Summer car rental recap

I’m way overdue on talking about All The Money we spent on rental cars in July/August/September. The short version is that we spent about $200 in July, $250 in August and $350 in September (I know we’re still in September, but we have no more rentals planned). Renting in August and over Labor Day weekend was expensive because demand was higher, but also because we were taking longer trips with more people and I needed a guarantee for a bigger vehicle. Our total gas expenditure was about $250 for the summer. The vehicles we rented got way better gas mileage than our van does, so I figure we saved at least $125 on gas over what we would have spent if we were using it.

In August we went to Missoula to see Jeff’s sister. We rented a midsize SUV because we planned to bring the whole family and both dogs. We ended up with a Dodge Journey, which is technically a full size SUV and we didn’t bring Gunnar or Charlie, so we had tons of space for the 8+ hours each way and all the driving we did while we were there. My sister-in-law lives about halfway between Missoula and Hamilton, so anytime we go anywhere, we’re putting 20 miles on the car. We had a super fun time exploring and are already planning next year’s adventure, which will include a trip to Glacier National Park.

Over Labor Day we went to visit my mother in Port Angeles for her birthday. We ended up splitting the cost with my brother – he paid for most our our house rental and we paid for the car. We rented a Dodge Caravan to fit the 6 of us plus all of our stuff. I was not impressed, and will try to not rent one of those again.

I’m happy knowing that our most expensive transportation months are behind us now. We don’t have any plans for car travel between now and Christmas, which is a relief. As time goes on, I genuinely prefer being on foot or on my bike to being in a car.

And since this is a super boring post, here are some photos from our last trip. Having weekends like this is what makes the car rental worth every penny.


throwing rocks

looking toward mouth of Elwha

Labor Day

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expanding boundaries

I am not a big fan of exercise. I don’t like sweating. I enjoy riding, but I really do it for a purpose – to get from here to there and back again. And while I’m being honest, I’ll tell you that the Bakfiets has intimidated me a bit – I’m in a great groove when it comes to my normal routine. I ride it to the places that are in my neighborhood, in about a 1.5 mile radius, and I have ridden it downtown (also about 1.5-2 miles). I know I can ride it farther, but I end up being worried about some of the larger hills that are between me and potential destinations. That bike is not made for riding on hills. At all. And since it is much heavier than my other bike, I have been slowly building up my stamina and my ability to climb moderate hills. I also had the epiphany that it is okay to just walk up a hill if I have to in order to preserve energy for the ride overall. It’s not a failure to walk on occasion. (duh, Sarah)
So! Last week the girls and I went on a longer adventure that gave me some confidence in my ability to get around town. We had to pick something up in the Mississippi district, which is about 3.5 miles away. We had so much fun – the ride was through Lloyd Center, which has a few divided lanes (love those) and then up Williams, which is one of the main bike boulevards in town. We rode up a long slow uphill (with no walking) and then made our way west to Mississippi Ave. We ate lunch, did a bit of shopping, ate ice cream, picked up our package, and then went back over to Williams to visit our favorite little toy store. Then we rode home, navigating rush hour traffic without much trouble. It was so exciting!

All of a sudden I feel empowered to ride everywhere that I’ve been avoiding, and that I do need to go sometimes. Yes, I may walk up a hill on occasion. Sometimes we’ll need to stop and have a snack along the way. And we’re never going to run errands or go to dinner or the splash park as fast as we could on a car. But that’s okay, because the getting there becomes half the fun. Even if I’m walking.

And since this post has been sitting in drafts waiting for photos, here’s a little peek of what we’ve been up to. I think this will be catch-up week here at going little. Financial recaps, getting ready for rainy weather, SE Parkways, and more.

Grocery run

garage sale scores

Posted in deep thoughts, hurdles, Sarah, victories | 4 Comments

Location, Location, Location.

Jeff’s turn

One of the primary factors in our ability to switch to living car-free was our move to Portland’s inner southeast. We’re due east of downtown, just up a hill, and have easy access to four of the city’s most bike-friendly bridges – the Steel, the Burnside, the Morrison, and the Hawthorne – as well as greenways and bike lanes. We’re surrounded by bus lines, close to the streetcar, and close to shopping and everything we need.

We got here through an unusual set of circumstances. We sold our house in Seattle in 2005 and moved to Phoenix, Arizona so I could undertake a career overhaul. In easily the best investment decision of our lives, we guessed that the Phoenix housing market was overheated and we began renting houses to live in. Because we weren’t tied down with an underwater mortgage (which we definitely would have been if we had bought a house in Phoenix in 2005), we were able to jump at an opportunity to move to Portland in 2011. We continued renting here and as a result we were able to quickly snap up our current house when it came available.

As we were deciding whether to stay in our Maywood Park house or move somewhere else, we discussed the concept of our center of gravity – the place that allows us the best access to work and school. As mentioned in my earlier post, I had a 10.5 mile trip to work each way and the kids had 6 and 4 mile treks. Additionally, Sarah had tired of using the car every time she wanted to go anywhere and so she was particularly insistent that our next house be close enough to walk or bike to grocery stores, playgrounds, parks, libraries, coffee shops, cheap but tasty restaurants, and one close to my heart: beer.

While the same can be said for all the other stuff, access to beer provides a nice subject to compare and contrast between our old and new neighborhoods.

In the old neighborhood, going on a beer run to a place with a good selection meant getting in the car and driving to the Gateway Fred Meyer, 3.5 miles distant. Going out for a beer was even worse. The bars in the neighborhood were dives and I’m not talking about the fun and friendly kind of dive (one had a handwritten sign on the door: NO HOODIES, NO SUNGLASSES). Most often, Sarah and the kids got in the car and drove 5+ miles to meet me at Hopworks Bike Bar on N. Williams – one of the many kid-friendly brewpubs in Portland and the halfway point in my ride home from work.

Now? Well, within a 20-30 minute walk or 5-10 minute bike ride of our house we have the following places that make and serve their own beer: Basecamp, Burnside, Hair of the Dog, Commons, Coalition, Migration, Buckman, Captured by Porches, Upright, Cascade Mountain, Lucky Lab, and Fire on the Mountain. If you want bars and restaurants with well-curated beer selections and generous happy hours, then there’s another 50 or so. We’re even closer to Hopworks Bike Bar! To top it all off, the week we moved in, a bottle shop and taproom opened two blocks away.

Close to home

The point is that I don’t think that we could have even considered giving up on car ownership in our old house. Any bike trip required contending with hills, high and fast traffic streets, and/or significant distances. My son and I could make our daily commutes, but we were able to travel light with fairly speedy bikes. Sarah needed to make her trips on a cargo bike with a toddler in the trailer and an inexperienced tween rider on her own bike. There was a fantastic Southeast Asian grocery within walking distance but little else (we ate a lot of homemade Phad Thai). Public transit out there could be infrequent and often required multiple transfers and/or lots of walking. Other people still do it, and I applaud them. It wasn’t going to work for us.

In short, where you live can be a very important piece in pulling this off and we’re exceedingly fortunate to be in the situation we’re in.

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we are not messing around

Balancing the load just got a whole lot easier.
her new ride

Meet my new ride. For those of you who haven’t seen one before, it’s a Dutch cargo bike – a Bakfiets. I have wanted one of these for years but for obvious reasons, could never justify the expense. Because, you know, I had a car. And they’re expensive bikes. Jeff will tell you that the only reason I agreed to go car free was that if we stuck with it, I could get one after a year. But because the universe is sometimes awesome this way, I found out that a friend of mine was looking to sell hers at a price I could afford (because now I don’t have a car). I jumped up and down with glee and went to go see her and bring it home.

Let me tell you what makes this bike so great.

First, it holds a lot of stuff. I can do a serious grocery run and not be so worried about space issues. On my first real grocery run, I bought our weekly groceries plus a 12 pack of beer and other beverages for our beach trip (I may have overbought). It all fit just fine.

grocery run

Second, Kit LOVES it. She sits on the bench and sees everything and we chat. She thinks the front row seat to the world is the greatest thing ever – she begs to go for rides. She was fine behind me, but this is so much better for both of us.

Third, Jeff can ride it. My Kona Minute doesn’t fit him well because he has fairly short legs and couldn’t step over it, which meant that he couldn’t ride it with Kit on the seat. The Bakfiets is a step through frame, so it’s easy for anyone to ride. He’s glad that he can take on some of the errand running with her, when before I was the one carrying the load while he rode a regular bike. Shared loads are good. Very good.

Fourth, Gunnar can ride it. I can send my teenager to the grocery store for everything I need. It’s as good as him having a driver’s license. Just ask him. He totally agrees. 

my new sherpa

Fifth, it’s just fun to ride. While it takes some adjusting from a traditional bike, I really love the way it rides and handles. It is not a bike for climbing hills, and especially not when loaded, but for flatter terrain it’s super fun. And people love seeing it.

One downside is that I’m discovering exactly where all of the hills are on my routes. Even the little ones. Which is fine until you overload the bike with beverages for the beach (see above) and head for home from the grocery store that is downhill from your house. And you didn’t realize before that the ride home is all uphill before because it’s a slight uphill. And riding uphill in a heavily loaded new-to-you bike on an 80 degree day that is also raining (hello humidity!) may result in your kid taking one look at your super red face when you victoriously arrive home and run inside for a huge glass of ice water. But hey! You did it! Even the one bigger hill at the end that you took in first gear. You didn’t walk! Win! And you plan your next trip more carefully and swear that you are working on your hill climbing abilities, stat. And then next time you ride it to Whole Foods, which is downhill all the way home.

My poor Kona is feeling neglected now. I think it’s going to be looking for a new home soon. My heart now belongs to another.

Posted in equipment, Sarah | 2 Comments

June recap – on renting cars

Whoops! We went on vacation. Twice. So let’s talk about rental cars, now that I have rented them 3 times in the last month.

So June was a more expensive month for us. We took a weekend at the beach and then one in Seattle and each time we rented a car. Portland is a fairly inexpensive city for car rentals, so our grand total cost for car rental was $150 plus gas, which was about $75. We have been using the Dollar Rental car “lock low and go” deal, which means that we pay for a compact car and then we get what we get, which is at least a compact and maybe better. The first weekend we were given a Rav4 and the next week I spent $30 to upgrade to a Subaru Outback from the compact since we were going to be on a longer drive. Overall, I have to say that the rental car experience has been really painless and not as expensive as I feared it would be. My main reluctance with not having a car was limiting ourselves on taking trips, and so far we have come in at or under budget. Plus, we’re getting better gas mileage and we have no worry regarding our car breaking down (always a worry with an 11 year old car with 140,000 miles). So, while my expenses for cars will be higher in the summer, it’s still way less than maintenance on our van and our gas cost is about 60% of what it would be if we were using our own vehicle.

I’ve learned a few tricks this month on renting cars. First, it’s best to reserve at as low a rate as possible, because upgrading a car at the counter is nearly always significantly less expensive than reserving the car you want up front. Second, shop around every time. Rates will vary widely, even for different locations of the same agency. Third, generally the rental cost at a non-airport location is less expensive because there are no airport origination fees. Fourth, always recheck rates before you pick up your rental – they often change. It’s free to cancel and rebook a reservation and it can save quite a bit of money. For our beach trip last week, I rechecked and switched our reservation from one location to another and I dropped the 8 day rental cost from $200 to $150, even with the extra charge for the airport fee. The agent said they had an unusually high number of returns for that day, which probably accounted for the low rate.

We had a long talk last night about long term goals for our family, and the car discussion came up. We agreed that if our only real need for a car is for trips, that renting cars will always be more cost effective than buying one. The test will be on whether or not we need a car for daily life maintenance in the winter, so we committed to extending the car free trial period to a year. I’ll be keeping a running tab of rental car expenses, so that we can evaluate that cost at the end of the year vs. what we would spend to buy a new car. We have decided that fixing the van is not our best option since we won’t ever really feel confident with it on longer road trips. We’re looking into our best option for selling it this summer.

Oh, we did one more thing in June that will make our day to day bike transportation much easier. Especially those grocery store trips. We bought this.

her new ride

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about our new-to-us Bakfiets. I’m in love.


Posted in car rentals, monthly recaps, Sarah | 3 Comments

balancing the load

I usually grocery shop using my cargo bike. It has a large bag on each side that will hold the equivalent of a large brown bag of groceries or two of those Baggu bags, and a dual kick stand for stability. However, if I don’t load (and unload) carefully, the bike will still tip over from the unbalanced load. When I have milk, eggs, yogurt, bulk oatmeal, beer, and then a big, but light package of toilet paper (because let’s face it, that’s my typical Whole Foods load), I have to carefully distribute the weight for easier riding. There’s nothing like listing to one side for making a 3 year old feel unstable back there.

The last time I walked up to my bike with two heavy bags and started taking things out of bags to balance them on the bike properly, I stopped for a minute and thought about how really, we were in the middle of balancing the load in our family life right now. Summer is starting and my bigger kids are back home. My job contract is ending in two weeks (as is the extra income) and I’m planning where to go from here. Jeff is taking on management responsibilities at work and is heading into a busy season. We’re figuring out our summer travel plans, which are made more complicated by needing to rent a vehicle, but less complicated by not having to worry about our car being in good enough repair to make a long trip. There’s a puppy in the house who is still definitely a puppy. Dogs need to be walked. All the creatures need to be fed (including us). We need clean clothes. A clean house. We have social and volunteer obligations. Berries need to be picked. Mama needs studio time. Fun must be had. There’s a porch to sit on while watching the world go by.

There’s a lot to balance.

As the kids get older, there seems to be more and more added to the load. But, as they get older, their ability to carry more load grows as well. Right now, with all the changes in our life, most of the balancing is coming from shifting load to Gunnar and Annika.

  • Gunnar gets himself where he needs to go under his own power – by foot, bike, or bus
  • Kids are in charge of much of the pet duties over the summer
  • Annika can play with Kit while I reorganize spaces for how we’re living now and prepare for following my work dreams (more on that later)
  • The girls care for our little garden
  • Gunnar and Annika can each handle their own lunches and take charge of one dinner a week
  • Now that Annika isn’t riding with him, Jeff gets to work earlier and comes home earlier so he can be present more and help with dinner/dishes/shopping

Of course, as soon as the load is balanced, school will start and we’ll start moving the load around all over again – just like the other day when I made 3 stops on my errand running with each stop requiring a shift in the load (a beer growler and milk offset each other nicely). It’s good for me to be reminded that when the load gets heavier, that doesn’t mean it can’t be carried. It just needs to be rebalanced.

Posted in deep thoughts, Sarah | 5 Comments

first month recap – May 2013

The recaps won’t be the most interesting/thoughtful posts, but I think it’s important for us to record how the month went.

We parked the car at the beginning of May, and rode our bikes or walked for nearly all of our needs. We did have one day of bus/streetcar riding and one day that my dad brought Annika home from school. We did not rent or borrow a car all month (June is another story). The total spent on transit was $8 and we bought my dad a beer, so that was another $4.

We also spent very little money on bike maintenance or equipment. Two tubes and one patch kit were purchased for a total of about $12. Gunnar upgraded his tires on his bike, which was $36. His bike is a vintage Peugeot that was a gift from my uncle that he has been slowly upgrading. He works at a bike shop, so he gets a discount on parts and can do the work himself. We also purchased new lights for his bike at a cost of $25. Both of those purchases would have happened anyway, since he has been using his bike for primary transportation for the last several months. Even with including those in our cost comparison, we spent $85 on bike/transit costs vs. the $150 target for gas and insurance. If we separate out the tires/lights, then only $25 was spent.

We had no accidents or falls. Everyone was pretty enthusiastic about the project and kept up our spirits even during that super rainy week. Annika would like to write a post about how all of this is going from her perspective. I’m dreading reading that one a bit – she may be bursting my bubble, as she likes to do.

I think I’m going to figure out a way to show the costs and savings each month – segregating equipment upgrades vs. maintenance costs. I also will apply the cost of rental cars to what it would have cost us to fix the car, so we can see how long it would take us to spend the equivalent amount of money by renting cars when we need to. I’ll put it all in chart/graph form, since I’m a chart geek. Would that be helpful for anyone besides me?

June is going to be a much more expensive month – we’re purchasing a new-to-us bike and have 2 trips scheduled for the month that require car rentals. However, I think the biking itself is going to be a lot easier and more enjoyable. The weather is beautiful for the next week or two (and hopefully we’ll skip the usual yucky June gloom) and school ends next week, which really frees up our schedule. I’m going to have to figure out how to get enough riding in to make up for that 7 miles I was getting in most days. For me, this is as much about my health and fitness as it is about my budget.

Overall, I’m declaring the first month a big success. Onward to the rest of June!

Posted in monthly recaps, Sarah | 4 Comments