Planning a road trip, or just a trip down south to the beach? Or heading west to the great outdoors? You may want to book your rental car now. In fact, it might already be too late.
Rental car prices are exploding across much of the country thanks to a perfect storm of low supply of rental cars mixed with surging demand as travel picks up for a summer of revenge travel, worsened by travelers who prefer to drive to their destination rather than return to the skies.
Rental cars in popular destinations like Florida and Phoenix that once cost just $30 to $50 a day are regularly going for $100, $200, or more – a Thrifty Traveler reader told us she paid $2,300 for an SUV in Tampa for a week. Finding a rental car in Alaska has become a nearly impossible task, and it's not much better in Hawaii. Elsewhere, lots are completely empty, and travelers with confirmed reservations are getting turned away
But what's going on? How did it get this bad? And what can you do about it? Keep reading.
What's Happening with Rental Cars?
It's all about supply and demand. And that formula is upside down for rental cars.
When travel demand disappeared this time last year, rental car companies around the country were suddenly staring down massive financial problems. Hertz quickly filed for bankruptcy, and Advantage Rent-A-Car followed not long after. With bookings plummeting, many rental car companies started selling off parts of their fleet – at huge discounts, no less – on the used vehicle market. CNN reported that the U.S. rental car industry sold off more than 500,000 cars combined – more than a third of their fleets.
But with travel back on the rise, those companies may wish they had those cars back. And you might too.
With smaller fleets and an inability to build them back up fast enough, rental car companies can't cope with the demand to rent a car. As spring turns to summer, the problems seem to be most severe in popular destinations throughout Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, and outdoorsy states like Montana and Wyoming. But the markings of the rental car shortage – low supply and high prices – are everywhere.
It's clearly the worst in Alaska and Hawaii. We couldn't find a single rental car through National (or other companies) on Maui or in Fairbanks, Alaska from June through August. Kayak is quoting $2,300 for a week with a compact car in Anchorage, Alaska – more than $325 a day.
In Florida, Autoslash CEO Jonathan Weinberg previously told CNN that 18 of 20 major Florida airports were completely sold out of cars over the spring – and that problem continues today.
“We're looking at rates of $500 a day in some places,” Weinberg said. “Last spring we were seeing $5 a day rentals in Hawaii. You'd never seen that. Now you'd kill for a car for $300 a day.”
As always, the prices can vary wildly by car rental company and if you're searching through an online travel agency like Expedia or Kayak. But it's clear prices in many markets are way up.
What You Can Do
This doesn't mean you're resigned to paying a small fortune for your next rental car.
Many of our usual tips and tricks for scoring a cheap rental car apply even in this crazy market. And with any luck, prices will come back down as rental car companies find ways to increase their car supplies.
Here's what you can do.
- Plan ahead – way ahead: Now more than ever, it's important to book far in advance to save money on a rental car. Booking just a week or two before your trip is a recipe for a massive charge. Just make sure you're booking a flexible or refundable rate, just in case your plans change.
- Use Autoslash: It's our favorite rental car tool, and it's even stronger now. Autoslash compiles quotes from all the major (and even some minor) car rental agencies and online travel agencies to help find you the best price on your ride, including any discounts you can get through travel memberships or credit cards. Plus it tracks the price of your current rental and helps you rebook if the price drops … even if you booked through a different service! Read our guide on why you should use Autoslash!
- Try out Turo: Turo could just be the No. 1 solution to all of this. Turo is the Airbnb of cars – rather than renting from a faceless company, you're paying to borrow a local's car at your destination – and that means fewer issues than we're seeing with bix-box rentals. The app is easy to use, and many Turo rentals don't even require meeting face to face with the owner. Read our guide to using Turo!
- Check U-Haul for trucks! Desperate times call for desperate measures. Check to see if you can rent a U-Haul van or truck for your trip. While it may feel strange, it's much easier to find a car this way – and the savings can be substantial.
- Put rental car status to use: National Executive Elite status can be a secret weapon. It's hard to earn these days, but to break through the rental car crisis. This top-tier status gets you a guaranteed rental (up to a fullsize) so long as you reserve at least 24 hours in advance. So while agencies across the country are sold out, you are set with this status – and in our experience, the savings are sizable, too.
The rental car market has turned upside down, and that means you might pay the price on your next rental – and a big price at that. Be sure to plan ahead and consider switching up your strategy for renting a car to escape these exorbitant rental car prices.