Over the spring and summer travel season, renting a car at your destination may not have always been a given. Inventory was low as travel demand picked up in 2021, explained Willis Orlando with Scott’s Cheap Flights.
“Folks would buy these cheap flights, arrive at their destination and go to rent a car – which used to be a very easy, routine thing to do and find themselves out of luck,” said Orlando.
Read on to hear from experts in the travel industry.
“They’re just about back”
Orlando said an early spot check of Thanksgiving weekend car rental prices showed they’re leveling out from highs seen earlier this year.
“In the summer, when the car rental agencies had their backs against the wall and were scrambling to fill demand, they bought up new cars, they started rebuilding their supply. Now, they're just about back where they were pre-pandemic,” Orlando said.
The American Car Rental Association’s Greg Scott said it’s too soon to say things are back to “normal”.
“I hate to sound pessimistic, but it's not a science. We don't exactly know where it's going to go,” said Scott.
ACRA, which represents approximately 98% of the car rental industry, estimates rental companies had 1.7 million vehicles at the start of the pandemic. When travel slowed in 2020, Scott said the industry sold around half its fleet. In 2021, car rental companies are buying back cars, though not as many as in pre-pandemic years.
“We're still selling cars and purchasing cars, but the number of cars we’re purchasing is way down as an industry. Quite frankly, the number of cars that we would like to purchase is higher than what we're able to purchase right now,” explained Scott – pointing to ongoing supply chain challenges.
Scott said, at the same time, demand remains unpredictable. COVID-19 variants continue to impact travel and it’s unclear if business travel will return to pre-pandemic levels.
Late hurricane season and fall severe weather can also drive up demand for rental cars in certain markets – which could impact the holidays.
“I think that somebody who, two years ago, would arrange their hotel and their airlines six months out for their Christmas vacation, but wait until the last week or so to think about a car rental probably is making a mistake,” said Scott.
He recommends consumers reserve their vehicles when booking flights or hotels.
“Go online, reserve one now, lock in a good rate for yourself. Very often you have free cancelations. If plans change, you're off the hook, you're fine,” said Orlando.
Shop around for discounts
Be flexible about the vehicle you want and where you pick up. Consumers may have better luck at a neighborhood car rental location versus an airport counter.
When you book, search for discount codes that apply to you. The company you work for may get a discount for employees – even on leisure trips. There may be an alumni discount for your school.
Tap into loyalty programs through the car rental company, your hotel or airline. You may get discounts through memberships at your auto club, even a warehouse or wholesale club. Your credit card may also offer perks.
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