Research

10 most expensive cities for road trips

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Taking a road trip instead of flying sounds like it could save you a lot of money, especially if you’re traveling as a family or with a group of friends. But this isn’t always the case, especially when considering the challenges facing the travel industry today. One notable cost difference to consider is the huge surge in rental car prices in 2021.  

According to AAA, rental car prices doubled over the summer compared to the previous year. And in some cities, prices jumped at an even higher rate. Before you plan any travel for the holiday season and beyond, take a look at where you’re headed and what the true costs may be. For a road trip, you might be surprised by unexpected price increases.

To help you plan, we decided to find the most expensive cities for road trips. We looked at the 50 most populous cities in the U.S. and analyzed three specific data points:

  • Average gas price (as of October 15, 2021; national average was $2.99)
  • Average cost of a rental car for one week
  • Number of toll roads in the state

Explore these pricey cities that could cost you more both on the way and once you get there.

#1 Chicago, IL

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Chicago is pricey across the board, whether you’re flying in and renting a car at the airport or driving and getting hit by multiple interstate toll roads. While some destinations have car rentals averaging under $300, you’re likely to spend over $500 in Chicago, and that’s without any upgrades. Depending on the size of your travel group, it may be worth ride-sharing or using public transportation throughout your stay, rather than paying for a rental car. Then you don’t have to worry about high gas prices either.

Chicago by the numbers

  • Average gas price: $3.63
  • Average cost of a rental car for one week: $519
  • Number of toll roads in the state: 7

#2 Sacramento, CA

Sacramento has some of the highest gas prices in the country. Definitely make note if you’re driving in the city and need an accurate budget of what you can expect to spend. Rental cars are quite expensive but could be worth the cost since driving is generally recommended for getting around Sacramento with ease. The good news is that California only has five toll roads, which isn’t significant considering the size of the state. Plus, they are clustered in other areas. So while you may run into one on your way to Sacramento, you won’t be paying tolls as you spend time in the area.

Sacramento by the numbers

  • Average gas price: $4.47
  • Average cost of a rental car for one week: $491
  • Number of toll roads in the state: 5

#3 Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh has definitely felt the surge in car rental prices, with a week-long rental averaging over $500. And the city’s gas price is over $0.40 higher than the national average, which sat at $2.99 per gallon as of mid-October. Travelers should also check on toll roads when driving around Pittsburgh, since the city is on the western part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike toll road.

Pittsburgh by the numbers

  • Average gas price: $3.40
  • Average cost of a rental car for one week: $502
  • Number of toll roads in the state: 7

#4 Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia has very similar travel costs as Pittsburgh, its neighbor to the west. Gas prices are at $3.45. Expect to spend just under $500 to rent a car for a week. And, of course, the eastern portion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike originates around Philadelphia, which could impact your total driving costs in and around the city.

Philadelphia by the numbers

  • Average gas price: $3.45
  • Average cost of a rental car for one week: $491
  • Number of toll roads in the state: 7

#5 Seattle, WA (tied)

The average gas price in Seattle is just over $4 a gallon. That’s more than $1 above the national average, and above many of the other cities ranking on this list. Seattle also has one of the most expensive car rental rates in the country, clocking in at just under $750. Toll roads aren’t abundant in Washington, but there is a tunnel toll near Seattle that you may need to use. Depending on the time of day, it could cost anywhere from $1.15 to $2.60.

Seattle by the numbers

  • Average gas price: $4.00
  • Average cost of a rental car for one week: $746
  • Number of toll roads in the state: 1

#5 San Francisco, CA (tied)

Now let’s check out San Francisco. It ranks as the most expensive city for gas out of all the areas we analyzed. Its mid-October average of $4.54 is $1.55 more than the national average. There are also multiple toll bridges around this coastal city. The Golden Gate Bridge costs between $6.05 and $9.05. And the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge costs a flat $6 for two-axle cars.

San Fransisco by the numbers

  • Average gas price: $4.54
  • Average cost of a rental car for one week: $442
  • Number of toll roads in the state: 5

#7 San Jose, CA

The costs of a San Jose road trip trail just slightly behind San Francisco. That makes sense since it’s just one hour south. Gas is just a fraction lower, making fuel costs one of the nation’s highest. And rental cars average an even $440 per week. Luckily, there aren’t many tolls around San Jose. There is an express connector toll road between San Jose and Milpitas that costs $8, but it’s easily avoidable by using other roads.

San Jose by the numbers

  • Average gas price: $4.54
  • Average cost of a rental car for one week: $440
  • Number of toll roads in the state: 5

#8 New York, NY

New York consistently ranks as one of the most expensive American cities, so it’s no surprise that it shows up on our list of costly road trips. Car rentals almost hit $460 on average and gas prices are nearly $0.43 higher than the national average. And tolls to get into the city are expensive, with multiple tunnel and bridge fees ranging anywhere from $2.45 to $10.17. But the great thing about traveling to New York is that you don’t even need a car. In fact, you’re very likely to save both money and time by hopping on the train, picking up a cab or rideshare or simply walking to your next destination.

New York by the numbers

  • Average gas price: $3.43
  • Average cost of a rental car for one week: $459
  • Number of toll roads in the state: 7

#9 Columbus, OH

Besides Chicago, Columbus is the only midwestern city to make it on our list of most expensive road trips. Gas is lower than some of the others on the list, costing just over $0.25 more than the national average. But Columbus ranks poorly for rental car prices, averaging $540 per week.

Columbus by the numbers

  • Average gas price: $3.25
  • Average cost of a rental car for one week $540
  • Number of toll roads in the state: 3

#10 Los Angeles, CA

Like the other California cities on our list, Los Angeles has extremely above-average gas prices averaging $4.45 per gallon. However, while the average rental car price is higher than most American cities, it’s about $40 lower compared to San Francisco and San Jose. That’s good news considering a car is helpful to have when traveling throughout the LA area.

 

 

 

Los Angeles by the numbers

  • Average gas price: $4.45
  • Average cost of a rental car for one week: $403
  • Number of toll roads in the state: 5

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Methodology

The Zebra pulled three data points to analyze the top 50 MSAs (by population) in the U.S. related to travel costs. 

MSA data was used where applicable, and we sometimes substituted city or state data as necessary. Riverside, CA and Washington, DC were omitted due to lack of data available.

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