A $750 car rental for three days? Don't wait to book a rental car and other tips to avoid sticker shock

An airport sign with direction arrows for rental cars and taxis.

Maria Ball hasn't been on a plane in more than a year, so she and her husband booked a flurry of flights as soon as they were vaccinated against COVID-19.

First up: a visit to Maryland to see family they haven't seen since Christmas 2019.

Ticket prices to Washington, D.C., for the late April trip were reasonable, but the 29-year-old California woman did a double take when she shopped for a rental car.

Costco Travel, her go-to source for rental car deals, wanted $750 for a three-day full-size car rental in Washington, D.C., more than four times the price she usually pays for a weekend rental in the district.

"It was just ridiculous,'' she said.

Ball, who works in software sales, checked the tourism calendar to see if the National Cherry Blossom Festival or another big event was going on. Nothing.

Searches for the other trips also turned up similarly eye-popping prices compared with previous years. In Newark, New Jersey, she's paying $691 for a weekly rental of a full-size car in early August. Before the pandemic, they paid just $267 for a luxury car rental for five days for the Cape May beach getaway.

"We normally are more concerned about flight prices than we are for rental car prices,'' she said. "Now it's just the opposite.''

Why are car rentals so expensive?

Car renters be warned: surging demand and a shrunken supply of cars equals bad economics as summer travel season looms.

The coronavirus pandemic devastated the travel industry, and car rental companies responded by shedding cars in their fleets, just as airlines did with planes. Rental giant Hertz, which also owns the Dollar and Thrifty brands, was forced to file for bankruptcy reorganization in May and quickly started selling thousands of used cars in its fleet.

Pile up in Phoenix: Car rentals stack up at Sky Harbor Airport

Hertz and Enterprise Holdings, which owns the Enterprise, National and Alamo brands, say they are working closely with automakers to add cars to their fleets as quickly as possible, a process complicated by a microchip shortage that has temporarily closed some auto factories.

The companies and their competitors concede availability is an issue and will continue to be in the summer as travel rebounds. They are moving cars to areas with high demand, spokespeople for both companies told USA TODAY.

Travelers in several vacation destinations, including Hawaii; Las Vegas; Phoenix; and Orlando, Florida, have reported recent problems with availability, prices and long airport check-in lines to pick up the car. AutoSlash, a car rental search site that applies discount codes, coupons and other promotions to help travelers save money, said 18 of 20 airports in Florida were sold out of cars during many spring break weekends.

"The problem seems to be getting worse, not better,'' said AutoSlash founder Jonathan Weinberg.

And it's sure to spread beyond spring break destinations as a rush of newly vaccinated Americans resume travel, many emboldened by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's recent announcement that travel poses a low risk to them.

"It's going to happen all at once. It's going to be everywhere,'' Weinberg said.

Need a rental car? Book early

Car rentals are often an afterthought for travelers – something to do after booking airline tickets and hotels or vacation rentals.

Dawdling will likely backfire this year.

"If you do that, you’re doing it at your peril,'' Weinberg said. "You're going to pay much more.''

And those who are traveling with several people and need a minivan or large SUV, in high demand in pre-pandemic times, may be shut out.

Hertz recommends travelers book their car when making other travel arrangements this year, spokeswoman Lauren Luster said.

Weinberg booked a midsize car in January for his family's May vacation in Bozeman, Montana. The price: $30 a day including taxes and fees. The price today: $62 a day.

There is no risk to booking early because car rental companies don't require a credit card or deposit to hold the reservation unless you book a nonrefundable prepaid rate to save money. (Weinberg is not a fan of the prepaid rates for most car rentals unless it's a last-minute trip because prices change frequently, and you might lock in a higher-than-necessary price. The service monitors price changes and adjusts reservations when prices drop.)

Tips for saving money on rental cars during the pandemic

Gather every discount you can find. AAA, AARP, Costco and Sam's Club, other membership organizations and credit card companies are among those offering car rental discounts. Check your employer, too, as corporate travel discounts might extend to employee vacations. Enter the discount codes on car rental booking sites or use a free service like AutoSlash to shop for deals. (Ball read about AutoSlash, which hunts for rental car discounts using applicable coupon codes and other promotions, and used it to get her Washington, D.C., April rental down to $336 from Costco's original $750 estimate.)

Try different travel dates if you're plans aren't set. "Providing flexible travel dates in their search may also help, as it often does with airline flights,'' Enterprise spokeswoman Lisa Martini said.

Shorten the length of your reservation – without shortening your vacation. For a trip to Boston and Maine over Memorial Day, Costco quoted Ball $800 for a six-day rental. They decided to stay at an airport hotel on the first and last night of the trip to save money. That initially only cut the price to $700 so they kept shopping for four-day rentals and eventually nabbed one for $393 for an SUV.

Book the car for longer than you need it. Car rental companies would rather rent for a week than a weekend, Weinberg said, so will often show no availability or higher prices for shorter rentals. His company extends the trip beyond the date the car is needed and has customers return it early. Most of the time, they receive a refund for the unused days. "It's a nice little trick that we've learned,'' he said.

Consider an off-airport location. Airport rentals are more convenient but demand is strongest there, and many airports have sky-high taxes that spike the bill. Expedia said renting a car at a off-airport location in downtown Seattle was running 50% cheaper per day than a comparable car at the Seattle airport earlier this week.

Factor in the price of transportation to the off-airport location and be sure to check their hours before booking. Many are only open during traditional business hours, which rules out rentals for most evening flights.

One option to check: pick up at an off-airport location and drop off at the airport, if allowed, to avoid airport taxes.

Compare a la carte prices and vacation packages. Travel agencies and airlines sell vacation packages that include a car rental, so do the math to see which is the better deal.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Airport car rental: Book early due to shortage, COVID travel surge