Tow Dolly vs. Auto Transport: What to Choose?

In 2002, romance novelist Danielle Steel sparked controversy with the San Francisco parking authority. Why? She hoarded twenty-six street parking permits–all for her luxury cars!

She wanted to be able to drive any of them at the drop of a hat. Unsurprisingly, SF authorities told her to pick a few–and store the others. 

Now, hopefully, city officials aren’t threatening to tow you. Still, even those of us who aren’t millionaire novelists have to transport cars occasionally. 

So, what’s the best way to do that?

Consider weighing the benefits of a tow dolly vs. auto transport options.

The best choice depends on what you’re doing. Are you hauling your family’s fleet of sedans as you move across the country? Or, are you taking your vintage Delahaye Narval to a Concours D’Elegance–and coming home that night?

Regardless of specifics, you’ll probably use a tow dolly. Or, you’ll solicit an auto transport service–or rent an auto transport trailer.

Today, we’ll break down the difference between the two options in detail. Then, you can learn how to use each option, and you’ll discern which solution is best for you.

What is a Tow Dolly?

A tow dolly is a two-wheeled trailer. It has no motor or power.

You can use a tow dolly to transport a car. To do this, you’ll mount the two front wheels of the car on the bed of the dolly. You also hitch the dolly to a motorized vehicle, the driving vehicle.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration classifies these trailers as “enhanced towing equipment.” This is because the dolly lets the driver pull a car behind the driving vehicle (towing).

When you use a tow dolly, the back wheels of the towed car roll along the ground. 

What is a Dolly Trailer?

Some people use the term “dolly trailer” as a synonym for “tow dolly.” Some haulers use the term “car dolly” for these trailers.

In other cases, a driver may refer to the bed of the tow dolly as the “dolly trailer.” The towed car’s wheels mount on the bed. A dolly also has:

  • wheels
  • axle
  • tongue
  • hitch

Engineers build different tow dollies with unique features to serve different functions.

For example, some incorporate a weight distribution adjustable hitch. This feature makes it safer to tow cars of different weights without risking “whipping,” a danger on the highway.

What is Auto Transport?

Auto transport is a category of services and methods to haul vehicles. Auto transport services load cars onto trailers.

Typically, services pull the trailer with a heavy-duty tractor, like a semi. Some even use specialized car carrier cabs with sophisticated engines.

Engineers design auto trailers with strong securement strategies, like fifth-wheel couplers. This is why, typically, you can’t just rent an auto-transport trailer and pull it with your car. Cars don’t support these attachment options.

That said, you may be able to buy or rent a flatbed auto-transport trailer in unique circumstances. You’ll need a pickup truck, and you’ll have to ramp load the vehicle.  

Tow Dolly vs. Auto Transport: Options

Tow dollies and auto transport trailers are broad categories. Within these, there are options. Which vehicle towing trailer works for you?

Mounted Front Wheels Dolly

Engineers design mounted front wheels dollies to twist when the towing vehicle turns. In this way, it mimics front-wheel drive as you tow. 

It’s easier to turn corners safely when you use a front wheels car dolly. This twist, or pivot-style, reduces the risk the dolly hits your bumper during a turn. 

Central Pivot Dolly

A central-pivot dolly holds the front of the towed car closer to the driving car. The wheels of this trailer are fixed. The dolly pivots as a unit.

A central pivot dolly is slightly riskier. It’s more likely to sway when you turn or change lanes. 

Wheel Dollies / Tire Stakes

Wheel dollies, tire dollies, and tire skates are not dollies. These are small “skates” you set under each wheel of a car. You cannot actually tow a car on wheel dollies.

These skates reduce friction between the car and the ground. This helps you load the car from a muddy or icy surface. And, they’ll help you tow a car that’s missing a wheel.

Enclosed Car Trailer

Enclosed car trailers are either hard-sided or soft-sided. Some carry one vehicle at a time, while others transport many at once. Typically, your enclosed car transport options are:

  • Hard-sided enclosed trailer
  • Soft-sided enclosed trailer
  • Single car enclosed trailer
  • Multi-vehicle enclosed auto-carrier

A hard-sided enclosed trailer completely protects a car from all elements in transport. One familiar example is a box trailer.

A soft-sided trailer mostly protects a car, but some dirt may splash in through the curtained sides. The polyurethane-vinyl sides give the hauler more space to load and unload the vehicle. This mitigates the risk of scratches or dings. 

Open Car Carrier

A car is secured to the floor of an open-car carrier. These trailers have no sides.

All four wheels of a car rest securely on the trailer floor. This is in contrast to a tow-dolly, where two of a car’s wheels roll along the ground.

Open car carriers transport different quantities of cars. Your options are:

  • Single-vehicle open trailer 
  • Single-level multi-car trailer
  • Multi-car carrier

A hotshot trailer is typically attached with a gooseneck hitch. Other carriers use heavy-duty attachments. These are pulled by semi-trucks. 

Multi-level carriers use hydraulic lifts to load the cars. Single-level carriers use lifts or ramps.

Tow Dolly vs Car Carrier: FAQ

You’ve learned the different types of transport options. But, those were broad strokes. Let’s unpack the details. 

How Safe is a Car Carrier?

It’s generally safe to use a car carrier service. That said, accidents can happen.

Ask the service to show you proof of insurance. Also, see, in writing, which protections the company provides in case of an accident.

Inspect your vehicle before and after transport. This ensures an accurate Bill of Loading. The Bill of Loading lets you secure reimbursements for damage. 

Can You Use a Tow Dolly For Long Distance?

No. The farther you tow a car on a dolly trailer, the greater damage you risk. The rear wheels of the towed car take on as many miles as you travel.

You also risk damaging the undercarriage of the towed car. Also, driving with a tow dolly is slow. 

Can You Put a Truck on a Tow Dolly?

The towing vehicle must weigh 750lbs more than the towed vehicle. You also don’t want to exceed the dolly’s maximum weight limit.

You can load a truck on a tow dolly if it fits within those parameters.

How Fast Can You Go With a Tow Dolly?

Many state laws require you to drive ten miles under the speed limit when you’re pulling a dolly. Manufacturer warnings state: do not exceed 55 miles per hour. 

How Fast is Car Carrier Transport?

A car carrier service typically ships a car within one to seven days. Express services use more direct routes, which is faster.

Car carriers must observe trucker speed limits. Auto transporters slow to 55 mph on hills, even on the highway. 

How Much is a Car Dolly from UHaul?

UHaul charges $46/day to rent a tow dolly for local use. For long-distance travel, UHaul generates rates based on zip code. 

How Much Does Car Carrier Transport Cost?

Experts calculate the average cost of car carrier transport is $1,080. But, there’s a significant range.

Distance, trailer type, and express options all factor into the cost. An open-carrier trip, shorter than 500 miles, might cost as little as $625.

What’s the Cheapest Way to Tow a Car Long Distance?

When it comes to a daily rate, a tow dolly is the cheapest. But, you’ll end up paying in milage, damage risks, and time. 

When you factor in safety and milage, the cheapest way may be an open, multi-car carrier service. This is most true if you have multiple cars.

Tow Dolly How-To

Is a tow dolly right for you? Excellent! Learn how to use a tow dolly in six steps.

Note: read these steps to learn how to tow a car with a dolly. Then, watch instructional videos specific to the dolly you’ve chosen.


1. Select the Right Tow Dolly

Choose the right tow dolly for the job. It must be compatible with the towing vehicle’s hitch.

Remember, the vehicle that’s doing the towing must weigh 750 lbs more than the towed car. Make sure the combination of the towed car and the dolly stays within the weight limit.

Follow all clearance regulations. The towed car cannot hang off the dolly’s sides.

Consider: when your vehicle is mounted on this dolly, what angle will it be?

If any undercarriage parts will drag at this angle, remove them. If you’re towing a rear-wheel-drive car, disconnect that car’s driveshaft. 

2. Secure the Tow Dolly

Attach the tow dolly to the vehicle that will do the towing. It may have a gooseneck attachment, a ball-and-pintle hitch, or some other clasp design. Follow all directions that came with your dolly trailer.

Hook up the tow dolly’s hitch to the towing vehicle’s attachment. Clampdown or latch the attachment.

If necessary, reinforce the attachment with safety chains. Use grade 70 chains or stronger.

Criss-cross your chains, so the right-side chain attaches to the left-side attachment on the towing vehicle. Don’t let the chains drag on the ground.

Once the hitch is secured, configure your breaks.

If a tow dolly and its cargo weigh over 3000 lbs, you need a safety break. Attach breakaway-system breaks using guides specific to your dolly. 

Finally, connect the lights of the tow dolly. The towing vehicle and the dolly will have four-pin electrical wires. Connect electric light circuits with the four-pin plug. 

3. Load the Vehicle Onto the Tow Dolly

For safety, only load the vehicle’s from two wheels. 

To load, first, extend the tow dolly’s ramps completely. Make sure they rest on the ground.

Then, release the securement straps spooled on the dolly. These are often winch straps, ratchet straps, or tire nets. 

Lay the straps flat on the bed of the tow dolly. Position the straps according to instructions specific to your dolly. Some strap segments may need to lie flat on the ramp. 

Center the vehicle that needs to be towed behind the dolly. Then, drive slowly up the dolly ramp. Stop when the towed vehicle’s tires rest against the stops.

Once you’ve loaded the vehicle, check its interior. Secure loose parts like seatbelts. Set the vehicle in neutral.

Finally, use the straps to secure the car’s front tires. Make sure the straps are tight and centered. 

Spool the straps back onto the tow dolly’s mechanism. Tighten the straps with the mechanism. Lock the straps securely.

Note: Non-Running Car 

If you want to tow a car that doesn’t run, you’ll need a come-along device. This device has a spool of wire rope, hooks, and winch or ratchet.

You can pull a car up the tow dolly’s ramp by pumping this device’s winch. Do this instead of driving the car.

The come-along device should include detailed operating instructions.

4. Start Pulling a Car on a Tow Dolly

Now that you’ve mounted your vehicle, you can transport it. Start pulling the car with your tow dolly. 

Remember to drive slowly and defensively. Stay ten miles per hour under the speed limit. Never drive more than 55 miles per hour.

If the tow dolly begins to sway, don’t stop.

Instead, slow down below 25 mph. Control the steering wheel. Drive steady until the swaying stops. 

5. Know How to Backup a Tow Dolly

You might want to backup when towing. Don’t.

Do not backup when using a tow dolly. This is dangerous. It will also harm the car you’re towing. 

If you absolutely must learn how to backup a tow dolly, watch demonstrations on YouTube. But, only use this skill in extreme circumstances.

6. Park and Unload the Tow Dolly

First, park with enough space to unload properly. Then, remove the ratchet straps from the towed car’s tires.

Move to the side of the tow dolly. Extend the tow dolly’s release ramps. Unlatch and remove the securement chains.

Then, enter the towed car. Slowly drive back down the ramp. 

If you’ve towed a non-driving vehicle, set it into neutral. Simply roll it off the tow dolly ramp.

Discover Auto-Transport Rates in Seconds

We want you to make optimal car transport decisions. That means evaluating tow dolly vs. auto transport options. Find the best service for you.

And, discover the best possible rate. Compare transport rates today. We use up-to-the-minute market data to generate quotes you can use. 

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