Car Trailer vs. Tow Dolly: What’s the Difference?

Kurt Manwaring
Researcher & Writer
Read More
Published on April 27, 2020
7 min read

At a glance

There are lots of ways to transport your car. You can hire a car shipping company, drive it yourself, or tow it using a car trailer or tow dolly.

But which towing option is better?

A tow dolly is your most affordable option, but it’s also the hardest to use, and we don’t recommend it for long distances. A car trailer is more expensive, but it causes less wear and tear on your vehicles, is safer to tow, and can carry vehicles of many shapes, sizes, and drivetrains.

In this tutorial, we’ll explain the differences between car trailers and tow dollies and look at how each option fares across several categories:

Car trailer vs. tow dolly

Car trailer
Tow dolly

Best for

Long distances, heavier cars

Short distances, lighter cars

Cost

$$

$

Convenience

Easier to use

Hard to use

Risk of damage

Low

Moderate

Wear and tear

None

Moderate


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Car trailer vs. tow dolly: What’s the difference?

Car trailers and tow dollies are tools for towing one of your vehicles behind the other (or behind your moving truck). Think of them like two childhood games: piggyback rides and the human wheelbarrow.

Car trailers are like piggyback rides. You load your entire car into the trailer and piggyback it all the way to your new location. It’s hard on the vehicle doing the towing but relatively pain-free for the car you’re hauling.

Car dollies are like the human wheelbarrow. You load the two front wheels onto a mini-trailer called a dolly while the other two wheels stay on the ground. It’s not quite as hard on the towing vehicle, but both automobiles rack up wear and tear on the trip.

Car trailers are often heftier than dollies. This is important because your towing vehicle has to be heavier than the combined weight of the towed vehicle AND the auto transport trailer or dolly.

We’ll get into other differences below, but you get the idea. A car trailer carries your entire vehicle from one location to another, while a dolly lifts two wheels and leaves two on the ground.

Info Box
Another kind of dolly

Dolly.com doesn’t rent towing equipment, but it can help with other parts of the moving process. Use the company’s online marketplace to book moving help by the hour. Learn more in Move.org’s Dolly.com Review.

What information do I need to make a reservation?

When it comes to both car trailers and tow dollies, there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all. To find the right fit, you need to know several things about your vehicle, including the following:

  • The year, make, and model
  • The curb weight
  • The clearance between the bumper and the ground of the vehicle you’re towing
  • The hitch rating (which indicates how heavy your load can be)
  • The drive system (e.g., front-wheel drive, four-wheel drive)

If you aren’t a car person, the process can feel intimidating.

The good news is that most rental companies can help you identify which towing option works best for your situation. Even better, you can get most of the information via a simple Google search. So don’t let the terminology stress you out.

It’s actually pretty easy once you get started.

Badge Definition
Curb weight

Your vehicle’s curb weight refers to how much the car weighs once the manufacturer moves it from the assembly line to the street curb. You can usually find a reference to your curb weight via a simple Google search (e.g., “2015 Honda Accord curb weight”).


Car trailer vs. tow dolly: How much do they cost?

Actual numbers can be tricky to pin down because of how many variables are at play—both with your vehicles and the towing equipment. But in general, a car trailer is about twice as expensive as a tow dolly.

To illustrate, we asked U-Haul—a popular moving company well-known for consistent pricing—to tell us how much it would cost to rent its car trailers and tow dollies.

Our findings? On average, a car trailer costs approximately $100 per day, while a tow dolly sets you back about $50 per day.

U-Haul car trailer vs. tow dolly pricing

300 miles (3 days)
1,500 miles (6 days)

Car trailer

$158

$718

Tow dolly

$118

$360

Data as of 4/13/20. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change. Mileage rounded to the nearest ten. Taxes, fees, and insurance not included.

No matter the distance, car trailers typically cost more than tow dollies.

Winner: Tow dolly


Car trailer vs. tow dolly: How easy are they to use?

Both options come with a bit of a learning curve, but car trailers are easier to handle than tow dollies. In making this determination, we looked at both how difficult it is to connect the trailer or dolly to your tow vehicle—and how easy it is to drive.

We should also point out that you’ll probably need to do this part yourself. Many companies (U-Haul included) won’t help you load your vehicles onto a car trailer or tow dolly for liability reasons. So it’s important to get a sense of how difficult they are to use.

Loading and unloading

It’s easier to get your car onto a trailer than to hook it up to a tow dolly, pure and simple. For example, U-Haul lists a minimum of 23 steps and reminders to load your car dolly, but only 19 for loading your auto transport trailer.

We say a minimum because a dolly can require quite a bit of trial and error after the initial loading process to ensure it will drive properly. U-Haul also recommends checking your tire straps at every stop—not counting specific checks at 5 and 50 miles.

In the end, it’s simply easier to get four wheels onto a trailer than it is to attach only two to a dolly.

Megaphone
Let someone else do the work

If convenience is your number one priority, we recommend you ship your car with an auto transport company that does all the work for you. We’ve put together a list of the best car shipping companies.

Driving

Car trailers are easier to haul than tow dollies. While it takes practice to pull anything behind your vehicle, trailers have two features that make towing easier:

  • You can reverse with a trailer, but not with a tow dolly.
  • Trailers have brakes, but dollies don’t.

When it comes to both loading/unloading and driving, car trailers are noticeably easier to maneuver than tow dollies.

Winner: Car trailer


Car trailer vs. tow dolly: Will my car get damaged?

Most damage from car towing results from driver error. For example, if you don’t realize you can’t take turns as sharply as you can without a vehicle in tow, you’re likely to drive over a curb or two. This is a reminder that driving requires 100% of your attention.

“Do one thing every day that scares you,” said Eleanor Roosevelt. Wise words from the former first lady, but it isn’t necessarily the most prudent advice for towing a car.

The fact that a tow dolly doesn’t come with brakes and can’t go in reverse also makes things tricky. Accidents happen when drivers make lots of unusual turns because they can’t figure out how to straighten their dolly.

Add in the necessity to properly distribute the weight of your car, and nasty accidents can occur at high speeds.

You get the idea. If you don’t pay attention, bad things can happen.

So, should you tow a vehicle on your own or opt to have someone else transport it for you?

It really comes down to your comfort level. If the idea of using towing equipment scares you, it’s probably not a better option than shipping your car or driving it yourself.

But if you’re comfortable with towing, then a dolly or car trailer can save you money.

Heads Up
Worried about towing?

You don’t have to choose between a car trailer and a tow dolly if you don’t have the money to hire a car shipping company. Another affordable option is to drive the car yourself.

From a safety perspective, a tow dolly has a higher potential for problems because there aren’t any brakes (and it can’t go in reverse).

Winner: Car trailer


Car trailer vs. tow dolly: Will there be wear and tear?

You’re actually transporting two vehicles plus a trailer or dolly. The trip will be hard on the towing vehicle—and in some cases, it’s also tough on the towed vehicle.

Car trailer vs. tow dolly wear and tear

Car trailer
Tow dolly

Mileage

No extra mileage

No extra mileage if the towed vehicle is front-wheel drive

Tires

No wear and tear

Wear and tear on rear wheels

Drivetrain

No wear and tear

No wear and tear if the towed vehicle is front-wheel drive

Car trailers are better from a wear-and-tear perspective because the towed vehicle never makes contact with the ground. As a result, your odometer stays dormant, your tires don’t lose any tread, and your drivetrain is unaffected.

However, because trailers weigh more than dollies, they can get close to or even exceed your vehicle’s towing capacity, which adds extra strain.

Depending on the towing equipment you rent, your towing vehicle typically needs to be at least 750 pounds heavier than the combined weight of the car you’re towing and the trailer or dolly.

Don’t stress too much about the weight, though. The company you rent your towing equipment from will usually tell you if you don’t qualify for a trailer.

Winner: Car trailer


Car trailer vs. tow dolly: Does distance affect my choice?

When it comes to distance traveled, some methods of transportation are better than others. You wouldn’t take a plane to get across a tiny lake, but you also wouldn’t swim the Atlantic to get from New York to London.

The same logic applies to car trailers and tow dollies.

A tow dolly is ideal for short distances or within the same state because it’s more affordable, and there’s less wear and tear than on a long-distance trip.

Conversely, car trailers are preferable for long distances because they minimize wear and tear on both vehicles.

For example, if you used a tow dolly to travel from New York to Los Angeles, you’d have thousands of extra miles on just the rear tires. That can be inconvenient down the road if you end up making two different appointments to change your tires. It can even cost money if you decide the hassle isn’t worth it and replace all four tires (even though two of them still have a couple thousand miles of tread left).

Both options have their advantages, but neither is a one-size-fits-all solution.

Winner: Tie


Car trailer vs. tow dolly: Which is better?

Your situation
Our recommendation

Nothing matters more than cost.

Tow dolly

Convenience is most important to me.

Car trailer

I want to minimize wear and tear on my vehicles.

Car trailer

I’m nervous about driving with a vehicle behind me.

Car trailer

I’m traveling in the same state.

Tow dolly

I’m traveling across the country.

Car trailer

I don’t have a big vehicle to tow.

Tow dolly

My vehicle doesn’t have front-wheel drive.

Car trailer

Your choice really comes down to cost, convenience, and distance. A tow dolly is the way to go for low costs, small vehicles, and local moves.

A car trailer is the better option if you’re traveling long distances, are nervous about towing a vehicle, and want to minimize the wear and tear on your vehicles.


Kurt Manwaring
Written by
Kurt Manwaring
Kurt Manwaring brings nearly a decade’s worth of research experience as a business consultant to the Move.org team. He specializes in taking complicated issues (like moving) and presenting them in a way that everyone can understand. His writing has been featured in hundreds of publications, including USA Today, Martha Stewart Living, Country Living, Good Housekeeping, Heavy, Slate, and Yahoo! Lifestyle. He brings a BS in sociology and an MPA (masters of public administration) to the Move team. He would love to hear about your moving experiences and questions at kurt@move.org.