Looking for a rental car? Travel experts offer tips amid skyrocketing prices, low supply

Travel experts say the country is seeing a major car rental shortage as more vaccinated Americans hit the road and rental car companies have trouble keeping up with the demand.

AAA Travel is predicting more than 37 million Americans will hit the road and take to the skies for the Memorial Day weekend, an anticipated rebound after the COVID-19 lockdown shuttered travel and vacation plans last year.

But experts said all isn’t lost for those who haven’t looked or are still searching for a vehicle.

"So the number one piece of advice if you need a rental car this summer is to book early as in book right now," AutoSlash founder Jonathan Weinberg told FOX Television Stations. "Even if you’re not sure what your plans are, basically think about when you might want to go and book something."

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Weinberg also suggested travelers sign up for rental car companies’ loyalty programs to avoid long lines at the airports. 

AAA Senior Vice President of Travel Paula Twidale said travelers can find cars and avoid high prices by being flexible and booking cars during the non-holiday period and in the middle of the week. She also said travelers should extend car rental reservations to take advantage of cheaper prices.

"Sometimes booking for a week as opposed to a weekend or shorter days... it’s not as expensive," she told FOX Television Stations.

Twidale also said it’s a good idea to look for rental car companies away from the airport that offer cheaper prices.

Both Twidale and Weinberg said rental car companies are still reeling from COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions that went into place last year.

"We’re seeing rates that are anywhere from three to 10 times what they normally are," Weinberg said. "We’re seeing average rates of over $100 a day in many markets."

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According to AutoSlash, prices are already averaging about $100 per day for Memorial Day Weekend in Florida and could rise in the coming weeks. In other areas, prices are already over $100 per day for that weekend, including in Charleston, Denver, New Orleans and Salt Lake City. Weinberg said it’s a sign of what’s to come for the rest of the country as the weather warms up.

Industry experts blame the current shortage on rental car companies selling off much of their inventory last year.

"Because of the pandemic, the car rental companies had nowhere to put all the cars. So what they had to do is they had to get rid of them. They had to sell them," said Jerry Agrusa, a professor in the School of Travel Industry Management at the University of Hawaii.

According to FOX Business, Hertz listed cars for sale just days before its bankruptcy announcement last year. Hertz filed for bankruptcy protection on May 22, with nearly $19 billion in debt and approximately 700,000 idled vehicles because of the pandemic lockdowns.

To get out of bankruptcy, the company said it may sell a controlling stake in the company to two investment firms for $4.2 billion.

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Still, Twidale said it’s not easy for rental companies to replenish their inventory because the COVID-19 pandemic also slowed down vehicle and parts production.

Twidale pointed to the lack of semiconductor chips used in newer computerized vehicles. She said the shortage has created a domino effect, making it hard for auto companies to manufacture vehicles and rental car companies to obtain them.

"Therefore the fleets that the rental car companies have are also, sort of, a little bit stalled," Twidale said.

Meanwhile, some travelers have resorted to unusual means to find transportation during their vacation. 

Some people are turning to car-sharing apps, like Turo, where owners can lend their vehicles to users for a certain amount of time.

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According to FOX 19, many visitors to Hawaii are renting U-Haul trucks. The moving company’s Marketing President Kaleo Alau told the media outlet U-Haul’s facilities are the busiest they’ve been in years.

"The uptick from tourism, the uptick from companies opening back up, from the economy restarting — everybody seems to need a vehicle," Alau said.

Travel experts believe rental car companies will begin to stabilize in late 2021 or 2022.

"I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better," Weinberg said. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.