From sold out to $700+ daily rates, where the car rental shortage is worse than you think
By now, you've probably heard that we're now living through a car rental apocalypse.
There have been numerous stories about the shortage of cars, high rates, long pick-up lines and not honored reservations. And all of that is still true -- but now that we are heading into the heart of the summer travel season, it may actually be worse than you thought.
There are multiple cities and destinations across the country that have absolutely no available cars for rent for most of the summer. This includes some cities in Montana, Alaska and Hawaii.
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Then there are the locations where you can still get a car, but it is going to cost more than $300 per day -- plus taxes and fees, of course. And that's not the price for a luxury model or SUV, that's the price to (hopefully) secure a very ordinary compact or midsize type of rental car.
On the days when a car is available in Florida Panhandle cities such as Panama City, Pensacola and Fort Walton, going summer rates are $329 per day and higher. If you want to rent in Maui and can find availability, you are likely to face these same crazy prices for a basic car and up to $742 per day if you need a minivan.
But $742 per day for a Maui rental is a bargain compared to this $67,000 Honolulu daily rental price tag shown to TPG. Presumably, that's just a pricing error, but this is the summer where some actual car rental prices also look like they must be a bad joke.
Here's where you are most likely to have problems with rental cars.
Where rental cars are sold out
The rental car apocalypse is not hitting every location equally.
While it may cost more than you're accustomed to or there might be long pick-up lines, car rentals are still generally available in places such as Orlando, Miami, Denver, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Palm Springs and beyond.
However, if you want to rent a car in Alaska this summer to take advantage of exploring the vast frontier without cruise ship passengers, you may not find anything at all available in the next couple of months.
Fairbanks in particular goes from being virtually 100% sold out for the summer to having a plethora of availability at just $30 per day if you rent after Labor Day. The situation in Anchorage is not much better. TPGs Clint Henderson tried to rent a car on multiple dates in June and July in Anchorage to no avail. Literally, every rental car company shows "sold out," on many dates.
The ongoing Hawaiian pre-travel testing rules have not stopped visitors from heading from the mainland to Hawaii, to the point that car rentals are scarce and expensive.
The Hawaiian locations that are experiencing the most sold-out dates in our tests are Kauai and Kona, especially over the summer months. On the Big Island, if you can rent from Hilo rather than Kona, you may have better luck securing some availability.
Rental cars are also scarce on Maui, and when they are available, rates are extremely high. You can still find cars via car-renting app Turo, but you'll pay at least $160 a day and that doesn't include insurance.
A quick check of prices for Kauai, when you can find a car with Turo, even a basic Hyundai is going for $300 a day. Take a look at what that Jeep will cost you -- $750 a day.
Related: How to rent a hybrid or electric car
Montana, Idaho and Wyoming
Having just personally returned an SUV to Glacier International Airport in Kalispell, Montana, I can say there are indeed rows of dirty, returned rental cars that were just sitting in the parking lot.
However, that visible supply doesn't necessarily translate to the ability to meet rental demand. If you are just now starting to plan and want to book a car this summer at this or other similar near-national park locations in Idaho, Montana or Wyoming, it's going to be tough.
If you haven't yet secured your rental car booking, you may run into multiple completely sold-out dates this summer at Glacier International Airport in Montana, Bozeman, MT; Missoula, MT; Cody, WY; Jackson, WY; and Boise, ID.
Related: Guide to visiting Glacier National Park
Those looking for a Caribbean-style trip without dealing with passport issues or U.S. re-entry testing are seeking out the U.S. Virgin Islands and St. Thomas in large numbers. The result is multiple sold-out dates this summer if you are hoping to rent a car to explore the island.
This trend of the most frequently sold-out locations was found in my searches, as well as in a list of commonly sold-out airports provided by AutoSlash, a company that can track your car rental price to help find better deals.
Where cars are $200 per day or more
While not an exhaustive list, the spots above are the ones where we have most frequently seen no cars available for rent, at least on certain summer dates.
But there are plenty more spots where availability is still limited and rates are sky-high.
Car rentals in Maui are in short supply, but we often found them to be available with prices starting at around $300 per day. Sixt wants an astonishing $742 per day for a minivan rental in July.
Most days this summer you can still potentially find a car for rent in the Florida Panhandle across popular beach destinations along the stretch of Gulf-facing cities such as Pensacola, Fort Walton, Destin, 30A and Panama City but it will come with a massive price.
In late-July and early-August, a compact car rental from Budget will cost you $329 plus tax daily in Panama City, FL.
If you want an SUV rental in Pensacola, on the dates one is available this summer, it may run $450 - $700 -- daily.
Those looking to explore Acadia National Park and the northeast can still book a car for many summer dates starting the journey in Portland, Maine. However, the common starting price for a basic vehicle this summer is around $199 per day.
On the opposite side of the Big Island than Kona, where cars are in extremely short supply, you can often still book a rental in Hilo. Compared to Maui, prices are a bit less extreme but still usually in the $100 to sometimes over $200 daily range.
Even 'normal' places aren't fully spared
On many days we checked this summer in spots such as Orlando, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Miami, there are still cars bookable for less than $100 per day. However, you may still be greeted by long pick-up lines and cars that aren't always as clean or well maintained as you'd hoped.
In other common car rental spots, like Denver, cars are available but are pricing close to $100 per day more than what you might expect for summer travel dates. Whereas in 2019 a basic car might have rented for $50 per day, it is now commonly pricing at $150 per day or more. That might not be a vacation ruiner in the same way as when no cars are available, but over the course of several days, that makes the vacation much more expensive.
What can you do?
The truth is there are limited things you can do when face truly sold-out results or sky-high prices. Until things calm down, it may not be possible to plan a feasible trip to some locations this summer where there just aren't any more rental cars to be had.
However, there are a few things you can try before throwing in the towel.
First, if you have legitimate access to any discount codes via associations, your job, credit cards, etc. give those codes a try. I am a USAA member and have been saving almost 50% on some Hertz rentals using that code. Speaking of memberships, you absolutely want to use your car rental membership to avoid the pick-up lines whenever you can.
You can also turn to Autoslash to have that service track your car rental and see if it can find a better price.
Or, consider altering your trip a bit and picking a rental car up in one area where you can still secure a rental and turning it into another city as a one-way rental. This is likely a more expensive type of rental, but this is how we recently explored Montana by picking up the car in Jackson, Wyoming for a one-way rental.
Here are additional ways to try and save money on car rentals.
If traditional, major car rental companies aren't returning options that will work, you can also explore using Silvercar, Turo or even asking local dealerships if they might have cars available for rent.
Should all of that fail, perhaps see if you could travel this fall instead. Currently, car rentals look much less extreme in most locations starting in September after Labor Day, likely when travel demand drops off a bit. That's also when some of these high-demand locations in Montana, Wyoming and Alaska make a pretty abrupt shift from the dog days of summer to the return of some snowfall.
Since you can usually cancel a car rental without penalty, now really is the time to lock in those fall, winter and even spring break car rentals in case the shortage continues.
Related: Best credit cards for car rental coverage
I work in travel writing and know things are bad when it comes to rental cars. But even knowing that, I was still shocked when I already couldn't book a reservation six weeks from now in the Florida Panhandle with my preferred rental companies. And while I could still find a car rental if I was willing to book with other companies, it was legitimately going to cost about $400 per day all-in for a Toyota Corolla type of vehicle.
At that price, I'm simply not a buyer.
I'd rather drive my own car from home and make it a road trip than blow thousands of dollars in a week for a mediocre rental car. Even if you knew it was bad, depending on where you want to go, the car rental situation may actually be worse than you thought.