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Travel for free in a driveaway car

For a refundable deposit and a few tanks of gas, you can get where you're going by delivering a car to its destination.

By THOMAS HANDY LOON
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002


Its nameplate read "Honda," but it was moonlighting as my workhorse.

It was somebody else's car, though I hadn't stolen it. And a couch was balanced on its roof, en route to my new apartment in Chicago. I had a vague sense that I'd better not scratch this Honda, at least not too badly, or I wouldn't get back my deposit on it.

This was a "driveaway" car, picked up in Washington, D.C., to be delivered to Chicago. After putting down a cash deposit of $250 and filling out some paperwork, I got the keys. I made a detour through mid-Michigan to load up my stuff and soon the Honda was sporting a thrift-store couch on its roof.

Beyond letting you move your own stuff from city to city, driveaway cars are a good way to see the country. All you pay is a refundable cash deposit -- I've driven dozens of these vehicles and have always gotten the deposit back -- and refill the gas tank as needed.

Actually, the first tank is provided, and don't underestimate the significance of that: Once I drove a huge F-350 diesel extended-cab Ford pickup from San Antonio to Denver, and it came with two full 25-gallon tanks, which got me all the way to Albuquerque.

Thousands of people and companies pay good money to have their cars moved every year. They pay several hundred dollars to have someone like me drive their car. I don't get the cash, though -- the driveaway company does, for serving as a clearinghouse matching those looking for cheap transport with available cars.

Sometimes it takes weeks to match a vehicle with a driver. Other times it takes minutes. Ten years ago I was in San Francisco trying to get to Houston. I had hitch-hiked from Anchorage with a Russian friend, after we crossed Europe and Siberia together. I wanted to show him the California coast, the Grand Canyon and the vast expanses of west Texas.

When I called the local office to get a driveaway car, they didn't have one.

"Call again; cars are always coming in," I was told.

Three hours and three phone calls later, I scored, and we left that afternoon for Houston.

Because of the agreed-upon delivery date, drivers cannot always use backroads, which are usually more interesting than the Interstates.

Just last summer I traveled with a friend in a new Mercury Mountaineer from Portland to Chicago. We took a scenic route and camped at my favorite Idaho hot springs, then, meandering along backroads, left a tobacco offering at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, traversed the Black Hills, and visited friends in Iowa City. And we still delivered the car in Chicago, right on time.

But even the super highways can offer interesting panoramas. Undulating skeins of sandhill cranes always seem to be etching the skies of central Nebraska along Interstate 80.

Ear-popping descents through beautiful Colorado mountain passes and valleys are fun. The forested hills of West Virginia, steamy Louisiana bayous, the urban wastelands off the New Jersey turnpike -- they all add up to America the beautiful.

On the other hand, doing driveways can be boring. I've driven a thousand miles in a day, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks, just watching flat landscapes and generic offramp service outposts from dawn to after dusk.

But once in a small pickup (heading from Oregon to Texas), I was swept aside by a trucker in a Wyoming blizzard. This provided me with one of those "life-flashing-by" moments as I spun sideways.

Who pays to have their car moved? Some of the vehicles are repossessions and are being returned to the banks where the loan originated. Many are company vehicles or rental cars.

Once a woman who lived in Houston won a car in a company contest, and I delivered it from Boston. I have delivered cars to students whose parents finally caved in to Junior's request for some wheels. I know of a man in Minneapolis who has his BMW driven to Long Beach, Calif., every winter; from there, it is shipped to Hawaii, where he spends winters.

People and their vehicles are always going somewhere.

If you go

HOW TO DO IT: Driveaways are found online (www.autodriveaway.com is the best site), or by checking the Yellow Pages in many cities under "Automobiles-Transporters and Driveaway Companies."

Most companies ship only new vehicles and thus cannot help you, so your first question should be, "Do you do driveaways?"

Companies that do offer driveways include: Auto Driveaway, Auto Delivery, Auto Dispatch and Shultz International.

You may not find a car going the right direction, much less to your desired destination. Flexibility gets rewarded. Know how to work the system, such as calling nearby cities for a car headed toward your desired destination.

If you cannot find what you want, ask about "staging." This means driving a series of vehicles, from place to place, each toward your destination.

PROCEDURES: You will need to fill out some forms and provide references. You may have to be fingerprinted. And you will have to provide a cash deposit.

If you are traveling with a lot of luggage, or even moving, do not take this sort of load with you to the driveaway office. Retrieve it after you get the keys.

Accompanying family and friends usually are not forbidden by the companies, but they will take their names for insurance reasons.

Drivers are expected to cover about 400 miles a day, but if you offer a plausible story -- such as wanting to visit a relative along the way or near the basic route -- you might be allowed an extra day or two.

Before delivery of the vehicle, the driver is expected to clean it out and have it washed.

Make sure before setting out that you know where you are going; some destinations are far from town, and once you deliver the car, you are without wheels again. However, if you are delivering the car to someone's home, as is typical, the owners are usually pleasant and will sometimes offer a ride at least to a good hitchhiking place.

I suppose you could spend a month or even a summer just driving cars back and forth across the country (driveaways can also be arranged in Canada and Europe). Driveaways are not for everyone, but if you have some flexibility and an adventurous spirit, they can be a fun way to get there.

- Thomas Handy Loon is a freelance writer living in Shevlin, Minn.

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