Vacations and outdoor-oriented trips to beaches, national parks, and mountain destinations are popular this year, so popular that car rental prices are through the roof. If you’re planning on renting a car for your next road trip, however, you need to be aware of what’s going on with rentals and how to save money.
Popular vacation destinations throughout the United States are experiencing a massive rental car shortage, sending rates sky-high.
The situation is particularly acute in places like Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, South Carolina, and Maine.
Why Are Car Rentals So Expensive?
A number of factors have contributed to the current situation. Travel plummeted in 2020, causing a number of companies to sell off large percentages of their fleets to survive.
There’s a Semiconductor Chip Shortage to Blame
As travel has started to return in a big way, now there are fewer cars available for rent. Rental car companies are currently trying to add to their fleets to replace the vehicles they sold, but it’s difficult for them to buy new vehicles due to a semiconductor chip shortage. High-quality used cars are in short supply as well.
The country’s rental car shortage has escalated significantly since spring break. Cars are already completely sold out in some destinations during popular summer weeks and holiday periods and rental rates can be astronomical.
Car rental costs for a midsize rental can be more than $1,000 per week in Portland, Maine, and a rental rate of over $2,300 per week in Maui, Hawaii.
There is a significant rental car shortage in Kalispell, Montana, and Anchorage, Alaska during certain peak summer periods, with many weeks already sold out.
Rental car rates in July at airports near popular National Parks in Montana and Wyoming are already running at over $5,000 on sites like Hotwire and Expedia.
Here are 12 ways to save money and score a deal on your next rental car.
Whether it is your first time using a car rental agency or you’re planning to rent a vehicle for your next trip, here are twelve tips to help you get a rental car for your vacation and get the best deal possible:
1. Book Your Rental Car Far In Advance.
Given the current supply disruption in rental cars, it is a good idea to make car rental reservations as soon as you have possible travel dates. Last-minute car rates can be ridiculously expensive, causing you to exceed your vacation travel budget and reconsider your trip. Worst case, it’s possible that cars might not be available at the last minute at all.
A number of travel experts suggest making a duplicate back-up car booking in case your vehicle isn’t available when you arrive due to delayed returns. If you decide to make a back-up reservation, make sure to cancel it if it’s not needed.
It’s also key to pack plenty of patience when renting cars this year. Rental agencies are often short-staffed, particularly if you plan to rent a car at an airport location.
Waiting times at the rental counter to pick up cars at airports can be long during peak periods, so allow additional time for rental car pick-ups and drop-offs or make arrangements for skip-the-line car rental options.
2. Verify Rates and Availability Before Booking Flights.
Check out rental car rates before finalizing your flight arrangements and consider alternative airports if needed. You might find significantly lower rates and better availability at another airport that will still work for your travel itinerary, even if it means adding more miles to your trip.
Also check to see if your airline or booking site provides the option to add a rental car when reserving your trip, since bundling can sometimes result in lower costs. Travel advisors are an excellent source of information and can help with identifying additional alternatives, too.
3. Be Flexible with Travel Dates.
Being a bit more flexible with your travel dates can yield a better deal. Renting cars during the shoulder season or off-season when there’s likely to be more availability is a smart move, but that’s not always feasible.
Check rates for a few days around your desired pick-up date to see if you can generate any significant savings. Sometimes renting cars on non-weekend dates can save money, and availability may be better as well.
4. Consider Non-Airport Rental Locations.
The pick-up location matters when researching car rental companies. Expand your search beyond airport locations. There are usually additional rental sites within a few miles of the airport.
Choosing a city vicinity search rather than an airport search can reduce the weekly rate by as much as 30 to 40 percent in some locations, yielding savings of several hundred dollars during peak rental periods.
Non-airport car rental offices may have a greater supply of vehicles as well. Some non-airport rental locations also offer shuttle services to the airport and local hotels.
You will also want to check out Google maps or a GPS to find out where the closest gas stations are located, as every rental company has a different policy for filling the gas tank. Most likely you will have to return the car with a full tank of gas or incur extra charges.
PRO TIP: Save or program the closest gas station to the rental drop-off point in your GPS navigation unit before leaving for your trip.
5. Lengthen Your Rental Period.
Rental car rates are often at their highest during peak summer and holiday periods. Renting a car for a full week instead of a long weekend can reduce your daily rate, thereby lowering your cost from the car rental company.
In some cases, vacationers do not have to pay for the additional days if they aren’t used. Make sure to select the “pay later” rental option if you’re planning on doing this, though. It’s important to read your rental contract’s fine print to ensure that you won’t be charged a higher daily rate if you return early, too.
6. Join Rental Car Loyalty Programs.
Signing up for rental car loyalty programs like Avis Preferred, Budget Fastbreak, Hertz Gold Plus, and National Emerald Club can deliver great perks like free upgrades, skipping the lines at rental car counters, no second driver fees, and choosing your own vehicle on the lot at most airports.
Some travel credit cards offer free membership in premium rental car loyalty programs, providing even more exclusive perks like elite status and rewards. If you have your own business, consider applying for a corporate account that can yield substantial rate savings. Some companies may allow their employees to utilize their corporate rates for personal trips as well.
7. Use Key Websites for Finding Car Rental Deals.
Online booking sites can be a great way to quickly pinpoint availability and find the best rental company rates. AutoSlash has been delivering some of the lowest rates in popular vacation destinations over the last few months.
AutoSlash completes an opaque search with multiple rental car companies and applies any discounts that travelers are entitled to due to memberships, coupons, and other factors.
Recently, some AutoSlash searches have resulted in savings of hundreds of dollars when compared with other available alternatives.
In addition, check online booking sites such as Priceline, Hotwire, Expedia, Kayak, Momondo, Skyscanner, AutoRentals, and Rentalcars.
Also, look for rental vehicle coupons or discount codes on sites like RetailMeNot and Groupon.
Some car rental companies may also give military discounts or additional perks like a free additional driver. Hertz rentals is one company that gives discounts for military and government personnel.
8. Get Membership and Rewards Program Discounts.
Memberships and frequent flyer airline rewards programs can provide a lower rate. Costco has traditionally provided its members’ access to some of the most affordable rental car rates. Options may be more limited today, so make sure to check rental car prices and availability as far in advance as possible.
Other great sources of membership discounts include AAA membership, AARP, BJs, and Sam’s Club. Frequent flyer airline programs including Delta Skymiles, United MileagePlus, American AAdvantage, JetBlue TrueBlue, and Southwest offer discounts with select rental car companies as well.
9. Check Your Credit Cards for Benefits.
Some credit cards offer car rental discounts extras, and they can provide additional savings as well. Credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, United Airlines cards, American Express cards, and others provide primary or secondary rental car collision damage waiver (CDW) or loss damage waiver (LDW) coverage that can help eliminate the need for an additional rental insurance coverage policy offered by the company.
Select travel credit cards like Mastercard also offer opportunities to use reward points or miles to pay for part or all of your car rental, plus additional perks like discounts and free upgrades.
10. Track Rate Drops Regularly.
Rental car rates are currently volatile, rising and falling depending on supply and demand. During this period of car shortages, car rental companies are continually reassessing demand at locations around the country and moving around their fleets.
While cars may be in short supply when you make your advance reservation, rates may drop as you get closer to your rental date. If you’ve selected the “pay later” option, you can re-book your rental at a lower price. Check rates continually or use the automatic rate tracker feature offered by sites like AutoSlash.
11. Consider Car Sharing Options.
If rental cars are too costly or they’re sold out, take a look at available car-sharing programs like Turo. Turo functions similarly to Airbnb, allowing travelers to rent cars directly from private hosts.
Turo operates in a wide variety of locations and provides 24/7 customer support, contactless check-in options, flexible cancellation terms, and rental car insurance protection plans.
If you only need a car for a few hours or days, take a look at Zipcar. Zipcar’s membership car-sharing service offers bookings by the hour or day in over 35 states as well as Canada and the United Kingdom.
Additional car-sharing services include Enterprise CarShare and Getaround. If renting a privately-owned RV or camper is feasible for your trip, check out sites like RVshare and Outdoorsy to see what’s available.
With a car-sharing company, you may be responsible for tolls, a deductible from the insurance company if there was an accident or theft, or any convenience fees. Always check the status of tolls where you’re traveling and if they are bill by plate, cash only, or require a transponder.
12. Look Into Rental Car Alternatives.
Given the current rental car shortage and often excessive rates, consider whether you really need to rent a car for your trip.
Check out taxis, Uber and Lyft, hotel shuttles, and possibly using local tour companies for memorable experiences in your vacation destination.
Some Toyota and Subaru car dealerships also rent cars in select locations. Truck rentals through U-haul, Home Depot, and Lowe’s are additional options.
By Nancy Schretter
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