Can’t find a car rental? Here are 7 secrets that may help

Apr 23, 2021

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

If you’ve heard about the ‘car rental apocalypse’ and filed it under media hype that doesn’t actually happen very often, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise at the car rental counter this summer.

Take TPG lounge member Lindsey Jensen who needed a rental car while visiting Phoenix. She had heard about the car rental shortage plaguing the country, so she booked early and called the rental car company not once, but three times before her pickup date to ensure that a car would be available for her.

Unfortunately, on the day of the scheduled pickup, she received a call from the car rental company saying no cars were available. She would be placed on a waiting list to receive one as they came in, but that was the best they had to offer. However, Jensen needed a car urgently, so she immediately checked other nearby rental car companies but still struck out.

Thinking outside the box, she inquired about renting a U-Haul, but they had no availability for several hours later. She also didn’t have any luck with Zipcar or Turo unless she wanted to pay $700 per day. Uber and Lyft were also unrealistic for her needs.

Her ultimate course of action was to physically wait at the rental car counter for several hours until a car was available.

Jensen’s story is unfortunate — but it’s not rare. If you’ve been paying attention to the current state of the car rental industry in the U.S., it should come as no surprise that finding one at your nearest airport or city can be a complicated ordeal.

For more TPG travel news and tips delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our free daily newsletter.

In This Post

What’s going on with car rentals

At the start of the pandemic and throughout 2020, travel demand took an abrupt hit and many rental car companies fell on hard financial times. This caused these companies to sell off a large portion of their fleet and put a halt on ordering more vehicles. And now that travel is on an upswing again, rental car companies are struggling to adapt to this newfound travel resurgence.

We recently posed a question to our TPG Lounge members, asking to hear about their experiences attempting to rent a car when supply is dire and demand has soared. Here’s a look at some of their comments.

Carol Collinson Kiley says she “booked an intermediate SUV on the company’s website. On my way to pick it up, they called me and said no cars were available. I called my local Ford dealer and did a one-day rental, cheaper than my would-have-been rental car.”

Becky Blackett told us, “I just spent a week in St. Petersburg, Fla., and rented a cargo van for $151 per day. Car rates were $450+, so I figured why not? Glad I did.”

Jeremy Miller said, “I have President’s Circle elite status with Hertz. Booked to pick up on a Friday evening in Tampa last month. No cars at all in the preferred lot. The regular line was hours long. Gave up and went to another car rental company.”

Even our own TPG Weekend Editor Jane Frye had to get creative to score a rental car by taking a 70+ mile Uber ride in order to save hundreds of dollars on a rental as rates were astronomical near her.

While there is no guaranteed solution to this problem of limited cars and increased demand, there are some things you can do to increase the odds you’ll have something to drive the next time you need to rent a car.

Book early

Book your car rental as far in advance as possible.

While how early you book may not matter, if when you arrive at the counter, there are no cars available, securing a reservation will almost certainly increase your likelihood of driving away with a car compared to walk-up customers. You can also lock in your rate before they go higher — and you can often rebook without penalty if rates go lower.

It doesn’t hurt to call the rental car company before you arrive and check on the status of your reservation.

Also, you can use AutoSlash to track and monitor your reservation for a price drop and automatically rebook you at the lower rate. That way, when you actually pickup your rental car, you’ll be glad you saved some money in the process.

Autoslash tracks your car rental for a price drop (Screenshot by Juan Ruiz/The Points Guy)

Use your car rental membership status

Even before the current car rental shortage, having membership in a car rental program can save you an hour or more in line at some popular pick-up locations. Now, that hour head start over others in line may make or break your chances of picking up a car. You don’t even need any specific elite status to be able to skip the rental car counter and pick between remaining car rentals in your eligible aisle with programs such as Alamo Insiders and Budget Fastbreak.

If you have elite status with a car rental program, that could help. There are credit cards that confer automatic elite status with rental car programs.

Rental-car elite status doesn’t guarantee you a car upon arrival if vehicle inventory is deserted at pickup. But it can help. Rental car companies have special lines (shorter) and preferred lots for elite members which can help improve your chances of securing a rental car.

Check for off-airport locations

Thrifty car rental storefront with two cars outside
Off-airport car rental facilities sometimes have more car inventory available (Photo by Barry Barnes/Shutterstock)

 

Booking a rental car for pick-up at an airport location is usually the easiest solution. Get off the plane, take a quick shuttle and voila, you’re at the rental counter.

But while airport locations are convenient, they are also very popular with travelers and may sell out of cars faster than off-airport rental car locations. A good option to explore if you are having trouble finding affordable or available cars at the airport location is to check other locations in that town. They may have more limited hours, but they also often have lower fees, so you may save a few bucks, assuming the transportation from the airport to the off-airport location doesn’t set you back too much.

Related: How to never pay full price for a rental car

Try a local car dealership

So far, we’ve walked through some of the easy solutions. But what if you tried all that and you’re still stuck with no car?

Some car dealers rent vehicles to the general public (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

 

As our TPG Lounger Carol Collinson Kiley did, if you’re stuck without a car, you can try and rent one through a local car dealer. Although not all car dealers offer rentals to the general public, I can confirm that Toyota, Nissan and Ford have dealerships in South Florida and around the country where you can rent a car right off the lot.

To book a rental car with a dealer, you’ll either have to call the dealer directly or some even offer online reservations, taking the hassle out of coordinating by phone. With this approach to obtaining a rental car, you may be able to test-drive your future car while securing transportation at the same time.

Check Silvercar

You could technically file this one under check for car rentals at car dealerships, but Silvercar is worth its own call-out as they make the process pretty simple online.

While Silvercar used to be available at airport locations, it has moved to a model where rentals are operated out of a network of over 30 Audi dealerships around the country in cities such as Denver, Houston, Miami, NYC, Orange County, Las Vegas and many more. Prices vary but can start around $50 – $60 per day for an Audi A4 and go up from there on higher demand days or for larger vehicles.

There are options to have your Audi delivered and picked up for an additional fee. If you have a Visa Infinite card, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can use code VISAINF20 to save 20% on eligible rentals.

Audi Silvercar Rental (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

Consider ride-sharing services

Sometimes there’s no way around it — you need an actual rental car. But if there simply aren’t any, or if your plans don’t really require moving around much, consider hailing a ride-sharing service to get you from point A to point B. You can split the cost of transportation with your travel partners, if you have some, and not worry about paying extravagant rental car rates.

A ride-sharing service is a viable option if you won’t be driving long distances (Photo courtesy of Lyft)

 

Related: Best cards for Lyft and Uber 

You may also consider hiring an airport shuttle or checking with your hotel to see if they offer airport pickup. Or, if you’re staying at an Airbnb, check with your host to see if they have any transportation recommendations. And who knows, they might even have a car you can borrow or offer to pick you up.

Alternative transportation options

Some who have struggled to find an adequate rental also tried reserving a car through Turo — the popular car-sharing service — but last-minute rates were obscenely high in the $700’s per day. Still, it may be worthwhile to check Turo availability and pricing before arrival at your destination.

Another transportation alternative that may seem unusual but turn out to be a lifesaver for you is renting a U-Haul, as recommended by The Frequent Miler. U-Haul carries pickup trucks and cargo vans in its fleet so don’t dismiss this option as a last resort.

U-Haul offers pickup trucks and cargo vans for rent (Screenshot courtesy of UHaul)

 

With rates starting at $19.99 per day (plus the cost per mile), a U-haul truck rental could be helpful when you find yourself in a jam at the rental car counter.

Don’t forget that you can also book a rental car through Lyft and oftentimes, their prices are comparable to traditional car rental companies.

Bottom line

With travel emerging from the pandemic rubble, a shortage of car rentals, and spiking demand, renting a car is proving to be an expensive and challenging quest in popular leisure locations. Hopefully, your next car rental will be as uneventful as a beige mid-sized sedan, but if it isn’t, keep this list of tricks in your back pocket.

Featured image by Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,650

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Plus earn up to $50 in statement credits towards grocery store purchases within your first year of account opening.
  • Earn 2X points on dining including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out and travel. Plus, earn 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
  • With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories.
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on eligible orders over $12 for a minimum of one year with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.
  • Get up to $60 back on an eligible Peloton Digital or All-Access Membership through 12/31/2021, and get full access to their workout library through the Peloton app, including cardio, running, strength, yoga, and more. Take classes using a phone, tablet, or TV. No fitness equipment is required.
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.