With car rentals impossible to find, travelers are resorting to U-Hauls for their vacation

May 5, 2021

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Linda Salamone is a spontaneous traveler prone to set off on a trip when the fancy strikes.

So, purchasing a last-minute flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Orlando (MCO) in late April to check out an annual hang-gliding competition in Groveland, Florida — a trip the paraglider pilot planned to make with friends who also fly — was nothing out of the ordinary. What was unusual, however, were the rental car rates Salamone found when she went to browse prices online for her three-night trip.

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She went to look at cars and they cost approximately $120 per day. “I was like, ‘woah,'” she said.

She immediately phoned a friend with a talent for solving travel snafus for advice, but they came up short. A solution, however, came to her when she was out for a walk.

“I thought, I’ll just get a U-Haul van,” said Salamone.

(Photo courtesy of Linda Salamone for The Points Guy)

Salamone told TPG she found a cargo van from a U-Haul pickup site near the Orlando airport for $19.95 a day, plus an additional $10 in mileage charges over the course of her trip.

The entire rental cost her under $100 — and saved her far more since she could forgo a hotel and sleep in the van during the event thanks to friends in Florida who had an air mattress and pillows to spare. Salamone said they even bought her a magnetic screen from ACE Hardware to keep mosquitoes at bay.

(Photo courtesy of Linda Salamone for The Points Guy)

Of course, the U-Haul rental experience wasn’t without its own hiccups.

A delayed flight meant Salamone landed late in the evening at the Orlando airport, so nobody was working at the off-site U-Haul office when she arrived. Additionally, the U-Haul app wasn’t working for her to pick up the van.

But even though she didn’t get access to the U-Haul until the next day, Salamone told TPG she still considers the experience a success.

“It was clean and it was super comfortable,” she said about the van. “For less than $100, I had a hotel and car for my trip.”

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

Car rental prices are soaring

With travel rebounding for many domestic and even some international destinations, pinched car rental inventory and spiking prices are making it difficult — and expensive — to find a rental car right now. Travelers everywhere have taken to calling the current situation carmageddon (among other … more creative terms).

A late April search on Orbitz for car rentals in the Florida cities of Tampa and Key West showed prices around $500 per week for May dates. In Honolulu, car rentals were priced over $1,000 per week during the same dates. CNN recently reported car rental rates in Maui totaling an obscene $722 per day.

While not all parts of the country are grappling with this problem (for example, car rentals in Aspen, Colorado, were priced around $250 per week on Orbitz for the same week in early May), travelers should be aware that renting a car right now might come with sticker shock — if you’re even able to get a vehicle at all.

Related: This is why renting a car is tough in 2021

Travelers are finding creative workarounds

Salamone isn’t the only traveler turning to unorthodox methods for securing ground transportation.

U-Haul

Andrew Lock of the Travel Pro Show says he also defaulted to renting a U-Haul when he found Las Vegas car rentals skyrocketing for his mid-April trip from London. Lock, who rents a car about once a month on his travels and usually books directly through Hertz, told TPG he has a pretty good handle on what prices typically are in Las Vegas for car rentals.

“It’s usually about $40 per day, but I was seeing rates of around $150 per day, even on sites like AutoSlash and Costco,” he said, referencing aggregator sites known for good rates.

Faced with that high of a price tag, he turned to U-Haul in the hopes that it would be cheaper. Lock did the math of how many miles he’d need to drive around Las Vegas during his five-day work trip (about 100 miles) and tacked on U-Haul’s $40 insurance, too. He told TPG it was a no-brainer to rent the U-Haul rather than a traditional rental car.

“For what it would have cost me for one day’s rental, I got the U-Haul for the entire time.”

(Photo courtesy of The Travel Pro Show for The Points Guy)

He chose a cargo van, one of the smallest rental options from U-Haul. According to Lock, the U-Haul van was comparable to driving a large SUV — including parking. But Lock did caution fellow travelers to confirm what you’re getting with U-Haul when you book so you don’t risk getting upgraded to something far larger if there’s no inventory.

Turo

Turo — a carshare service that’s been referred to as the “Airbnb of rental cars” — is another alternative to traditional rental car companies that’s become popular in light of the recent car rental issues.

With inventory in every U.S. market as well as Canada and the United Kingdom, the Turo app acts as an online marketplace where car owners can rent their personal cars to people who need them. Prices are often far cheaper than what you’ll find through a rental car company — a recent search showed rates at $23 per day for a Fiat in Los Angeles and $30 per day for a Prius in Maui, Hawaii.

Related: How I saved nearly $250 on a one-day car rental by taking a $110 Uber ride

Truck rentals from Home Depot

Turo is also susceptible to inventory shortages, however, which is what happened to Cindy Rich from Orem, Utah, during an April trip to Orlando.

She and her husband changed their flights last minute to arrive a day earlier. They went to rebook the car reservation they’d made weeks earlier with Thrifty, but there was no availability. They turned to Turo as their backup plan, but Rich said there were no cars available through the app, either.

“My husband had the brilliant idea to rent a Home Depot truck,” said Rich, adding that he’d done it on a previous trip to Colorado. The couple hailed a ride to the nearest Home Depot and got the last rental truck in stock — a Ford 250 flatbed utility truck — for $130 a day.

Rich told TPG it saved the day since they didn’t have any other options.

“But I can’t imagine what we would have done if my toddler daughter was with us. The Home Depot trucks are not car-seat friendly.”

Travelers were lined up for car rentals at MCO. (Photo courtesy of Cindy Rich for The Points Guy)

Tips for avoiding overpriced rental cars

If you’re planning an upcoming trip that requires a car rental and find prices too high for your budget, here are a few tips and tricks to help you find an alternative:

1. Home repair companies such as Home Depot and Lowes often rent pickup trucks that might be a cheaper option than rental cars in some markets. Keep in mind, however, that these trucks may not be family-friendly if you’re traveling with small children who need car seats.

2. If you’re seeing high rates for specific rental dates, try extending your booking window for a longer trip to see if it brings down the daily price, advised Lock. Often, car rental companies will let you return a car earlier than you have booked for with no penalty — and in some cases, they may even refund the unrented days.

3. Be sure to check car rental rates closer to your trip, too, as they might drop as the actual travel dates approach.

4. For trips between Florida and the Washington, D.C. area, look into Amtrak’s Auto Train to see if it might be a better deal to bring your own vehicle with you. The daily service travels nearly 900 miles (17.5 hours) along the East Coast between the Washington, D.C., and Orlando areas.

5. Check car dealers such as Nissan and Toyota that offer “try before your buy” weekends or rental car offers. This is another option that might be cheaper than traditional rental companies right now.

6. Finally, check aggregators like Costco and AutoSlash for deals. Make sure to tap your AAA and AARP memberships, too.

Planning a road trip in 2021? TPG’s got you covered with tips, tricks and advice

Featured image by alexfan32/Shutterstock. 

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