Americans planning post-vaccination trips may be forced to pay eye-watering car rental prices — if they can secure a vehicle at all — as lockdown-weary travelers flood the roads.
Major cities are selling out of cars for entire weekends, according to data from AutoSlash, an online discount car rental booking platform, while remaining inventory is going for $400-$500 per day in Hawaii; $315 per day in Tampa, Florida; $200 in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona; and $223 per day in Charleston, South Carolina.
In some regions, car rental prices are 300% higher compared with pre-pandemic levels.
“We've heard many stories of people lately canceling their trips because rental cars were either too expensive or simply not available,” Jonathan Weinberg, founder and CEO of AutoSlash, told Yahoo Money.
The trend emerged in February just as vaccines were rolling out, Weinberg said, and car rental inventories turned up empty in Sun Belt destinations like Florida’s Orlando, Tampa, and Fort Lauderdale, along with Las Vegas and Phoenix.
“We were struggling a little bit to try to fill that demand,” he said. “Then the same thing happened the following weekend, and the weekend after that, and then it got worse and worse and worse to the point where routinely 18 out of the 20 airports in Florida were completely sold out.”
The industry has experienced an unexpected demand whipsaw since the start of the pandemic and is now being pushed to its limits with Weinberg forecasting a summer rental "carmageddon.”
“The demand is all over the place right now it's sort of like everything's sort of off-kilter, so it's harder to predict,” Weinberg said. “Past patterns don't necessarily predict future trends, and I think that that's one of the things that's going to make it challenging.”
The issue is squarely the pandemic. Last spring, Avis and Budget among other car rental companies shifted into “survival mode” and sold hundreds of thousands of vehicles in their fleets as demand plummeted, Weinberg said.
“They kept the vehicles that were enough to satisfy the demand that they had and were trying to get through 2020,” he said. “But then you got to 2021 [and] people felt more emboldened to travel who have been cooped up at home.”
Travelers now should plan at least one month in advance, whenever possible, Weinberg said, as sell-outs are happening farther and farther out. Booking a car rental should be given equal priority to securing flights or lodging at least until the industry can augment inventories.
Read more: 6 tips for buying a car during the pandemic
“Booking weeks ahead is the single most important way to ensure that a) you have a rental at all and b) that you don't end up paying more than you have to for it,” he said.
Stick with a flexible pay-later rate so you have the freedom to cancel, change your plans, or re-book if a better deal comes along, he said. To avoid long lines at rental centers, sign up for the car rental company’s loyalty program — especially for travelers flying into airports — which unlocks the ability to bypass the line and go straight to your car.
“You really don't want to spend the first day of your vacation standing in line waiting for a rental car,” Weinberg said. “And it's gonna be even worse if they run out of cars.”