For the second year in a row, my family went on a massive electric car road trip. Five of us — my wife, a 3-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a 17-year-old exchange student — got into a rented Model 3 and drove 2,661 miles through the Northeast to see family and friends and enjoy seven beautiful states. What blew us away is how little we spent on fuel for our vacation. While the rest of the gas-bound world cringes every time they fill up at the pump, electric fuel for the thousands of miles we’ve driven didn’t even cost $100.
Planning an EV road trip
Last year We drove our own Model 3 cross country from Portland to Ohio, traversing 2,700 miles on our way east and taking a 5,000-mile scenic southern route back through 12 states. This year we’ve flown most of the country (on one of our increasingly rare flights which we later compensated for) so we started looking into an electric vehicle rental. Unfortunately, this is still a challenge. Hertz, for example, nine months after his big announcement over the purchase of 100,000 Teslas, only has the vehicles available for rent in 25 cities, and when we booked our rental a few months ago, that figure was even lower. Our only option to rent an electric vehicle was the peer to peer car sharing site, tower.
After scanning the Columbus, Ohio area and looking at about a dozen options, we booked Markus’ white Tesla Model 3 for our month-long road trip. To be honest, we didn’t consider any options other than Tesla for rent. We’ve owned a Model 3 for three years, and while we’re really excited about all the new EVs from other automakers and the rapidly improving fast-charging networks in the US (as well as our anger at Elon and his all-too-public shenanigans) we know from experience that Tesla’s integrated charging network is miles ahead of everything else. We previously owned a first-gen Nissan Leaf, and I’ve driven many other EVs through my previous job at a nonprofit that promotes electric mobility, and with the exception of Tesla’s Supercharger network, sadly, it still sucks if you do will have enough chargers or the chargers will work when you show up to fill up your vehicle.
What we paid for the trip
Renting a car is expensive these days. It feels like not too long ago you could rent a car for under $500 for a month, but a quick scan of a monthly rental in Columbus, Ohio (where we picked up and dropped off our vehicle) reveals the cheapest gas car at nearly $1,300.
But renting a petrol car was not an option for us. We’ve been proud EV owners since 2017, and after trying the quiet, smooth tailpipe alternative, it’s hard to go back to the loud engines and smoking tailpipes that are directly feeding the climate crisis.
Markus’ Model 3 cost us $2,000 for a 31-day rental, which is $64 per day. We booked several months in advance and benefited from a monthly discount, so I’m not sure that’s exactly representative of the price for a shorter summer EV road trip. (As an aside, it’s also good to know that when we use Turo, the majority of our rent payments go to an entrepreneurial individual rather than a large corporation.)
We started the trip in Columbus, OH, then drove to Pittsburgh, PA to visit family, and then to New York City for four days of car-free fun. From there we drove to Portland, ME and spent a few days exploring the natural beauty and beaches, visiting family and friends, and getting a factory tour from one of the best government efficiency and heat pump programs in the country (Thanks, Andy Mayer and Efficiency Maine). Then we headed off for another long day visiting friends in Syracuse, NY and then to Cleveland, OH and finally back to Columbus to hand over the car and return home. This route meant we had to ride four long days averaging over 400 miles per day, meaning we were almost always plugged in when we weren’t riding.
On the summer trip we stopped at 12 Tesla Superchargers and never had to worry about a bad charging experience. As Northwesters traveling across the country, we also appreciated that the car planned our entire trip for us, calculating exactly which chargers we would need to stop at in Tesla’s vast network and how much time we would spend at each. This system is an immense competitive advantage for Tesla (and will remain so until charging stations become as ubiquitous as gas stations and/or other automakers build their own charging networks) and makes Tesla EV road trips as easy, if not easier, than ICE ones.
On the other hand, Tesla has increased the price of charging has fallen dramatically in recent years – from 24 cents per kWh in many places a few years ago to now 45 cents or more at every station we visited on our trip.
This charging monopoly is a real risk for consumers, as Tesla (which accounts for 70% of the current EV market) can seemingly raise its prices at whim. There’s not much competition to keep this greedy corporate temptation at bay, as Tesla drivers can’t charge at most other stations without an adapter.
The good news is that even on a car trip, drivers aren’t dependent on Tesla for all, or even most, of their fuel. We charged 12 times on Superchargers, getting 206kWh of electric fuel from Tesla, and it cost us $95. But our entire trip used 517 kWh (the equivalent of 14 gallons of gas) and the other 311 kWh (60% of our fuel) came from plugging into standard 110-volt outdoor outlets at our gracious hosts.
We plugged in at virtually every stop on our trip, including a parking garage in NYC. An important lesson to be learned is that electric refueling opportunities are everywhere and will only cost the outlet owner a few dollars more on a monthly electric bill. Tesla owners depend on the now expensive (but definitely still worthwhile) Tesla Supercharger network for fast charging on long drive days, but they can supplement that charging with virtually any other outlet capable of powering their vehicles for one-fifth the cost of slow refueling gas.
The Tesla we rented from Markus is one of the few Model 3s with only a 215-mile range, as it was an attempt to fulfill its promise of a $35,000 EV. Our car at home has a range of 310 miles and we weren’t entirely sure how the lower range model would fare on 400-500 mile days. In the end it was perfectly fine with almost the same level of comfort as our longer-range vehicle. Longer days might have required three charging stops instead of two, but if you’re traveling with young kids, a stop every 2-3 hours for 15-20 minutes is almost a requirement anyway.
One thing that helped was that while driving we averaged an incredible 194 watt-hours per mile, which is about 160mpg for ICE cars, which helped reduce our charging needs. This is largely due to our expert hypermiling skills, which involves not driving fast and keeping the windows closed rather than blowing up the AC. As a result, every kWh goes further. My wife also graciously accepts that I check how efficiently she drives about every 30 minutes. I am proud to say that the student has become a master on this journey and in the end has exceeded my average.
All in all, our huge EV road trip was fantastic – good visits, good sights, good transport and good times. We spent $95 on electric refueling expenses to go 2,661 miles. If we rented a 25 mpg gas car with $5.00 per gallon gas (that average price during our trip) we would have spent $532 on gas and financed petrostates, petrocorporations and the climate crisis. Instead, we saved $437 in fuel costs on our trip, and those fuel savings bring the Tesla rental almost to cost-parity with an ICE car road trip. We only spent $286 more to drive a whole month in a Tesla that offers a superior driving experience on so many levels.
|Type of car rental||Monthly rental costs||fuel costs||total cost|
|Tesla model 3||$2,000||$95||$2095|
|Cheapest ICE car||$1,277||$532||$1809|
Note that the electric refueling costs above do not take into account the 311 kWh that we have charged at our hosts’ homes. At 15 cents per kWh, that would add another $47 to their cost and doesn’t really change the point.
With gas prices soaring these days, I hope our journey demonstrates just how much financial sense it makes to rent, drive and, if you haven’t already, buy an electric vehicle. Even with the limited availability of electric rental vehicles and the cost premium of a luxury Tesla, our spending was almost comparable to renting a cheap old gas car. Imagine the near future where many more vehicles will be electric and charging stations will be ubiquitous. We have arrived in the promised land where the most cost effective option is the one that keeps our skies and planet clean.
A big thank you to Naomi Cole, my hypermiling life partner of 15 years, for her great edits and contributions to this article.
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