The rental car 'apocalypse' isn't over. Here's what to know before booking.
The "rental car apocalypse" dawned a little more than a year ago as vaccinated travelers started to venture back into the world only to find fewer vehicles and hiked-up prices. Experts say the scenario is slightly less doom and gloom now - but also far from the pre-pandemic norm.
That is because the shortage of semiconductor chips that has held up auto manufacturing persists, leaving rental car companies to operate with lower inventory after they sold off chunks of their fleets in the early days of the pandemic. Building that stock back up has been more difficult than expected.
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"It's still tough out there," said Greg Scott, spokesman for the American Car Rental Association. "The supply chain problems have not resolved themselves. There are some instances where the supply of new cars has improved, but it's not back where it needs to be and it won't be for a long time."
For travelers, that means a car might not be available exactly when or where they need it, or might be significantly more expensive than it would have been in 2019. Prices have increased so much that two members of Congress, Reps. Katie Porter, D-Calif., and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., wrote letters to the chief executives of Avis and Hertz this month demanding information about price hikes and "possible predatory business practices."
"Companies shouldn't be able to get away with blaming uncertain times for high prices when they're making record profits," Porter wrote on Twitter. The companies did not respond to questions about the letter.
For travelers renting a car this spring or summer, here are eight things to keep in mind.
- It's not clear when 'normal' will return
More than a year into the problem, experts can't say for sure when the computer-chip and new-car bottlenecks will ease. But people are traveling in far greater numbers than they did last year.
In an email, Enterprise Holdings spokeswoman Lisa Martini said the company expects "strong demand will continue through the busy spring and summer travel months."
Jonathan Weinberg, founder and chief executive of the discount car-rental site AutoSlash, said the outlook for this summer is much better than the last, when rental car companies "were out of vehicles" altogether many days.
"I'm willing to go out on a limb here and say that I think the problem will get better in the fall of 2022," he said, pointing out that the industry will have time to catch up in the slower season between September and November. "I think spring and summer of 2023 are going to be significantly better."
But, Weinberg warned, this summer is expected to still be tough.
"If you're even thinking about traveling this summer, you want to book now essentially," he said. "The great thing about car rentals is you can book a pay-later rate."
- Expect to pay up for your ride
According to search data that Kayak ran in late February, the average rental car price for the spring break period between March 1 and April 15 was $76 a day, up 55% compared to the same time in 2019. For summer - May 27 through Sept. 6 - the average price was $99 a day, an increase of nearly 60% over the pre-pandemic norm.
Last week, the travel app Hopper said rental car prices had been averaging around $83 a day over the previous week, which is up 19% from the same time in 2021.
"The current situation is that rental car companies will still be charging higher prices simply because the supply has not met the demand," said Mike Taylor, head of the travel and hospitality practice at J.D. Power.
- Lock the rental in early
Taylor said the typical pattern of trip planning is looking at airfare, then hotels, then rental cars. That needs to be flipped now.
"If they know they want a rental car, look at that first," he said. "Can I find one that makes the budget affordable, then airfare, then hotel?"
While prices might have dropped at the last minute before the car shortage, Weinberg said, that's not the norm anymore.
"Consumers really need to think as far ahead as possible where they want to go," he said. "Last-minute, sporadic trips, don't count on there being a rental car at an affordable price - or sometimes at all."
That is especially true for holidays, and not just Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, said Beth O'Donnell, senior vice president at travel management company the Travel Team in Buffalo.
"Rental cars for Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Presidents' Day are all really popular times for travel and harder to find a reasonable car if you wait last minute," she said in an email.
- Be as flexible as possible
Martini said Enterprise encourages customers to provide flexible dates and pickup locations if they can. That might mean travelers need to search for car availability before they book a flight or hotel, and consider opting for a non-airport rental branch.
- Look into alternatives
Traditional rental companies aren't the only game in town anymore. Depending on where a traveler is going, it might make more sense to use public transportation or ride-hailing apps to get around. Uber and Lyft both offer car rentals through the same app you would use to book a ride. Car-sharing services such as Turo and Avail connect renters to individual car owners. Some desperate renters have turned to U-Hauls for affordable, nontraditional rides.
- Join loyalty programs
Jay Ellenby, president of Safe Harbors Business Travel in Bel Air, Md., said his company makes sure clients have rewards memberships in place with their preferred rental company or even multiple companies.
"That pretty much - I'm not going to say guarantees - gives us a better opportunity to get in a car," he said.
Taylor said becoming a status member also typically provides perks such as skipping lines at the counter and just walking onto a lot for a car.
- Use every money-saving tip
Weinberg said one of the best ways to get a good deal is to take advantage of any memberships such as AAA, Costco or AARP. His site compares all of those options in searches.
O'Donnell, a member of the American Society of Travel Advisors, said travel agencies also have discounted rates with most major rental-car companies.
You can find more budget-friendly solutions here from tips reporter Natalie Compton.
- Keep fuel prices in mind
With the national average for a gallon of gas reaching $4.24 Tuesday, travelers need to factor that price into their budgets, too. (Unless they want to opt for an electric vehicle.)
O'Donnell said that if renters say they will return the car with a full tank, they need to follow through.
"Failure to top off the tank can cost double the amount or more per gallon than if you do it yourself," she said in an email.
But Weinberg cautions against prepaying for a full tank when picking up the car.
"Absolutely 100% do not take the prepaid gas option from the car company," he said. "It seems like a good deal, but it's not. You're paying for a full tank of gas regardless of how much you use. You're basically giving the rental-car company free money."
He said Costco memberships come with the option to fill up with the retailer's discounted fuel, and apps such as GasBuddy, Waze and Google Maps can lead drivers to the least expensive gas in an area.
Weinberg said it also makes sense to try to choose a vehicle with fuel efficiency in mind.
"Don't reserve a much larger vehicle than you need," he said.
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