Why Is It So Hard To Find a Rental Car Right Now?

Where have all the rental cars gone, and what does this mean for travelers?

Just a few weeks ago, I hit up the local car rental agency – the same one I always go to. It’s my go-to spot when I need another vehicle. Sometimes it’s nice to take a rental when heading out on a road trip, and other times it’s just because my car is in the shop.

But as I was standing in line, I heard the guy behind the counter tell a customer on the phone, “Did you make a reservation? Because we don’t have any more cars available right now.”

No, I did not end up with a car there. And when I arrived at a second rental company, I barely got one. I managed to snag the last sedan they had.

This was the first time I ever had difficulty renting a car. It’s always been one of the easiest parts of a vacation. In fact, sometimes I don’t even bother to pick one up until I’m ready to pack up and head out of town! The whole experience left me wondering what was going on.

cars parked on a lot
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Where Are All the Rental Cars?

When everything shut down during the events of 2020, there was – understandably – a lull in travel. And by “lull,” I really mean no one was going anywhere. Hotels and resorts were empty, planes had no passengers, and the service industry suffered.

But all of this hurt another industry, too: the rental car industry. With no vacations or any other reasons to travel, there was also zero demand for rental cars.

Aside from people renting cars to go somewhere, other people rent cars once they arrive at their destination. With no one arriving, cars in popular tourist destinations were just sitting there collecting dust.

This clearly left car rental companies hurting. While other industries were bailed out by taxpayers, including airlines (multiple times), the rental car industry was largely ignored. In order to stay afloat, major car rental agencies decided to shrink their fleets. According to the Washington Post, these companies sold off more than 770,000 cars. They sold off more than one out of every three rental cars that were in service.

At the time, it made financial sense. Not only was it a quick way to bring in a little bit of money to offset the huge losses, but it also cut their day-to-day costs by at least a third, too. No more car maintenance, insurance, and other expenses associated with keeping a giant fleet of vehicles ready to go.

How It’s Affecting Travelers

Fast forward to now, though, and consumers (like me!) are feeling the effects. Travel is back in full force, and the travel industry is struggling to keep up.

Demand for rental vehicles is at an all-time high, as everyone gets back to planning vacations or traveling for work. But hey, remember that at least one third of all the rental cars were sold off! So now, we’re looking at a supply and demand problem. There’s a big demand and a teeny tiny supply.

car rental sign
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It’s leaving consumers standing in long lines or struggling to find companies with available cars, sure. But, the current situation is also affecting us consumers in a different way: it’s driving up the cost. For instance, when I finally did get a rental car, it was almost twice as expensive. And I definitely don’t even live in a tourist destination, so I can only imagine what the costs look like in places like Orlando or Maui.

The solution to the problem seems clear, right? Now that things are back in full swing, why don’t these companies just buy more vehicles to boost their numbers?

By now, we’ve heard of shortages and other supply chain issues. Well, guess what? It’s hitting the car industry, too. Big companies like Hertz and Enterprise can’t even get enough vehicles, because they aren’t available. With shortages hurting the production of new cars, the big car makers are concentrating on producing vehicles for their dealerships, and less for rental companies.

What To Do If You Want To Rent a Car

reserving a car rental online
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What does this mean for consumers heading into the busy summer travel season?

Here’s my advice. If you’re planning a vacay, securing a car rental should be one of the first things you do. No more treating it like an afterthought or waiting until the last minute. You could wind up blowing your budget, or without a vehicle at all!

Not only does booking as early as possible ensure you’ll actually get a car, but it gives you time to shop around. Check with any and all of the rental companies to find the best deal you can.

When renting a car, always make a reservation ahead of time. And even with a reservation, arrive with ample time to wait in line. Depending on the location or when you go, you could be looking at tons of wait time, even just to pick up a vehicle you already paid for.

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