Why rental cars are so hard to find amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Renting a car could cost more than your rent

Why are rental cars so expensive right now? It turns out COVID-19 caused companies to sell their fleets. Now, they're having a hard time buying cars.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Remember the good old pre-COVID days of 2019 when you would book a flight and hop on a plane and head to your dream vacation?

Remember how you would anxiously wait at the baggage carousel hoping no one else had all black luggage so you could spot yours right away?

Remember how you would load up the seemingly always too small airport luggage cart and rattle your way to the car rental counter to get the vehicle you would call yours for the next several days?

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Me neither.

OK, it wasn’t that long ago but it sure does feel like it. Here’s the good news: Vacation travel is making a comeback.

The bad news? Your car rental might cost more than your plane ticket. No kidding.

This week for Florida’s Fourth Estate, anchors Matt Austin and Ginger Gadsden spoke with Jonathan Weinberg, CEO of AutoSlash.

Weinberg shared some tricks and tips to secure that summer rental without breaking the bank.

Let’s start with why the heck rental car prices are off the charts right now.

“If you rewind back to March of 2020 when COVID first started, travel kind of dropped off a cliff. The rental car companies found that their demand was down 90% and they kind of shifted into survival mode. They did what they had to do to kind of keep their business running, which was sell off as many cars as they could,” Weinberg explained.

He said major companies sold off 30% to 40 % of their fleets. That’s hundreds of thousands of cars.

Now fast forward to 2021 and there are likely three reasons car rental companies are regretting that sell off: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

The three vaccines hit the market at the end of last year and have given people newfound freedom to flip up those tray tables and roam about the country again. As of this interview, Johnson & Johnson was on pause but nearly 7 million people had already gotten the one-shot wonder before it was put on hold.

There are hacks to find a rental car. Maybe try Uhaul or adjust the number of days for the rental.

Weinberg said as more people got vaccinated, they felt safer heading out to enjoy some time away from the home they barely left for the better part of a year. The people who realized that secure feeling first, were those from the Northeast or Midwest, where it was still plenty cold and snowing.

Florida was calling their name. Winking at them and blowing them a warm kiss. The Sunshine State was inviting and more importantly, open for business.

Gov. Ron DeSantis declared early on he was not putting Florida on lockdown.

Rental car companies were caught with flat tires.

In March, with practically every spring breaker headed to Florida, there were weekends most of the major airports in the state were sold out of rental cars. The cars that were available were going for rates of around $300 a day.

“The rental car companies just simply didn’t expect the demand to return that quickly and they were caught off guard by it. They didn’t have anywhere near enough cars to meet that demand for all the people flying in,” Weinberg said. “You could get air fare for $50 bucks each way but the rental car was going to cost you 10 times that much.”

Demand is so great, travelers might consider booking a car before plane tickets and hotels.

But Weinberg said all is not lost and there are some tricks of the trade his company is willing to share.

He said when demand is high, rental car companies don’t want to rent a car for just a few days. When you plug in your dates you’ll discover nothing is available.

“With AutoSlash, we’ve developed a little trick that we do. We’re different than other sites in the sense that you put in a request and if we can’t find availability our team will actually look for ways to find availability for you. One of the ways is to extend the rental.. in other words, if you need to rent for three days we might extend our return date to four, five or six days until we start finding availability. The great news with that is you can rent for six days and return it after three days and the rental car company will usually credit you back for the unused days.”

A Florida’s Fourth Estate viewer named Torrey chimed in with a clever hack of his own. Torrey said when he couldn’t find a rental car the old-fashioned way they rented a truck from U-Haul, which turned out to be a very nice Chevrolet Silverado. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Bottom line, you should not book your summer trip the traditional way. At least not right now. Rental cars are still in high demand.

No one wants to be the person who paid more for the rental car than the trip to Disney.

Florida’s Fourth Estate looks at everything from swampy politics to a fragile environment and even the crazy headlines that make Florida the craziest state in the Union.

Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin use decades of experience as journalists to dissect the headlines that impact Florida. Each week they have a guest host who helps give an irreverent look at the issues impacting the Sunshine State. Big influencers, like Attorney John Morgan, renowned Florida journalists and the scientists protecting Florida’s ecosystem, can often be found as guests.

Look for new episodes every Friday on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

Listen to the full episode of Florida’s Fourth Estate on iTunes here or on Sticher here.

About the Author:

Ginger Gadsden joined the News 6 team in June 2014 as an anchor/reporter. She currently co-anchors the 4 p.m. 5:30 p.m. and the 7 p.m. newscasts.