It's summer, which means road trips are in season – but this year's drives will look a little different (and no, we're not talking about the pandemic). Gas prices across much of the U.S. are rising and rental cars can be hard to find – not to mention expensive. We're in what Scott Keyes from Scott's Cheap Flights calls a "carpocalypse."
"Historically, flights were expensive and arduous for travelers [to book] and the car rental was the thing you could put off to the last minute. Now, the situation is largely reversed, where flights are cheap and plentiful and car rentals in a lot of places are unlike anything we've ever seen before," Keyes told Travel + Leisure.
Here's what happened: During the onset of the pandemic, rental car bookings dropped, leaving companies to scramble. To stay afloat, "they took hundreds and thousands of cars and sold them off on the used car market," explained Keyes. This summer, with travel – at least domestic trips – back and as busy as ever, rental car companies are trying to replenish their fleets, but the lack of vehicles is leading to increased demand and higher prices.
Historically, you could expect to pay approximately $50 per day for a car rental, Keyes said, but a recent search he conducted showed $373 a day for the cheapest vehicles on Maui.
To help you navigate the "carpocalypse" and avoid paying $373 a day for a vehicle, we chatted with Keyes and Hopper economist Adit Damodaran to get some insider tips on how to save on car rentals this summer.
Reserve a car as early as you can.
The days of waiting until the week before your trip to book a car rental are gone (at least this summer). As soon as you know you'll need a car (or might need a car), book it. With low inventory and high prices, this will not only help you get a deal, but also get a car. "We advise travelers to book a car early, at the same time as their flights, to ensure they can lock in a car for their trip," Damodaran told T+L.
Keep an eye on off-airport rental locations.
Sure, it's easy to pick up a rental car right at the airport, but that's also where you'll find the highest prices. "Almost always, there are dozens of other rental locations within five miles of the airport where you can find a car for much cheaper," said Keyes. That could mean "saving $150 to take a five-minute taxi ride to a nearby rental location."
You may also want to consider renting a car at a less popular nearby airport. "Many of the larger international airports are seeing a high demand for car rentals. We recommend checking smaller nearby airports that may have inventory available near your destination. For instance, check out Fort Lauderdale Airport rather than Miami International," said Damodaran.
Check prices on Costco Travel.
Travel likely doesn't come to mind when you think of Costco, but your perspective might change after peeking at their rental car rates. "I've found that while there's no single place that's always cheapest for flights or hotels, with car rentals, there's generally one site that's [consistently] the cheapest – and that's Costco Travel," said Keyes. The Costco booking system searches through the main players (Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Alamo), provides lower rates, and may offer certain perks (like a free additional driver and cancellation).
If you’re under 25, check prices on Hopper.
Typically, if you're under 25 years old, you have to pay even more to rent a car. If your age is making your car rental price jump, try booking through Hopper or Kayak. Damodaran said, "If you're under 25, you can book most deals through Hopper without any penalty charges."
Book now, cancel later.
The great thing about rental cars is that you can cancel them (within a period of time) without penalty. With sky-high rental rates, you might want to book now knowing full well that you may have to change your dates or cancel the rental entirely later on. This is one rule Keyes swears by. "One of the big benefits of car rentals is that they're generally free to cancel. You can be more speculative and lock things in early on," he said.
Check for price drops on AutoSlash.
Thanks to rental car companies' flexible cancellation, you can also keep an eye on rates and cancel your booking if you find a better deal. Keyes relies on AutoSlash to track his reservation and notify him if prices drop. "Say you reserved [a car] for $100 a day. If the rental prices in that agency drop to $80 a day, you'll get an email and you can cancel the $100 reservation and book the $80 a day option instead," he said.
Consider booking through Turo.
"Turo is the Airbnb of the car rental world, where you can rent cars directly from people who have [them] in your destination," explained Keyes. Here's how it works: Like Airbnb, people rent out their cars to travelers in need of a vehicle. The cars and their owners are rated by previous users, so you have an idea of what to expect. The best part? The rental prices are typically much lower than what you'll find at traditional rental car companies.
Look for car rentals at dealerships.
Yes, you read that right: Car dealerships often have car rentals. "Dealerships are an unpublicized source of car rentals. They usually have a fleet of cars that they quietly rent out – it's not super well known," said Keyes, noting that these rentals are often offered at a flat rate.
If you’re desperate, rent a moving truck.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. If you must have a rental car and none are available, take a cue from the tourists in Hawaii who made headlines for renting U-Hauls to get around. "That's one of those creative solutions that I never would have thought about," said Keyes. "Flat rate prices, and they can be an alternative if you just need four wheels to get you around on vacation."
See if you can skip paying for rental car insurance.
Before you hop in your rental car, the agent will typically lay out a series of insurance offerings: liability, collision damage waiver, personal accident, and personal effects. According to WalletHub, rental car insurance costs around $61 a day, on average, in addition to what you're already paying for the vehicle.
But what many people don't know is that you might already be covered between your personal car insurance, health insurance, and credit card benefits. Keyes said that you'll want to make sure you're familiar with what's covered, but doing the research ahead of time could save you big at the rental counter.
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