Most travelers start vacation planning by scouring the internet for a great flight deal. Then, it’s time to scout out hotels. Booking the rental car is a boring afterthought.
But in 2021, you need to consider completely flipping the order of operations in which you book your next trip.
Among the many travel industry changes surrounding coronavirus is a seemingly bizarre one: Now, you may need to book your rental car before — or at least in tandem with — booking your flight.
The wild case of Glacier National Park
Some experts caution that we’re on the precipice of a “rental car apocalypse,” citing examples of extreme pricing and sold-out cars. Whether or not apocalypse is a bit of hyperbole depends both on whom you ask and what city you’re renting a car in (and for what it’s worth, many car rental companies have plenty of availability). But on the whole, rental cars are generally in far higher demand than they were in 2019. What’s more, there are many cases where there’s simply not enough supply to keep up.
Consider this: NerdWallet conducted a search in April 2021 for rental cars at each of Glacier Park International Airport’s seven rental car companies and found zero availability for car rentals in July and August 2021. Good luck getting a taxi to drive you from the airport to 6,600 feet above sea level at the top of Logan Pass.
» Learn more: The best travel credit cards right now
What caused the 2021 rental car shortage?
It’s no secret that demand is up in 2021 as many travelers take what might be their first vacation since the start of the pandemic.
But high demand isn’t the only factor at play. Due to a global semiconductor shortage that’s impeding the production of not just cars, but phones, refrigerators and other electronics, there’s also lower-than-usual supply.
And with that, the automotive industry experienced a domino effect that led to higher prices.
» Learn more: Rental car insurance explained
Why a car rental should be one of the first things you book
The Glacier Park example is certainly extreme, but it illustrates how an insanely cheap flight deal is meaningless when rental car prices are massively inflated, or worse, sold out completely.
“Don’t do what you did in the past, which is plan a trip, book your airfare and hotel, and then book a rental car,” CEO and founder of car rental site AutoSlash Jonathan Weinberg tells NerdWallet. “Turn that strategy on its head this year. Check that the rental car is available and affordable first.”
Rental car demand has gone up
Airline and hotel prices dropped during the pandemic, and they’re only slowly creeping back up.
Rental cars never had the massive price drop that airfare and hotel room rates did, likely because while interest in air travel dropped, interest in road trips increased.
A national survey conducted by Cars.com of 1,000 Americans found that just about 25% of spring break travelers had planned to fly this year, compared with 38% of spring breakers who flew in 2019. Meanwhile, about 70% of spring break travelers in 2021 intended to drive to their destinations, up from 57% in 2019.
There’s typically no deposit required for a car rental
Unlike most airfares, theater tickets and tour bookings, rental cars are one of the few aspects of travel that typically don’t require an upfront payment. Most rental car companies require you to pay only when you pick up the car.
“You don’t really need to have any skin in the game,” Weinberg says. “There’s almost no reason not to reserve a car rental.”
» Learn more: Best credit cards for rental cars
What to do when rental cars are sold out
Just because you can’t rent a car at Glacier Park International Airport this summer doesn’t mean you can’t vacation there. Here’s how you can still make your trip happen, even if rental cars are sold out:
Plan an alternative route
It would seem most logical to fly to Glacier Park International Airport, located just 24 miles from the park’s entrance, but you could get creative and fly elsewhere. Both Missoula Montana Airport and Great Falls International Airport are about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the entrance.
Not only will you more likely find an available rental car at those airports, but you also might find better flight options, too.
Play with reservations
A rental car might be booked for the first week of July, but could be available the next. If airfare is the same price for either week, then that’s a pretty clear indicator of what week you should opt to travel.
Weinberg also recommends another hack: Reserving a rental car for longer than you actually need it.
“Why would rental car companies rent to someone who only wants it for three days when they can rent to someone else willing to rent it for six days?” he says. Rental car companies might not show cars as available to people trying to book short trips, even if there are cars on the lot.
If you’re desperate and don’t mind paying extra for days you don’t need a car, then paying for a longer rental could be better than having no wheels at all. And sometimes, rental companies will even give you a credit for returning the car early, Weinberg says.
Check rental car locations beyond just the airport
Rental car companies are commonly attached to airports, but don’t overlook rental locations attached to hotels or elsewhere in the city. The airport location could be sold out, but other nearby locations may have cars available. In that case, you might be able to take the free hotel shuttle or a taxi from the airport to the offsite location. Even with the cab fare, you might save money if the offsite locations are cheaper.
Look to rental car alternatives like Turo and Getaround
Traditional car rental companies might be sold out, but check out your options at peer-to-peer car rental platforms like Turo or Getaround. These services tend to operate like short-term vacation rentals for cars, where local owners post their own cars up for rent.
While Getaround hasn’t made it to the areas around Glacier National Park quite yet, there are Turo rentals available this summer.
» Learn more: Credit cards that give you elite car rental perks
The bottom line
This year, invert the way you plan your trip to account for increased rental car demand. You don’t want to procrastinate on booking a rental car only to find out that cars are sold out after you’ve already booked the flight.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card