Where have all the rental cars gone?
“I don’t know. I don’t. Just take whatever is left in any of those rows. It doesn’t matter anymore.” The rental car attendant at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport threw his hands in the air and walked away from the ensuing sprint to the remaining vehicles. That was April. His job hasn’t gotten any easier since.
Because the U.S. is out of rental cars.
At first, the wild stories from the rental world seemed more like urban legends. Yes, prices were up but $500 a day for an Elantra? Surely not. Reports of travelers in Hawaii being stranded without cars and resorting to U-Haul rentals were shocking and, if we’re being honest, a bit jealously satisfying. A far-away problem for small and popular islands.
But the stories are real. Hawaii’s ongoing issues were just a harbinger for the industry. Travelers everywhere are discovering that they too may be getting a U-Haul as their only reservation option. I watched a man running a Hertz rental car counter endure a panic attack when he got confirmation that there were no cars available in a three-hour radius for the long line of customers. Rental car prices are exceeding plane tickets and those used to securing the best flight deal first are horrified when there is no affordable vehicle at the other end. Or no vehicle at all.
It all comes down to a microchip shortage and a boom in U.S. domestic travel. For the traveler, it’s time to throw the old rules and tricks of car rentals out the window.
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How COVID-19 and Microchips Are Strangling Rental Car Supply
Just a year ago we gaped at all of those pictures of rental cars filling the massive stadium lots with nowhere to go. Now, they’re gone. And their replacements aren’t coming soon.
There is a microchip shortage. Or actually, the semiconductors that make up microchips. These are the foundations of all modern electronics, and anything from cars to appliances to the PlayStation 5 will use thousands, millions, or even billions of semiconductors on a single chip.
The pandemic shut down factories, particularly overseas where most of these components are made. And our spending behaviors changed in drastic and unexpected ways, starting with a surge in personal computers and printers last spring. Carmakers cut back on chip purchases while other electronics snapped them up a year ago. But production didn’t keep pace. Now, as demand rises, the automotive industry is predicting a $110 billion loss of revenue this year.
America’s summer travel plans are exactly what you would expect from a nation tired of shutdowns and with widely available vaccines. But just because we are itching to go doesn’t mean the interconnected industries that make the magic happen are ready. As the U.S. Congress debates a course to move away from dependence on international producers, here’s what you can do to salvage travel plans.
Book direct and pay now. Right now. Secure your car before you do anything else.
Rental Car Tricks for a New World
You remember the good old days. Renting was all afterthought. Making a reservation for a car rental without even having to save a card number. Hopefully remembering to cancel it if you end up not needing it but if not, no penalty. Going economy if you could because the odds of a free upgrade were in your favor. Searching through corporate codes to rack up some good savings. Renting away from the airport for hidden deals.
Stop all of that.
Book direct and pay now. Right now. Secure your car before you do anything else. Multiple rental agents from around the country confirmed that there is less risk in firmly holding a car for those who pay ahead than those who pay at the counter. One from Budget, who asked not to be named, said, “It’s easier to tell the ‘pay later’ people ‘sorry’ than it is to say ‘sorry’ and mess with a refund. We need to know you’re really coming. And we’ll do what we can.”
Scan the full range of options and don’t rule out the typically pricier companies. For instance, I recently rented a sports car in Detroit from Enterprise for cheaper than I could get anything from Alamo. Now is also a good time to get comfortable with trucks. And go ahead and snag that “manager’s special.” You’re likely getting whatever is available anyway.
Stick to the airports as much as possible. City-based agents serve corporations and small businesses as well as travelers and are struggling to supply their long-time customers. It doesn’t hurt to look, but your odds of getting a car are better at the airport’s revolving drive-thru.
If you’re ready to get a bit more adventurous, Turo is redefining car rentals. This site connects you with locals willing to rent out their vehicles at lower rates. For the skeptics, remember, not too long ago Uber and Airbnb were for the trendy risk-takers. Now everyone and their grandmother have joined in. Turo is poised as the next revolution.
Ditch the Rental
Embrace unconventional and public transportation. The best bet is to take on the slow travel ethos and stick to a smaller area that you can explore without your own vehicle. Some destinations lend themselves better to this than others but try to fight the understandable urge to do it all right now and just enjoy getting away again.
Get the most out of your lodging by choosing somewhere close to ground transportation—buses, light rails, and subways are all safer options again with vaccinations available. This is a good year to explore a reopening city with good infrastructure. Destinations like Seattle, San Francisco, and Alaska’s Inner Passage also offer up scenic ferries to get you from point to point. Do all that you can to avoid relying on a car.
If you really need a car to connect you, remember that rideshares like Uber and Lyft are also experiencing driver shortages (and price surges). If you have a tight window for pick-up (like to catch that flight home), use the schedule ahead feature to try to ensure that you have a ride or ask the hotel concierge to arrange a service.
Finally, this is the year to take the train. No, seriously. Amtrak is celebrating 50 years and had stronger pre-pandemic ridership than it has had in decades. With long-overdue new train cars and routes that cover the most scenic parts of the country, you can roll up to cities and national parks without ever needing your own wheels. Luggage is bountiful and free. Legroom is ample. People-watching is top-notch. Prices are reasonable. And no one ever has to argue about who has to drive.