Do your summer travel plans include a rental car? If so, you might be in for a surprise. Gone are the days of a free upgrade to the Mustang convertible Janet and I scored on a trip to Oahu a few years ago. The cost to rent a car has doubled, and in some cases even tripled since the pandemic. If you can even get a car. With demand high and the supply low, it is going to take some careful planning to keep the wheels on your vacation plans this summer if you plan to rent a car.
Rental car companies weren’t in the best of shape financially heading into the pandemic, and the precipitous drop in their business because of the pandemic hit them hard. Many sold off large portions of their fleets just to keep their businesses alive, and now that the demand is up, they don’t have enough cars. Pandemic related supply chain problems that are plaguing new car manufacturers are also restricting rental car companies’ ability to build their fleets back.
There are no easy answers, and no secret travel hacks. Getting a rental car this summer will take planning, persistence, patience, and deeper pockets than ever. Here are a few tips I put together based on things that have worked for me during past periods of high rental car demand:
1. Don’t rent a car. That is the most honest advice I can give, particularly if you plan to visit a high demand destination like Orlando or Hawaii. If it is practical to drive your own car to your destination rather than fly and rent a car, this is the year to consider it. If not, think about whether you can get by using taxis or ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft, public transportation, or by booking excursions that include transportation.
2. Book early. This is not the summer for spontaneity when it comes to any of your travel plans, but especially rental cars.
3. Call ahead. Call the rental car center where you plan to pick up your car (not the central reservation number) to confirm your reservation.
4. Be flexible. When your turn at the counter finally arrives, it is not the time to be picky…not when the people behind you in line are willing to take any car for any price.
5. What’s in a name? When it comes to Hertz, Enterprise, and Avis the answer is everything. Hertz owns Dollar and Thrifty, Enterprise owns National and Alamo, and Avis owns Budget, Payless and Zipcar. In some busier locations they use a pooled supply of cars and when demand is peak the main brand gets priority for drawing from the returned cars over the subsidiary brands.
6. Be loyal. Sort of. Rental car company loyalty programs usually don’t cost to join, and most offer a separate, dedicated line at their check-in counters.
7. Consider pre-paying. One tactic we have heard is to pre-pay for your rental car when you reserve it. The idea behind pre-paying over a credit card guarantee is that the company is more likely to set a car aside for you and hold onto it if they’ve already got your money. I am skeptical, but I share for what it’s worth.
8. Take your time. Once you get a car, take the time to thoroughly inspect it and use your cellphone camera to take photos with a date/time stamp of all dents, dings, scrapes…pretty much any damage that can be blamed on you. This is a good practice anytime you rent a car, but particularly when demand is high. It is common for damage to be missed during the quick inspection that cars undergo at turn in, and any damage missed when you pick the car up may be caught when you return it, and you’ll be responsible. It should also go without saying, but make sure the registration and VIN listed on your rental contract matches the car you are actually assigned.
9. DON’T DO IT! Some people are seizing the opportunity created by the demand for rental cars and are offering their private vehicles for rent. They do this through word of mouth, social media, or using one of many online services that cater to people selling goods and services for hire. There isn’t enough space in this blog for me to list all the reasons why that is bad idea, so I just say: don’t do it.
Janet and I are hearing all sorts of horror stories from our colleagues throughout the travel business about hours (plural) long waits in rental car lines. Hopefully these are apocryphal, but if you think you can get by without renting a car this is the summer to try.