Good luck finding a cheap rental car. A shortage is driving up prices

Cars are parked in the Sixt Rent a Car parking lot at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday, April 16, 2021. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)
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Ron Hurtibise South Florida Sun Sentinel (TNS)

It’s not only tourists finding themselves out of luck amid a shortage of rental cars in vacation hot spots like Florida, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii.

When builder Ricky Ringer needed to rent a car to haul some building materials to his job site a few weeks ago, he was stunned to find nothing available at rental car agencies. Not in Okeechobee where he lives. Not in Palm Beach County. Not in Orlando.

“Nobody had one from Jacksonville to Fort Lauderdale,” the Davie native said. At the Enterprise Rent-a-Car office nearest him in Okeechobee, he spotted six cars in a back parking lot. “They said they hadn’t been cleaned and needed oil changes. I offered to drive one up to the oil change place myself.”

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In the midst of our vaccine-fueled reemergence into normal life, stir-crazy consumers are finding one element of the mobility we took for granted in pre-pandemic times — a wide range of rental cars available for affordable rates — won’t be recovering anytime soon.

What that means for South Florida residents with their own cars and an extra bedroom: Your houseguests might be asking for your keys.

Demand for rental cars in Florida surged in the weeks between President’s Day weekend in mid-February through Easter weekend in early April.

Analysts blame a unique confluence of factors: Rental car agencies sold off 30% to 40% of their fleets when demand plummeted last spring. No one anticipated how many tourists would flee locked-down northern cities for hot spots this spring. Meanwhile, a semiconductor shortage has stalled new-car production at Ford and GM, raising prices and preventing rental companies from rebuilding their inventories prior to the current boom.

Jonathan Weinberg, CEO of rental car aggregation website AutoSlash.com, said he was stunned on President’s Day weekend to discover that rental vehicles were sold out at 18 of 20 Florida airports. The situation worsened as Spring Break beckoned cooped-up northerners to Florida in droves, triggering a run on rentals not only at airport locations, but in-town agencies as well.

When vehicles were available, they were going for as much as $500 a day, Weinberg said. While inventories have returned to South Florida rental agencies in the tourism lull between Easter and Memorial Day, rates are two to three times as high as a year ago. Weinberg expects the shortage and high prices to linger through the summer as northern tourism spots reopen and rental car companies shift their inventories north to meet the demand.

Enterprise’s website on Friday showed no cars available to rent for the weekend at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. A search for last-minute weekend rentals on travel site Orbitz.com turned up just 15 results from Sixt Rent a Car, including a Volkswagen Jetta for $494 a day, a Toyota Tacoma pickup for $492 a day and a full-size Chevy Tahoe SUV for $858 a day.

What’s really strange, Weinberg said, is that some airlines are offering one-way fares for as low as $50 or $60 to travelers who arrive at their destinations to find daily rental rates at 10 times the cost of their tickets.

Traci and Duane Borgman, on vacation from Michigan, are getting restless at a Weston resort after an airport rental agency failed to deliver the SUV they booked. “Now we’re on our third day without being able to go anywhere,” Traci Borgman said Thursday. “So much for a very needed vacation.”

Months of shortages

Travelers should anticipate strong car rental demand to last several months and book their cars as early as possible, said Lauren Luster, communications director for Hertz, which declared bankruptcy during the quarantine and sold off much of its fleet last year at bargain prices.

“We’re seeing a surge in demand for leisure travel in vacation destinations, including Florida, across the car rental industry,” Luster said by email. “This is encouraging given where the industry was during this time a year ago, and we’re happy to help travelers return to the road safely.”

She recommended that travelers check out rental car agencies located in neighborhoods if airport lots are sold out. But even that’s no guarantee, as an Orbitz.com search on Friday for a last-minute weekend rental turned up no vehicles from well-known companies.

A search for cars available to rent from neighborhood locations for the following weekend, however, turned up economy cars from Hertz for $78 a day, a midsize Toyota Corolla for $83 a day from Hertz, and a midsize pickup for $85 a day from Budget. With taxes and fees, consumers can expect to pay around $100 a day. That’s a lot more than before the pandemic, but far less than $500.

With increased demand driving up prices, independent entrepreneurs who make cars available through Turo, the so-called Airbnb of car rentals, are reaping the benefits.

Anthony Paulino of Orlando says demand is booming for use of the four vehicles he owns — two Chevy Equinox compact SUVs, a Chevy Corvette sport sedan, and a Mercedes C Class sedan. His daily rates range from $45 for the Equinox models to $182 for the Corvette. Consumers book the cars through Turo’s smartphone app, which directs them to their location in Orlando’s airport terminals.

Paulino says he’s booking reservations through November from tourists and locals “who all say the same thing — ‘I found out about Turo because of the shortage’ and then finding out about the price difference.’”

Tips for renting

Here are tips for finding rental cars without overpaying:

Plan ahead and make sure you can find a vehicle in your price range before booking your flight and hotel.

Avoid prepaying because prices might drop before you travel, and many rental car agencies offer the ability to pay when you get the car.

Don’t limit your search to on-site agencies at airports. Rates can be significantly lower in surrounding areas, and the savings could be worth the price of a cab or car-share ride to get there.

Don’t be desperate enough to rent from a no-name rental car company that you’re never heard of. Some of these companies will seem to offer great prices in search results, then load on hidden fees that exceed the come-on price. If you are tempted to rent from an unfamiliar company, check out its Better Business Bureau reviews first and be sure to take a lot of photos of the vehicle before you drive it away. Some companies are notorious for blaming you for damage caused by previous renters.

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