In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, the average rental car in the U.S. cost about $51 per day. This summer, the same car costs about $96 per day.
Those figures come from a recent Bloomberg analysis. There’s nothing unusual about the U.S. rental market, Bloomberg found. In Spain, prices have jumped from $23 pre-pandemic to about $72 today. In the U.K., a rental car cost about $37 before COVID-19 hit. Today, it’s $83. And Canada – long home to some of the highest rental prices – has seen its average price nearly double since 2019.
How We Got Here
Renting a car today is more expensive for the same reasons that buying a car is more expensive, sent through an amplifier.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, rental car companies deduced that Americans wouldn’t be traveling much. They sold off large portions of their fleets to help make ends meet and avoid the expense of maintaining cars no one wanted.
When vaccines helped travel return, the companies found they couldn’t buy enough new cars to return their fleets to normal size.
A worldwide microchip shortage has left automakers building fewer cars. They’re using the chips they can get hold of to build higher-margin, more expensive vehicles. That means few of the inexpensive, bare-bones models rental companies buy.
The problem isn’t as acute this summer as last. Rental companies have found a few ways to increase their fleets, though not back to pre-pandemic normal.
Some have bought used cars and put them into service. Others are keeping their cars longer. According to the Washington Post, “Hertz’s U.S. business retains them for more than two years on average, compared to 18 months pre-Covid.”
Where it’s allowed, they’re even buying brands they’ve shied away from in the past. Bloomberg notes that some travelers in Europe have been handed the keys to cars from Chinese automakers like Great Wall Motors (import restrictions keep rental companies from bringing those to the U.S.).
But the shortage remains, so prices are still high.
If you’re planning to travel this summer, you may need to budget more for a rental car than you’re accustomed to. But there are still a few techniques that might save your wallet.
Ways to Save:
Lock In Your Rental Early:
Most of us book airfare and hotels at our destination, then consider the rental car. If rental cars are becoming a more significant proportion of our vacation spending, we might want to reverse that pattern. Consider renting the car first. Then make flight timing and hotel decisions based on the budget you have left.
Rent from a Local
Turo and GetAround are to cars what Airbnb is to homes. Car owners use them to rent out their own rides. They aren’t as well known as Hertz and Avis, so when the big boys are out of cars at your destination, they might not be.
Bike, Walk, and Use Car Sharing Services
If your daily excursions don’t take you far and your health allows it, biking can be a great way to experience a new city – and it’s a lot cheaper. And while you might balk at spending $40 a day on car sharing services at home, it might be a great idea when it’s half the cost of a car rental.
Be Flexible About When and Where You Rent
You might be able to afford a rental for part of your vacation and plan a few days of activities close to where you’re staying. Also, don’t limit your search to the rental car counters at the airport. You might find that a taxi ride to an Enterprise location in the suburbs gets you a car at a reasonable rate.
Join an Hourly Rental Service
Paying to rent a car all day, even if it’s going to sit parked most of the time, made sense under the old numbers. It may not anymore. If your destination has ZipCar, CarToGo, or a similar by-the-hour rental service, you might save money only paying for rentals for the hours you use them.
You Can Rent from Some Car Dealerships
Lastly, an industry secret.