Rental car availability is at an all-time low: How to score the vehicle you need

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The battered travel industry is starting to bounce back as people plan for long-delayed vacations, thanks to Covid-19 vaccinations on the rise and infections on the decline. As a traveler, while you’ll see some enticing credit card bonuses right now, you very well may run into trouble in the car rental department. Because shortages are common these days among rental agencies, many travelers will pay a pretty penny and settle for a make and model that are far from their first choice. 

Expect higher prices on rental cars and fewer models to choose from due to the current shortage. (Photo by Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock)

What’s causing rental car shortages?

First off, ailing car rental agencies sold a significant number of vehicles from their fleets to stay afloat during the pandemic. As such, many are not able to accommodate the increasing demand for rentals.

By way of example, in the third quarter of 2020, Avis Budget Group sold off 75,000 of its cars in the United States, per the company’s earnings report. Similarly, Hertz sold tens of thousands of vehicles in 2020 in the wake of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. (The company has since secured significant funding and plans to emerge from bankruptcy in the coming months.)

Another reason for the lack of available rental cars is that agencies can’t acquire new vehicles quickly enough. This is a direct result of automobile manufacturing delays brought on by a shortage of semiconductors. These electronic chips have become scarce in auto factories, as manufacturers reallocated many of them for use in items that were in higher demand, such as laptops and smartphones.

Problems such as the lack of rental vehicles are compounded by the high number of travelers opting for road trips instead of flights. Surveys have found that more Americans plan to take road trips and are expected to shy away from flying in the long-term wake of the pandemic.

What can you expect?

Without a doubt, you can expect to pay more for your next rental car, and you’ll likely face long lines at the rental agency counters.

Higher prices

As we’ve mentioned, prices are higher. And that may remain the case until the major players like Avis Budget Group and Hertz acquire enough vehicles to accommodate the demand. 

Long pickup lines

As The Points Guy has reported, you may encounter long pickup lines when you arrive at the car rental agency. This can be caused by customers struggling to find a vehicle in the size and price range to meet their needs.

(Photo by Vietnam Stock Images/Shutterstock)

6 tips for getting a rental car at the lowest possible price

While many of these tips were already applicable pre-pandemic, some of them are helpful now more than ever due to the rental car shortage:

Book as early as possible

This is always a good rule of thumb, but it’s more important now than ever. The sooner you book your car, the better your chances of getting a make and model that suit you. To take it one step further, you’ll probably want to make sure there is a suitable vehicle available before you book the flight or hotel for your trip. 

Adjust your rental times

Making changes, if possible, to your pickup and drop-off times could bring you better prices or a wider selection of cars from which to choose.

Schedule an off-airport pickup

You can often save on taxes when you pick up your vehicle at an off-airport car rental location. This tip calls to mind the success story of a Million Miles Secrets reader named Mark, who saved more than $100 in taxes when he picked up his car at a location in Boston away from the airport. 

Join a loyalty program to avoid lines

Many car rental companies offer free loyalty programs that include valuable perks, like letting you skip the pickup lines when you arrive for your car. Honestly, who wants to kick off their vacation by waiting more than an hour in line for your set of wheels? Examples of these programs include the Hertz Gold Plus membership and the Avis Preferred membership. 

Utilize websites that help you find the best price

One example is AutoSlash, a website that will help you find the best deal on a reservation when you enter parameters like your destination and travel dates. Not only will it bring up the best value, but it will also notify you if a better deal comes along before the dates of your trip. 

Pay with a credit card that gives you discounts

For instance, when you use the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you can score discounts on rentals with National Car Rental, Avis, and Silvercar. Similarly, The Platinum Card® from American Express provides several benefits from Hertz, including discounted rates.

As rental companies gradually add to their fleets, renting a vehicle may again become as easy as in the pre-pandemic days. As you can see, in the meantime doing the proper legwork and being a bit flexible can go a long way to getting a suitable car at an affordable price.

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Karen Bennett is a writer at Million Mile Secrets and covers points, miles, credit cards and travel. Her writing has appeared in publications like USA Today, The Cheat Sheet, Ezvid Wiki and various local newspapers. She holds degrees in Journalism and English from the University of Illinois and Columbia College Chicago.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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