The Rental Car Apocalypse, In One Photo

Rental car prices have in many cases become the biggest expense of a trip. Rental companies offloaded vehicle inventories during the pandemic, and didn’t place orders. The market for cars is tight. And travel has picked back up. So there’s more people looking for cars than there are cars. Prices are sky high.

If that were the only problem at least we could plan for it. But since many rentals don’t require prepayment, no shows are high, and car companies massively overbook. Plus people don’t always return their cars exactly on time. There are labor shortages, too, so it can be slow cleaning cars between customers and getting them back up to the lot for the next rental.

The ‘rental car apocalypse’ really peaked in Hawaii, with rates as high as $600 a day and local leaders urging people not to rent U-Hauls to get around. But it’s really going on everywhere. Here’s what it looked like on my most recent rental.

I showed up at Hertz. They had a wait list of over 60 people. They had one car. It wasn’t assigned to me, but I was lucky enough to drive off in it. I’d never been so happy to have an over 40,000 mile Mitsbushi.

In situations like this I recommend tipping. You can debate in the comments whether the current circumstance justifies making more than one rental reservation, from different car companies. That fails Kantian ethics (how would this look if everyone did it?) but it’s a guerrilla tactic in a Mad Max-style world where everyone is out for themselves.

Some things to consider for your next trip,

  1. Use AutoSlash to book your car (they will apply any/all available coupons and discounts) and track the price to help you rebook if cost falls.
  2. Rent from a car dealership
  3. Silvercar is no longer at airports, but with 48 hours’ notice they do deliver cars
  4. Use Turo to rent someone’s car instead of renting from a regular agency, but this is less convenient for airport arrivals especially with family. You can get a nicer car for less but the easy airport pickup can’t be replicated.
  5. Skip the rental car and Uber if you’re going to stay mostly on property at a resort.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The real question raised by this story is how….. “I showed up at Hertz. They had a wait list of over 60 people. They had one car. It wasn’t assigned to me, but I was lucky enough to drive off in it. ” What was the magic word(s) you used, Gary?

  2. I have been prepaying for all my rentals and haven’t had an issue at Budget, Avis or National/Enterprise. Hertz is a mess and if you wait until the last minute or don’t prepay, your screwed.

  3. Sixt fortunately built up a big fleet just before the pandemic so in stations that have one on-airport the situation is more ‘normal’

  4. Another option: google for small local companies, they don’t always show up on OTA search and can have availability at decent prices

  5. @Craig Mason “What was the magic word(s) you used, Gary?”

    He alludes in the article it is “tipping” although it would be helpful to know @Gary the way you approached the agent with the tipping. Silently pass a bill? Magic Phrase with the tip? Up the amount on failure?

  6. Which airport gary? I have had no problem (outside of a 40 minute wait for a car in Las Vegas during an April trip).

    National executive emerald club so not sure if that is why but at least nice to skip the lines at the counter. BTW Hertz sucks!! Why would you rent from them?!

  7. And a counter example. I just rented a brand new Camry from Budget downtown SF dropping in Austin 23 days later, for 1200 dollars including drop charges and collision. No problems with availability when I picked it up.

  8. Yeah, I could have taken a picture of OKC 9 days ago. Nothing on the lot and lots of people waiting. National took care of me though, and I only waited about 15 minutes. No special words and no tip. Although that is a great idea.

  9. Just rented a Ford Explorer in Indianapolis July 5 to August 3. $1250. 3 Luxuries to choose from.

  10. Seriously, Gary, did you palm them a folded up bill (how much?) and say something like, “is there anyway you can expedite this for me?” I had this issue come up myself and would appreciate some insight on what it takes and how to approach it next time….

  11. Isn’t tip in this context – where it’s not been a part of accepted, expected practice, unlike the custom of tipping bartenders or waitpersons – just another way of saying “bribe”? And isn’t that very unethical and perhaps even illegal?

    I’d even distinguish this from the semi-accepted standard of tipping desk clerks at Vegas hotels, where the tip is generally for an upgraded room. Here, it’s taking the car away from whomever was legitimately next in line for it.

  12. This ultimately will hurt the car rental industry. People are thinking different now about rental cars. It used to be an automatic first choice for most travelers, not any more. Ride share and public transportation are much more in focus, and there are other options. I recently borrowed a car on a trip. I will continue to think differently about renting a car after this debacle.
    I understand the pandemic took its toll, but it seems to me the rental companies preparation, reacting, planning and communication were all sub-par.

  13. We live in a country where people are being paid NOT to work. What would any reasonable person expect? Inflation and shortages are a way of life under the clowns that now run the country. Glad that I’m near the end of my career so I don’t have to travel anymore. I’ll leave that to the savages to fight it out on planes, airports, hotel lobbies and car lots.

  14. My recent rental through Autoslash/Hertz at OGG was only about $450/week, $62/day – a steal in this market, and to my amazement, I was able to extend the rental in the middle of the term for a couple of days at the same rate. I admit I wondered whether that would screw someone with an existing reservation for those days, but Hertz had no problem with it. It was a *2019* Sentra with 25K miles (we decided that was probably 125K, with a rollover at 100K) but it was in fine shape and Hertz in fact had a fair number of cars and no lines waiting when we picked it up on 6/23.

  15. @Steve got me thinking. Yes, the worker should be fired. They shouldn’t take the car away from Customer A because customer B gave them some cash under the table. Given the shortage of cars on site and people waiting, somebody lost the car they should have had.

    That said, I can’t say that I wouldn’t do exactly the same thing Gary did (i.e., offer a “tip”) if I were in the same situation and desperately needed a car for an important meeting or family vacation. But it sucks.

    So, Gary, exactly how did you approach this?

  16. I have booked a flight to MEX, and the Delta application has offered me to book a car, for about $40-65/day. So, if there are cars for rent in Mexico City, why can’t they be moved to US?

    Rental car companies routinely re-arrange their fleets, by giving incentives (like ultra-low prices) to people…seems to me they can do the same now. Maybe get cars from Canada as well, for the northern states?

  17. Yeah DFWSteve, that’s the reason there are no rental cars, all the unemployed people are renting them LOL

  18. @Gennady – Not my area of law, but I anticipate there would be huge legal issues to resolve. Essentially they would be importing goods (cars) for commercial use, have to be declared at the border, there may be import fees and limitations, insurance, vehicle registration requirements, tax questions, etc. etc. etc. Oh! and the cars in Mexico and Canada are probably owned by completely different legal entities from those in the US, so there are additional taxation and accounting issues to explore…and now we are WAY outside my expertise (I used to know about issues for expatriate employees, but never expatriate cars!) By the time they solved all that, and spent a whole lot of money in the process (to be recouped with those high fees), the pandemic might be over. The fleet rearrangements you refer to are probably interstate, not international, movements.

  19. CVG hertz/national wanted $700 for a 5 day rental.
    I rented from a nearby Toyota dealer for $212.

  20. I’m experiencing this also wanting to get a rental in Jackson Hole. We looked into Turo, but found that our personal auto or Sapphire card insurance could not apply to a Turo rental. That left the option of buying their insurance which ranged from 25% – 100% of the rental fee. It ended up not being a good deal.

  21. @FatLip, a 5 day rental often prices as a full week. In effect that’s a $100/day rental which is not horrible.

  22. @Thing 1, no one is getting fired over this as they can’t find workers. OTOH, if they were fired, they walk across the street and work at avis lol.

  23. Yes, tipping.

    We tipped a lot of folks during the pandemic.

    We repeatedly tipped our UPS driver, our USPS carrier, our supermarket cashiers, and other nice hard-working folks who daily put their lives on the line for our community.

    And in these stressed summer times with a rental car shortage when people are behaving poorly and forgot how to interact in social situations, it seems tipping is APPRECIATED.

  24. @Raif. You gotta remember that many of them did not know how long this Pandemic would be, neither did many of us. Plus covid isnt even finished yet but people are tired of being cooped up. In April through the summer time many rental car fleets at my local airports had northwards of 6 to 7 thousand cars sitting for a couple months and they waited enough time for what was supposed to be a two week lockdown. Also rental car companies plan their fleets the year before but how can you plan when car manufacturers and their parts suppliers have either stopped or slowed production? You cant expect vehicles to pop up at the flick of a switch.

    For large cities this might spell the death of some neighborhood rental locations (excluding auto repair) but I simply cant see airport rental companies to shut down especially for those who need flexibility or want to go on long drives.

  25. Rented through Turo last week in Austin. Contact free pick up at offsite but very nearby airport parking lot. Easy and quick. Older Prius was super clean and about $240 for 5 days. Agencies were pricing over $600. Good experience.

  26. Denver This Sept wants $100 a day from them all. The near by Toyota Dealership DOES NOT rent vehicles.

    I have been to places like Dublin booked a Automatic at National and was told automatics only standards cars, at $300 for a week. Went to Hertz they wanted $700 for the same week, said i needed to pay for insurance. Went to Avis paid $400 . On the way out I heard a guy say National had NO standards also. I went all Karen on National when i got back to the States. they sent me ac check for $400 as good will. I think National Dublin got into trouble.

  27. +1 Craig Mason’s question!
    @Gary, how did you get to beat out the 60 other waitlisted customers?

  28. When I rented with Turo they met me at the airport so it was super easy. We agreed to do the drop-off at my hotel so the family could sleep in instead of all of us getting up early to drop off at the airport after I’d changed our flights to late morning.

  29. Not looking like we’re goin’ get an answer re the amount of the tip and the circumstances surrounding it… did he really do that, or did it just make for a good article?

  30. “He alludes in the article it is “tipping” ” Actually it would be called bribery and it would be a real scumbag move if that is what he did. Bribing someone for a car when someone else was the one entitled to it is a total scumbag move.

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