avoiding smaller roads and thinking about things like snow and that kind of stuff. If you are maybe going into a destination or you’re going to be driving through an area this winter or fall, where there might be snow or heavy rainfall, and let’s say you have a sedan, then perhaps upgrading and renting a car that’s a four wheel drive SUV might make you feel more comfortable and just navigating the road so I like that tip a lot.
When it comes to car rental specifics, it sounds like bad weather can actually be a silver lining sometimes. Can you give us the inside scoop on that?
Paul Tomasiello: Yes. What happens in a lot of weather events like the recent hurricane Delta for example, is that all the rental cars in that affected area, so in this case New Orleans, get rented and then go off in all different directions. Then the car rental agencies actually need to get cars back to New Orleans after the storm, so what they do is they will put really great rates in place for people to basically drive one way into New Orleans just to get cars there. Because it’s cheaper for the agencies to do that than to put those cars on trucks. Believe it or not, we’ve heard from our car rental agency partners that they have actually had to fly employees out to a different city to basically get the vehicle and drive it back to where it needs to be.
Nisreene Atassi: That’s really interesting. We’re going to get into other places travelers can take advantage of this kind of deal, as well as how to pack just the essentials right after this. You’re listening to Out Travel The System and I’m Nisreene Atassi. We’re all about keeping you both inspired and informed about travel so make sure you like and subscribe to get all of the latest content. This includes both our full episodes, like our upcoming foodie travel episode with Nilou Motamed and special mini episodes where we give you the latest updates on travel advisories. We always want to hear about your travel stories too so tag us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, we’re at Expedia and hey, you never know, maybe we’ll feature you on the show.
I want to pick up our conversations about car rentals and where you can score some major bargains, because you’re basically helping the car rental agency out by doing the heavy lifting for them almost. This idea actually came up previously in our Shoulder Season episode, when we were talking with guest, Katherine Fan.
Katherine Fan: I rented a Mustang convertible for the fun of it and drove up from LA to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway, and just made a little road trip out of it. My favorite part of that road trip was the fact that my rental for what’s usually considered a luxury rental, it was just a dollar a day because most people want to drive the Pacific Coast Highway South from Northern California down to Southern California so that they’re right up against the ocean. However, if you’re willing to go one lane over and drive North, that alone will save you a couple hundred dollars. Just because most people are driving North to South so they have an excess number of cars in the Southern rental lots and if you help them not have to ship those cars back North, they give you fantastic deals.
Nisreene Atassi: I want to just recap that for everybody, because it’s quite possibly my favorite travel hack this year. Essentially, driving in one direction, that’s oftentimes very popular, means that the reverse direction is not as popular and the car rental companies need to get those cars back. That’s really when you can score some major deals, so that’s why we’re calling it the reverse road trip. That one that Katherine mentioned was between San Francisco and LA. Paul, do you have another example of where that sort of reverse or counterflow of traffic on a car rental can help get you some really amazing low rates?
Paul Tomasiello: I do. We see a large number of one way bookings with sub $ 5 a day rates from San Diego to LA. We see them from Orlando to Miami and that’s to get basically cars back to Miami for the next wave of tourists who like to go to Miami first and then to Disney, and then fly home from Orlando. And we see this effect in rock bottom prices at certain times of the year from Phoenix to Las Vegas, and talk about a great road trip between Phoenix and Las Vegas. You’ve got Sedona, you’ve got the Grand Canyon, you’ve got Hoover Dam all en route. Then recently everyone wants to go to Colorado for the easy socially distant sightseeing and the great outdoors, so renting cars out of Denver is expensive, but one ways that get cars into Denver are cheap.
Nisreene Atassi: I love that. It’s such a sort of insider hack and really the type of stuff that we love to talk about here on Out Travel The System. Megan, are you familiar with this concept of the reverse road trip?
Megan Lundquist: I haven’t heard of it, but it’s genius. I’m going to tell everyone.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay, good. All right, you’ve mentioned that weather can trigger these kinds of deals and it’s also location- based. So Paul, is the time of year a factor also in terms of getting good car rental deals?
Paul Tomasiello: Time of year is a factor. This is because the car rental agencies have this great migration of cars into and out of places where demand is about to swell, like Florida and Arizona in the winter. So when spring training in Arizona is over, for example, they need to get cars out of Phoenix and into LA. So generally, if your itinerary can take you from warm to cold, so from Florida to New York in January, for instance, you could see that direction getting to as low as like $ 10 a day for the car rental. Even if the opposite direction, everyone’s still coming from New York into Florida to escape the cold, is paying five times that much. We are looking into how to organize this information and make it more discoverable for consumers.
Nisreene Atassi: I love that. I think it’s such a great way to help someone maybe even decide where they want to go potentially, because it might give them some more unique options and different types of trips that might give them a new type of experience. So Megan, I’m going to switch to you, what are some of the other costs and fees and things that people might be able to save on when they are planning their road trip?
Megan Lundquist: Well, we talked earlier about safety, which it depends on how comfortable you are in taking risks. Of course RV parks cost a nightly rate and the nicer ones are more expensive, so there’s cost savings based on which one you pick if you want to stay at one. But then any national forest you can park along the road and there safe spots where you won’t be in harm’s way for traffic. There’ll be other people parked there as well and that’s just like a overall US rule if you come across a US national forest. So that would be a nice way to park for free. Some of them charge $ 10 if someone is there on site, just to pay for the person there, but that’s the best hack being willing to just sleep on the side of the road and be in nature.
Nisreene Atassi: I love that. All right, Paul?
Paul Tomasiello: I’d say the other things to be thoughtful about are the car type and insurance. As far as which type of car to book, it’s usually not that much more at the time of booking to get a larger vehicle. You really don’t want to show up and realize that your luggage doesn’t really fit the way you thought it would, and then have to either pay for an upgrade that might be expensive or not even have the option to upgrade.
Nisreene Atassi: I’ve definitely been in a scenario where we’ve rented the smallest car because we wanted the cheapest price and the luggage did not fit. I realize that sometimes you just have to sort of click that button down just to read a little bit more of the finer details, but it does tell you how many pieces of luggage a trunk will fit. So that’s my big tip for everybody, is make sure that you look and see, especially if you’re going to a place where you know you’re going to have a lot of luggage, or even if you’re not going to have a lot of luggage, you’d be surprised how much those roller board bags can actually take up space. I’m glad you brought that up. Paul. Earlier this season we actually got into how hotels and airlines are adapting to the pandemic. So Paul, what are we seeing on this front in terms of rental car companies?
Paul Tomasiello: Many car rental agencies are now offering online check- in. Not only is it now more comfortable to be able to rent a car and choose the level of contact that you’re going to have, but it often means now that you can skip the line, and we all know how long that line can be sometimes. So my guidance is when it’s time to check in for your flight, see if you can check in for your car rental as well.
Nisreene Atassi: Great tip. That’s a really good tip. Megan, back to you. Now let’s get into some of the fun stuff. Packing, what tips have you figured out along the way?
Megan Lundquist: My best suggestion is to find a bag that’s the size you want to take and only pack in that bag because then that’s it. You have a limit.
Nisreene Atassi: What are some of your must- have items for a 10 plus hour road trip?
Megan Lundquist: I have a couple of things. I actually have a fridge that plugs into the car lighter to keep it powered so it can actually be a fridge or a freezer, depending on the temperature you put in it so that you always have snacks, drinks, things, you don’t have to stop for that. I also have a portable toilet, which is also depending on your comfort level. I have that in case you’re in a rush. And then audio books. I think I read seven books every trip I go so it’s definitely one of my favorite things.
Nisreene Atassi: Boy, what a way to knock those off your list. I love that. What about things like … this is a random question. And I think this is maybe why I also get really nervous about road trips, is that I don’t know anything about my car. I don’t know how to fix anything. If something goes wrong, I feel like I would be completely stranded.
Megan Lundquist: Yeah, I mean I also don’t know anything about cars. I’ve always traveled with one of those air compressors so if you do get a flat tire, you can put air in it and then just keep driving until you can get to a place that’s safe, rather than having to pull off the road and change your tire. I think that that’s a pretty scary option for a lot of people, especially at night. So the air pressure, you can just fill it up really high and then drive to a gas station and be in a safe, lit place. As far as breaking down, I mean, I think hopefully everyone these days has a roadside assistance. I have three different ones actually, to be able to call someone.
Nisreene Atassi: Of course you do, yeah. That would make sense.
Megan Lundquist: I mean, I’m a single girl.
Nisreene Atassi: I’m going to ask you guys two questions. One, what’s your go- to road trip snack and/ or your guilty pleasure road trip pit stop food item? Okay Paul, we’ll start with you.
Paul Tomasiello: The road trip is, in my mind, the absolute opportunity to eat Doritos. When I have to hit the gas station, you can bet that I’m going to run in and come out with probably a family size bag of Doritos for two of us, or maybe even one of us.
Nisreene Atassi: What about fast food pit stops? Do you have a guilty pleasure? I mean, you’re from California so I feel like you probably … Like In-N-Out Burger I know is really big, but for people in like Washington, I know that when they’re talking about road trips and they’re especially going down South, they literally plan their road trip around making it to the In-N-Out Burger that’s in Oregon. Do you have a favorite fast food place that you try to stop at?
Paul Tomasiello: I feel like Nissy, you may have looked at my credit card statement or something because in my last road trip I strategically picked where we would stop all along the way for lunch based on where there was both an In-N- Out Burger and a Del Taco … which is a California chain … in order to hit up both of them for lunch. I am all about maximizing the guilty pleasure and being strategic about the logistics of that.
Nisreene Atassi: I’m in. I’m going to ride shotgun on your next road trip. That sounds great. Megan, what about you? I mean, you live in an RV, so the allure of road trip snacks, or fast food pit stops is probably not the same for you anymore, but do you have a favorite road trip snack?
Megan Lundquist: Those donuts. Those little chocolate covered cake donuts, they’re so terrible for you, but they’re so good, I just can’t help myself. Or beef jerky if it’s a random town, it looks like it’s legit beef jerky.
Nisreene Atassi: You know what? It’s true, those small towns do always have some sort of locally made beef jerky that they sell at the gas station and it does end up being really delicious. That’s a good one. So Megan, what is next on your road trip list?
Megan Lundquist: Well, strangely enough I’ve lived in Texas my entire life, and I’ve never been to Big Bend, it’s now open again. So that is next step for me, to go explore my own state.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. What are the things that you love the most about getting on the road? Is there anything that you feel like you can tell listeners who are maybe thinking about taking that road trip, that are a little bit nervous? What inspirational words of wisdom do you have for everyone?
Megan Lundquist: I think it is so great because right now everyone doesn’t have the ability to plan. You just can’t plan what’s going to happen next. And the best thing about a road trip is that you don’t technically have to plan. I recommend planning, but you don’t have to, you could get in your car tomorrow and drive to Big Bend and have an amazing weekend with absolutely no plans in advance. I think that’s really freeing right now and something people really need.
Nisreene Atassi: Love that, perfect. Paul, what about you? Any road trips coming up?
Paul Tomasiello: Yeah, so ironically, my next one is probably going to be that famous San Francisco to LA. This time I am hoping to stop for a couple of hours in Santa Barbara, which is right there along the route.
Nisreene Atassi: I love this. I want to take a road trip. You know what, guys? I’m going to do it. I want to do it. I don’t know if it’s going to be 16 hours. Maybe I’ll start off small with two hours or maybe I’ll get wild and go for four hours. I mean, I have a young child, so that’s a factor, but you both have really inspired me to take that road trip this year.
Thank you so much for being on the show. Megan Lundquist is an expert on road tripping and a boutique travel planner. Megan, I’m so glad you had time to join us today. Thank you again for all of your expert tips.
Megan Lundquist: Thank you, it was so great to be here and really nice to meet you.
Nisreene Atassi: And Paul Tomasiello is Expedia’s Senior Director of Global Car Supply. I’m going to let you have the last word here. Paul, if you wanted listeners to take one thing away about car rentals, what would it be?
Paul Tomasiello: I’d say get creative and think about how a one- way car rental could take your one destination trip and turn it into a two or a three destination trip. So instead of flying round trip, should you fly one direction and make a road trip out of the other direction? Or should you fly into San Francisco, but fly back from Reno so that you could drive to the fabulous Lake Tahoe in between? It might be more fun or cheaper or both.
Nisreene Atassi: Perfect. All right, well thank you for joining us on Out Travel The System, Paul.
Paul Tomasiello: Thanks for having me, Nissy.
Nisreene Atassi: That’s it for this episode so join us next time as we talk about traveling through your taste buds and how you can relive your favorite travel memories with the beauty of food. As always, happy travels.