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In the classic travel movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” an airport shuttle leaves Steve Martin in a distant parking lot only to find the car he rented isn’t there. He spends the next few days trying to get home by any means possible.
Scenes like that are being played out this summer across the country. In some places, no rental cars are available at any price. In others, an economy-size rental may cost more than the airline ticket that got you across the country.
While some people want no part of the craziness and have postponed their travel plans, others find creative ways to secure wheels or at least get to their destination.
The best tip of all: Book your rental car before you do anything else.
The rental car drought
There’s a shortage of rental cars because there’s a shortage of new cars because there’s a shortage of the microchips used to control everything from entertainment systems to safety equipment.
That domino effect is slowly reversing, allowing rental car companies to rebuild their fleets to meet an ongoing travel surge. For example, as travel ground to a halt in 2020, Hertz sought bankruptcy protection and sold off hundreds of thousands of cars. It emerged from bankruptcy in June and is adding cars to its inventory to cope with the boom, according to a company spokesperson.
Mismatches between supply and demand are still common. Need a minivan for a Labor Day weekend getaway? Using the search engine Kayak.com to assess availability, that four-day rental in Las Vegas would cost at least $441; in Portland, Oregon, $1,029; and in Anchorage, Alaska, you would be out of luck at any price.
Think outside the airport rental counter
Here’s a look at other ways to get where you need to go — some of which might show up in online travel booking sites alongside Dollar, Budget and Enterprise, some that rely on others to do the driving. Consider these rental car alternatives:
Turo is a peer-to-peer rental car website where people share their private cars. In some cases, you can arrange to have the Turo car left at the airport and unlock it with an app. But keep in mind that many of these cars are older and others may limit the number of miles you can drive.
Getaround is similar to Turo, but it lets you rent a car by the hour. For example, the cost to use a 2019 Honda Civic for three hours in Southern California was around $30.
Zipcar requires a small membership fee, then charges hourly or daily rates. The cars are stored in city lots or on college campuses. You unlock the car with an app.
U-Haul is known for trailers and trucks but, in a pinch, these vehicles can still provide basic transportation. For example, in Southern California, a 9-foot cargo van weekly rental charge is about $300 and includes 300 miles of driving, according to the U-Haul site. But, if you’re driving to a wedding, make sure the happy couple is OK with you arriving in a work van. You may find similar commercial vehicles available through Budget, Penske or other moving truck providers.
Taxis and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft are great for short hops. Rather than spending a grand for a week’s rental, you can be driven by someone else for a lot less.
Want more legroom and a driver wearing a tie? These are just two of the advantages of a limousine service. And, while it will cost more than an Uber, you can carry more people and split the extra cost.
Take the bus or other public transportation. Here’s how. In some cities, trains, subways and buses are surprisingly efficient. If you go this route, buying a daily or weekly pass will save you money and allow you to get on and off at will.
If you’re in the market for a car at home, buy one at your destination and use it for your vacation. Then, sell it, drive it back or have it shipped home.
If you’re within a reasonable range, consider driving your own car. Yes, it’s faster to fly. But if you’ll need a car and can’t find a rental, it may make sense. Maybe you’ll discover something amazing along the way.
If you must rent a car
If you do decide to go the rental car route, here are a few ways to keep the price down.
Check out a neighborhood rental lot. Airport facility fees and taxes won’t apply, and they can be hefty. Try calling the location directly if no availability shows online.
Book for a week. Often, there is a discount for a weekly rental. In some cases, if you return it early, you'll get a refund of the difference.
Prepay. Depending on the vendor you may save as much as 35%.
Use the right credit card. If you’re going to pay a small fortune, use a credit card that gives you something back, either with reward points or perks such as primary insurance coverage.
Use your preferred status as a frequent renter. It may get you to the front of the line faster, and at the highest levels, may actually guarantee you a car.