Why have rental cars become so darn hard to find?

Fleet of rental cars; now there is a shortage of them
Photo via formulanone/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A significant dip in travel during the COVID-19 pandemic led many rental car companies to downsize their fleets. With far reduced demand for rental vehicles, companies like Avis, Budget, and Hertz cut down on the number of rental cars they made available to travelers. Now, as more people get vaccinated and travel begins to revitalize, people are noticing the shortage of rental cars.

Shortages are expected to persist for months, at least. Almost all rental car companies cut their fleet of vehicles down during the pandemic, with some of them reducing their inventory by up to 40%. 

The decision to drastically reduce the number of available rental cars was made out of necessity, as rental car companies stumbled in the early months of the pandemic.

The summer of 2020 was marked by a massive downturn in all travel, leaving rental car companies scrambling to make ends meet. Many chose to sell off as many rental cars as they could—hundreds of thousands—in hopes of holding on until travel picked back up.

The effort seems to have worked, but renters are now paying the price—quite literally—for the newfound shortage. 

With fewer available rental cars, prices have skyrocketed. People who were used to shelling out a few hundred bucks for a rental are finding themselves facing price tags in the low thousands and few—if any—alternate options. 

That’s if they can find a car at all. In many popular vacation destinations, like Hawaii, it is immensely hard to get a hold of any vehicle, regardless of price. Rental car companies didn’t expect demand to return so quickly, but with about 50% of the adult U.S. population at least halfway inoculated against COVID-19, people are turning their minds toward their next getaway. Rental car companies are scrambling to meet demand. 

What can you do to sidestep the rental car shortage?

The newfound rental car shortage will likely be short lived, as companies around the country are scrambling to bulk back up their options. In the meantime, customers facing sky-high rates and shortages have a few options. 

First and most importantly, make sure to shop early if you’ll need a rental car for your next trip. Popular summer destinations, in particular, are going to see fierce competition for the available rental cars, so book early if you’re headed to Florida, Arizona, Hawaii, or any other common vacation getaway. 

Also, consider finding a rental somewhere other than the airport. Vacation destinations often hike up the price of airport rentals, an issue that will only be compounded by the current shortage. Locations away from the airport may have greater availability and a lower cost, so consider checking out nearby locations rather than settling for the ease of an airport rental. 

It is additionally worth considering some of the alternatives to renting a vehicle. While rental cars are typically the most convenient choice, options like rideshare services and public transportation are widely available and typically far more affordable.

Other creative options include Turo and Outdoorsy, which are essentially Airbnb for cars. For typically reasonable sums, people can rent other people’s vehicles by the day or week. Participants still recommend booking at least a month in advance, however, so get on it early.

Read more coronavirus travel news:

Sources: New York Times, Click Orlando, Wall Street Journal

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