Renting a car this summer? Things are getting better, but it could still be dicey
“Sean, did you book the rental car yet?”
It’s a question my wife knows to ask me, since I have, historically, had a habit of booking almost every aspect of our trip far in advance — flights, hotels, entertainment — but leaving the rental car until the last minute.
I’m apparently not alone, and industry experts tell TPG breaking that habit is among the best things you can do right now. That's because rental car companies are preparing for a summer onslaught of travelers even as they still try to climb out of a car shortage that’s plagued the industry since travel began bouncing back from the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are some of the issues travelers may still face if they need to rent a car this summer.
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TPG has reported on the rental car shortage for many months now. Rental car companies sold off cars when demand dipped by as much as 80% in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As travel has returned, though, the companies have not been able to replace cars at a fast enough rate because of problems with the global supply chain. Shortages of key parts like microchips have slowed new car production across the board, and the rental industry has been particularly affected.
A spokesperson for Enterprise Holdings, which includes rental car brands Enterprise, Alamo and National, told TPG the global chip shortage continues to be a “key challenge” when it comes to new car availability but the company remains "optimistic."
Related: What it’s like to rent a car in 2022
There's still concern among industry leaders, though.
“It’s a challenging time and a tough time out there,” Greg Scott, spokesperson for the American Car Rental Association, told TPG Monday.
Scott recalled a recent situation where he was not able to find a rental car at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
“We’re trying just about everything we can do to increase these numbers,” he said. While there has been moderate improvement, Scott said, “There is just not as many cars in the rental pool as we would like” given a resurgence in both leisure and now business travel.
Reserving a car, only to find none available when you arrive
Is it possible, with the shortage, you could reserve a car online, only to get to the rental car facility to find no cars available?
Scott said that’s the “last thing” the car companies want — and it’s not entirely out of the question given the current situation. That's because when companies have fewer cars, there’s less flexibility at a single location if a few customers return vehicles late or a couple of vehicles have to go out of service because of mechanical issues.
“The cushion that was there in 2019 is no longer there,” he said.
Related: Ways to save on rental cars
Preparing for your travel
Both Scott and the rental car company representatives that TPG spoke with encouraged travelers to book a rental car as early as possible.
Enterprise called this “critical,” and Hertz said customers should book their car right as they book their other travel arrangements.
A Hertz spokesperson also recommended customers check neighborhood car rental locations, “which may have more availability when airport volumes are high.” The company has thousands of non-airport locations nationwide.
Speaking from experience, I’ve found neighborhood rental car facilities to be low-stress, with short waits — and they are often located very close to your home or hotel.
Scott pointed out that reserving your car early doesn’t just lock in your reservation. It also gives the rental companies an early heads up on where demand is going to be high so they can move cars to the area. That means more of a cushion if cars break down.
A Hertz representative told TPG it’s consistently moving vehicles to areas with the highest demand, which Scott said was a best practice across the industry.
“We’re asking our customers to help us … by trying to get out in front of their reservation as early as possible, and give us a signal where we have to get these cars,” he said. “And we’ll try to get them there.”
It’s also a good idea to join the loyalty program for the car rental company you’re using and look at the options the companies have (often free of charge) that allow you to manage your reservation from your phone or even skip the line and counter when you go to pick up your car.
While rental car companies work to improve the inventory problems that have plagued the industry during the pandemic, Scott said it’s clear this will continue to be an issue through 2022, and particularly over the summer, given the supply chain problems.
To give yourself the best chance at avoiding unpleasant surprises when you try to reserve or pick up a car, book it early. Also, tap into whatever free loyalty benefits the car companies are offering and keep neighborhood locations in mind if something goes wrong and you need to look elsewhere for a car.