Planning a Trip This Summer? Book Your Rental Car First

rental car shortage

by Ellen Blake

Taking the reservation is not as important as keeping the reservation

One of the funniest episodes I remember from the SEINFELD series is the one from season three where Jerry makes a car rental reservation, only to find no car available when he arrives at the counter. That particular show originally aired in 1991, and was hilarious in part because the predicament seemed so ridiculous and unlikely. Fast forward thirty years to 2021 to life in the United States during the pandemic. We now how a serious rental car shortage which means it’s not as unusual for people to find themselves in that situation. And, if it ever happened to you, you know it’s really not at all funny.

The rental car shortage

Remember when the world first shut down due to Covid19 and unused rental cars piled up in lots? The rental companies panicked; they stopped purchasing new cars for their fleets, and then sold off their existing vehicles as quickly as possible on the used car market.  Now, the demand for rental cars is back, but summer travel destinations face severe car shortages.

With vaccinations available and travel restrictions easing, a lot of us are itching to plan vacations. Airfares and hotel prices remain relatively low compared to pre-lockdown prices according to a report from USA Today, but if your trip involves a rental car you may be in trouble. If you can even find one to reserve, the fees are shocking. You may see prices double or triple typical costs for very basic wheels. In particularly popular vacation spots like Florida, Hawaii and Arizona, the charges might add up to as much as $500-$700/day.

Before the pandemic, I tended to view car costs as an add-on to a trip. No big deal. Now, with these high prices, the rental costs might actually be more than airfare and/or hotel, especially if booked last minute. As a result, the decision likely involves more time, effort and online research to compare prices than in the past. In addition, expect the process to be more of a hassle than it used to be. You might find long lines at the counter when you arrive due to staffing layoffs during the pandemic. And then there’s the possibility that the car you arranged to rent before you left home was not held for you, especially if your flight is significantly delayed.

If you definitely need or want a rental car, there are ways to avoid paying crazy amounts of money for it. I recommend you:

  • Shop early, perhaps before booking your flight
  • Be flexible with your dates. The cost for a car for a popular week in July might cost hundreds more than the same car in the same location a week or two later
  • Try to find a rental lot at least thirty minutes away from the airport which is likely less expensive. You can take an Uber or Lyft to pick up your car.

Alternatives to renting a car

If you don’t want to deal with the high prices and hassle involved, you may decide to forego the car rental altogether. Consider other possible ways to get around your vacation destination. Public transportation is a good option depending on where you go. Or, you might search for accommodations in a location where the sites, restaurants, beaches or whatever are all within walking distance. Bicycles make for a fun vacation too, weather permitting.

If you need wheels of some type, taxis, Uber and Lyft are readily available in many vacation spots, though this option can get expensive as prices surge at popular times during the day. Finally, check out;  Turo acts like an Airbnb for cars where owners rent out their personal vehicles.

The bottom line

The national rental car shortage is likely to continue well into the summer as rental car companies remain cautious about increasing their staff and cars. If you plan to vacation this summer do your research and consider all your transit options. Renting a car may not be worth the inconvenience and expense this year. Think about the upside of making travel plans that don’t involve a car – you can get some exercise, save money and not risk being stranded at the airport!



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