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You might not be given one of these Lamborghinis to cruise cross country, but--you never know!
GoNOMAD MINI GUIDE
Drive Away Across the U.S.A. -- Even If You Don't Own a Car!

Jack Kerouac. Neal Cassady. Bonnie, Clyde, Thelma, Louise -- and you: all dazzled by the romance of the cross-country road trip. There is no better way to get a feel for the expansive size of North America, no better way to see the diversity in culture and climate of the different regions of the US and Canada.

But the ultimate road trip requires one essential and expensive item -- a car. Preferably one that won't break down and leave you stranded in the middle of the Nevada desert.

There are agencies in North America that will give you a free car, a tank of gas, and a planned route to your destination In other words, a "driveaway." You must give the car back at the end, and you can't damage it or paint it psychedelic in an attempt to add "Beat" flavor to your road trip, but with some luck, your borrowed auto will have gotten you safely from point A to point B.

WHAT IS A "DRIVEAWAY"

"Driveaway" companies match drivers with cars. The car owner pays an auto transport agency to move his or her vehicle. Sometimes the owner is moving across the country, flying ahead after having stuffed your new wheels with household goods.

But often, the car belongs to a large corporation that provides cars for its employees. The corporations relocate company cars from one office to another, dependent upon staff needs. Most driveaway cars are fairly new, empty, and in good condition. Don't expect a convertible sportscar -- you'll probably get a medium-sized family vehicle.

Many driveaways go from one major city to another. If your goal is to get from Boston to a small town near San Francisco, you can probably get a driveway to SF and take a bus the rest of the way. In the fall and early winter, there are usually lots of driveways from the northeast to Florida.

Be flexible about cities for departure and arrival, and leave yourself lots of time, as there's no guarantee that a driveaway to your chosen destination will be available when you need it.

THE RULES

While it is okay to be an unkempt backpacker, all drivers must:

  • be licensed (non-US citizens need an international license and passport)
  • be over 21
  • have a clean driving record
  • leave a $300-$400 deposit
  • pay for fuel after the first free tank

You are assigned a set number of days and a route. Adhere to it or risk your deposit. Some agents will negotiate -- they understand that travelers want to see the sights along the way. There are varying regulations about the number of hours you can drive per day, and some companies don't allow you to drive after dark. Flagrant contract violations are not recommended, but many travelers have reported slightly bending the rules.

If you want to spend a lot of time in one place, consider getting two separate driveaways. A traveler could, for example, drive one car from Philadelphia to Chicago, stay a week, and drive a second car from Chicago to Los Angeles.

COVER YOUR SEAT

Before merrily driving the car off of the lot, inspect it closely. Mark any visible imperfections on the form supplied by the driveaway company. Look at the car from various angles -- often you can't see a "ding" from straight on.

DELIVERING YOUR VEHICLE TO ITS DESTINATION

After your epic overland journey ends, it will be time to surrender your faithful sedan to the person who owns all the home furnishings stuffed in the trunk. Call ahead to make sure the owner will be home -- you can't just leave the car and put the keys in the mailbox. You need a signature to get your deposit back from the nearest driveaway office (it will be a check, not cash, and you can also trust them to send it back).

Clean the car before delivery, vacuuming out the remnants of roadside meals, if necessary. Hopefully, the pleased owner will offer to drive you to a train or bus station. Don't count on this, however. Research your return to public transport, carry a few taxi phone numbers, and leave your luggage in a locker at the nearest train/bus station. That way, if the owner looks at the travel clothes you've been wearing for three days, grabs a bottle of Lysol and heads for his vehicle, you'll be ready to get on the road again -- without your trusted Pontiac.

WHAT IF YOU HIT SOMETHING? WHAT IF THE CAR BREAKS DOWN?

If you damage the car or are at fault in an accident, insurance will cover the car, but you will probably lose your deposit. Minor mechanical repairs are paid for by the driver, who is reimbursed by the owner. For major repairs, the driveaway company must be consulted, and the owner pays up front.

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