What's the cheapest way to transport a car cross-country?

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Pros and Cons of Flying Vs. Driving Cross Country

Retired "snowbirds" who go south for the winter and people moving across the country have a range of options for safely relocating their cars, from door-to-door transport via trailer truck to a hired driver. Still, the most economical way to go might the simplest: driving the car themselves. Cheapism.com compared the options for a standard-size car on a one-way trip of 3,000 miles.

Hiring a Driver.

Hiring someone to drive the vehicle reduces stress and saves time, but handing over the keys to a stranger can be scary. A common way to minimize the risk is going through an intermediary that screens drivers. Jesus Pino of Auto Driveaway, which requires references and a deposit from each prospective driver, quoted $1,250 for a cross-country move. That cost typically goes down in summer, he said, when more potential drivers look for a free way to get cross-country themselves. The driver pays for gas, lodging, and food, and the owner of the vehicle is responsible for insurance. This is not a popular option, though. Pino said most customers prefer a relocation method that doesn't put miles on their car.

View tips on how to save money on a road trip:

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What's the cheapest way to transport a car cross-country?

1. Calculate your expected fuel cost before your trip. It’s always wise to get an accurate estimation of how much to budget for gas beforehand. GasBuddy's fuel calculator is an excellent tool to get an expected price point. Just enter your vehicle information, startpoint and endpoint, and the app will calculate how much you’ll spend.

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2. Don’t fuel up near popular areas. You’ll find inflated gas prices near popular tourist destinations and metropolitan areas, so it’s worth venturing to the town over for more affordable prices. For example, gas costs on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway in California are considerably higher than the stations a few miles off the main highway.

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3. Fill up your tank at truck stops. You'll often find the cheapest gas prices here. 

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4. Download gas apps. Apps like GasBuddy and GasGuru come in handy by computing the cheapest station in relation to your current location.

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5. Drive efficiently to save gas costs. These 5 fuel-efficient tips are proven to maintain a full tank longer:

           1. Turn off your AC

2. Engage cruise control in low-traffic areas

3. Avoid rapid acceleration and braking

4. Inflate tires close to maximum

5. Avoid speeding

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6. Travel with friends. Traveling with a few buddies is an efficient (and fun) way to save cash by splitting the cost of a tank.

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7. Grocery shop in advance. Pack water and snacks beforehand in a cooler -- inflated convenience store prices will eat away at your budget.

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8. Bring reusable water bottles. Filling up a water bottle is cheaper than buying a Poland Spring at every stop.

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9. Buy fountain drinks over bottled drinks. If you’re craving a Mountain Dew, fountain drinks give you a better bang for your buck over bottled soda.

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Use Yelp: Download Yelp on your phone to see the best restaurant offers in your area.

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11. Take advantage of restaurant deals. Chances are there will be tons of chain restaurants along the way, so use sites like Groupon and GiftCardGranny to get a deal on the road.

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12. Load up on free coffee and breakfast from hotels for the road. Take advantage of a free meal and avoid Starbucks and other expensive coffee shops.

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13. Avoid staying in popular areas. Tourist-driven and metropolitan areas are often paired with inflated prices, so find a place to sleep in surrounding towns.

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14. Check out sites like Airbnb, Tripadvisor, and Kayak to score the best low-cost lodging deals.

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15. Rent a car. If you don’t own your own vehicle, renting a car beforehand for as cheap as $22 a day on sites like ExpediaHotwire, and Travelocity can be a great deal.

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16. Alert your bank. Sometimes banks will deem charges in new cities as fraudulent and cancel your cards.

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17. Stick to budget-friendly activities. Some ideas include hiking national parks, visiting beaches and checking out a town’s culture by walking the streets and venturing into a street fair.

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18. Take advantage of student discounts. If you’re currently a student, bring your student ID for maximum discounts.

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19. Download road trip planning apps. Apps like Roadtrippers are a great way to help plan and finance your new excursion.

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Shipping by Truck.

Perhaps the most common way to transport a car cross-country is to put it on a semi trailer, like car dealers do. The cost of truck transport depends on factors such as the type of car and its condition, the season, the distance, and the starting and ending locations (distant but popular routes may cost less than short trips between small towns, for instance).

In addition to door-to-door service, companies also arrange transport between two central locations. This is not necessarily cheaper, however. Often the price varies based on options such as a guaranteed pickup date vs. a delivery window, or an enclosed vs. open trailer.

UShip, an online marketplace for people who need to ship or haul goods, provided a range of quotes for transport by truck, starting at $1,065 and topping out at $2,100. This site also posts customer reviews of auto transport services.

Before arranging a trip through a broker, check the company's credentials 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 number, to be sure it's licensed. Always ask for proof of insurance and beware a broker or driver who demands a lot of money upfront.

Shipping by Rail.

Another 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, although they were unable to provide a quote. They estimated a savings of about $100 on a New York-San Francisco run.

Vehicles transported by rail travel in enclosed cars, although a shipper who has used train service cautioned that cars are still vulnerable to vandalism while sitting in depots. Train transport is intended primarily for auto dealers moving several vehicles at once, and while individual owners can occasionally find an open slot, it is near impossible to ensure a specific day. This option is available at select locations only, and pickup and drop-off still involve a truck, probably for an added fee.

Amtrak runs a car transport service for snowbirds, who put their vehicles on a train and ride along on the convoy between a station near Washington, D.C., and a town near Orlando, Florida. A one-way fare for a passenger and car ranges from about $289 to $703 in early June. The trip takes about 18 hours.

Driving It Yourself.

The most obvious solution -- and the cheapest one for those with time to spare -- is to drive the car yourself. Using the Internal Revenue Service's standard mileage rate of 19 cents for moving purposes (based on the variable costs of operating the vehicle, including gas and oil), the cost of a 3,000-mile trip would be about $570.

Although the distance can be covered in 48 hours with two drivers rotating shifts, it would require five overnight stays for one driver to safely make the trip. There are still plenty of roadside budget hotels charging $40 to $70 a night, making the cost of five nights about $275 (at the median price). Figure another $130 for food; possibly less if packing snacks ahead of time. Bottom line: about $975 to drive the car yourself.

The cost of using an auto transport company looks even less appealing when you add the price of a one-way plane ticket. A vehicle shipped through a car transport service also cannot carry any personal items. Aside from insurance issues, truck drivers are so conscious of excess weight that they typically request no more than one-quarter tank of fuel in the car. It might cost several hundred dollars to ship a few boxes that would otherwise fit in the car.

Of course, the cost of driving is significantly higher if it requires an unpaid week off work. In that case, it may be cheapest to turn to a truck.

RELATED: View photos of classic US road trips

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Classic US Road Trips
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What's the cheapest way to transport a car cross-country?

1. California State Route 1: San Francisco to Los Angeles

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2. Route 66: Chicago to Santa Monica, CA

Photo via Vvillamon/Flickr

3. Amish Country Byway: Holmes County, Ohio

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4. Blue Ridge Parkway: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

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5. Upstate New York: Albany to the Finger Lakes

Photo via Alamy

6. Overseas Highway: Florida mainland to Key West

Photo via Alamy

7. Lewis and Clark Historic Trail: Illinois to Oregon

Photo via Alamy

8. Going to the Sun Road: Glacier National Park, Montana

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9. U.S. Route 1: Massachusetts to Maine

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10. Red Rock Scenic Byway: Sedona, Arizona

Photo via Alamy

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