Renting cars and driving around town simply doesn’t pencil out.
Despite being situated in a roomy part of Burbank, a hotel I just visited charges $35 per night for parking.
Luckily, I give airport rental counters the widest possible berth — a choice which is mainly about saving time for me. As a writer who’s not prone to motion sickness, I’m fully productive in the back seat of a Lyft or UberX. This means every avoided hour of driving is an extra hour of sleep, fun, or (all too often) work. I always kind of assumed this made good economic sense too. But I never bothered to run the numbers on it.
Until I saw that damned sign! I mean, Thirty-five dollars? A night? Plus tax? And tip? In freakin’ Burbank? Awed by my hotel’s audacity, I finally did the math on my ride-sharing addiction. I ranged all over Santa Monica, West LA, Beverly Hills, and the Valley during my three days in town, as this map roughly documents:
There were some rush hours in there. There were some half-crazed road hogs. And there was light rain (a hazard roughly as daunting to LA drivers as collapsed bridges are to New Yorkers). I emailed and edited efficiently throughout it all, relaxed and oblivious to the horrors of the road. My drivers braved 95.56 miles of that shit on my behalf, according to my trip summaries. They also saved me almost exactly five hours of drudgery and stress. All this recaptured time and peace of mind ran me $153.90. That’s about thirty bucks an hour, moving at an average speed of about 19mph.
So how does the cost of renting compare to this? Well, for starters there’s $117.60 in hotel parking fees (and tax!). Add at least $15 in tips to hotel valets during all my comings and goings, plus another $15 (and probably way more) to cover parking and tips at various destinations. Then of course, you’d have to rent a car. Expedia reports that the cheapest 3-day option out of Burbank’s airport is $161 from a Brand X purveyor called Fox Rent-a-Car. That gets you into a Toyota Yaris (“a budget car that feels every bit of its low sticker price,” in Car and Driver’s heartless words).
Conservatively ballpark gas at ten bucks total, and the rental option would have set me back $308.60 — or more than double what it cost me to be chauffeured for three days! Now, a normal person would do this calculation, feel smug for a moment, then get back to email (UPDATE: Actually, no. Further research reveals that a normal person wouldn’t have bothered with any of this). But I found myself plagued by a burning question: Who in the fuck is renting cars and then parking them at my hotel?
To answer this, I first assumed that the high-ish-ly powered guests of my fancy-ish hotel can all do productive things with laptops or smartphones if someone else takes the wheel. And because I had to factor in some number, I assumed their time is worth the US median wage of about $22 per hour.
Since it costs about $30 an hour to Lyft around LA, and drivers spend $2-ish an hour on gas, you can save $28/hour by driving yourself rather than being productive in someone else’s car. Subtract the value of your time, and that nets to $6/hour. Since the cost of renting rounds to $100/day, you’d have to drive at least seventeen hours a day just to break even. In other words, this only begins to make sense if you come to town for the express purpose of driving in LA traffic. Throughout every waking hour of your visit. Chilled by this fact, I starting keeping quite a bit more distance between myself and the weirdoes at my hotel.
But then I had a calming thought: maybe these folks are perfectly normal, apart from a preternatural ability to drive real fast through LA’s stop-and-go traffic? At higher speeds the savings are greater, because ride-sharing companies charge by both the mile and the minute. And at the Yaris’s top speed of 109 miles per hour, a median earner would come out ahead by renting after just a couple hours at the wheel — leaving ample time to tweet, post selfies, and attend to the other urgent matters of an LA business trip.
Except. A casual look at the handbags and laptops in the hotel bar reveals that these are no median earners! From careful anthropological observations, I’d peg them in the top 5% of earners, which the New York Times maps to $250,000/year. And that puts them right back to driving 17 hours a day in that Yaris to break even on renting. Only at 109 miles per hour (I thought they’d break even a bit faster — but gas starts getting expensive at those speeds).
Now, this is obviously a playful analysis. But it leads me to a serious conclusion. Which is that practically nobody should ever rent a car on any business trip. Sure, not all hotels charge $35 a night for parking. But nor has any living person ever driven a Yaris at 109 mph for more than a fleeting moment of horror down an empty stretch of Nevada freeway on a dare from a passenger who was either tripping, a male teen, and/or secretly suicidal. However you massage the numbers, renting is just wrong, unless you’re in one of a few special situations.
1) You’re going somewhere with scant to nonexistent ride-sharing coverage (obviously).
2) You’re so prone to motion sickness that even phone calls are too much for you in a car — making those backseat time savings worthless (NOTE: In these circumstances, I’d advise you to stay the fuck out of LA in general).
3) You really, really, really like driving. In stop-and-go traffic. In a Yaris. I (kind of) get this, as I sometimes enjoy driving myself. But please run the numbers before making this your reason for renting on a mundane trip. In the long run, ditching Hertz will surely save you enough time and money to underwrite many joyous hours of driving gorgeous roads in a peppy car.
4) Your time is worth something close to minimum wage — and you have a lot of driving to do on your trip (like five or six hours per day). Since folks in that income bracket rarely take business trips packed with far-flung meetings, I think we can call this an edge case.
Somehow, the rental agencies are hanging in there. Though Hertz lost over half its value over the five-ish years of ride-sharing’s ubiquity, Avis stock is up by a factor of almost three. Combined, their market caps are only about 10% off of where they were back in 2012. How can this be? Well, old habits die hard, of course. The calculation is also different on vacation. You might want your driving time to be private time. The roads are more likely to be scenic, and the cars to be spunky. And hopefully, you’re not pounding on your laptop throughout every moment of partial downtime.
But I’ll bet it’s mainly the lag of customer behavior catching up with new realities. I remember how it took CDs almost a decade to fully supplant vinyl (I was personally the last kid on my block to make that move). And as noted above, normal people have better things to do than run the calculations underlying this post (hell — even I probably had better things to do).
However, most of us ultimately make the transitions that old habits resist. This is often triggered by a last-straw outrage that pisses us off enough to finally get with the program. In this, hotels that charge $35/night for parking might be viewed as terrific little allies for the ridesharing movement.