Need a rental car? You're not alone. Shortage starts to hit home, and everywhere else

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

When Thomas Nam needs to rent a car he hunts for the best deal. 

While planning a recent trip to Southwest Florida, he not only struggled to find a good deal, but a car, period.

Due to a severe shortage of rentals, he and his wife, who flew in from Colorado, went without wheels of their own, instead relying on other family to get them around, during their stay from March 22-26.

While there's a scarcity of rental cars across the country — it's especially bad in the Sunbelt states, such as Florida and Arizona, because they're such popular places for northerners to visit this time of year.

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 is to blame for the shortage, which began to surface in February, for Presidents' Day weekend.

After the coronavirus pandemic brought travel to a virtual halt a little over a year ago, rental car companies sold off hundreds of thousands of cars that would have otherwise sat idle, with nobody to rent them.

Fleeting up again isn't so easy.

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Available rental cars from Enterprise Rent-A-Car are pictured at Southwest Florida International Airport on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

Not only is it a financial challenge, but a physical one, as new cars are harder to come by these days.

Manufacturers have been hit hard by a shortage of semiconductors — or computer chips — needed to build new cars, which has curbed vehicle production at factories across the globe.

"The chips are not out there. Cars are basically computers on wheels," said David Kilduff, with DK Consulting Group, who has 35 years of experience in ground transportation.

As more Americans get vaccinated and become more comfortable with getaways, the shortage is only expected to get worse before it gets better.

What's in store has been dubbed a "car rental apocalypse." 

"People are going to travel significantly this summer," Kilduff said. "It's already starting to show."

He doesn't see the shortage of rentals getting resolved any time soon, at least until the fall, or later, especially if business travel starts to pick up.

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Customers search for their cars, Wednesday, March 31, 2021, at Southwest Florida International Airport's Avis Car Rental parking area.

The extreme shortage of rental cars is taking travelers like Nam by surprise. In a word, he described the situation as a "mess."

A few weeks ahead of his trip, Nam searched online and saw plenty of vehicles to rent at Southwest Florida International, but his decision not to book one then proved to be a bad one.

When he went to reserve a car a few days before his flight he couldn't find a single one to rent at the airport — or anywhere nearby.

"There was nothing available anywhere," said Nam, 47. "I checked all the travel sites, all the major car sites, and there was nothing available at all." 

He turned to Turo — an alternative rental service described as the Airbnb for cars — but only found expensive cars, such as Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes, offered up by their owners through the website. Renting one of those cars could have easily cost him $1,500 or more for the duration of his stay — so he decided not to do it.

Instead, he and his wife relied on their daughter and son-in-law for transportation while they were visiting Southwest Florida.

Ironically, the couple came here, in part, to help their daughter, who lives in Bonita Springs, find a car. She picked them up from the airport in her husband's car, an inconvenience they had hoped to avoid.

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When the Nams came to Southwest Florida before Christmas in December, they had no problems renting a car — and found one at an affordable rate.

Avis Car Rental vehicles are pictured at Southwest Florida International Airport on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

"I had a lot of options," he said. "All the travel sites had plenty of cars available."

Much has changed since then, with more Americans getting comfortable with traveling again.

Travelers who are lucky enough to find a rental car, should be surprised if they have to pay more for it.

With spring break in play, there have been media reports of last-minute rental rates as high as $700 a day for an SUV in Arizona and $300 a day for a Kia Rio, a compact sedan, in Florida (Orlando to be exact).

Turo reports business is booming for its hosts, or car owners, that use its platform to rent out their cars. 

The high demand reflects that Americans are still driving more than they are flying for vacations — and many prefer to put the miles on a rental, rather than their own car, according to Turo's CEO Andre Haddad. 

He pointed to data he retrieved from Second Measure, a daily dashboard that provides insight into company performance and consumer behavior, to prove his point. The data showed that in the week ending March 7, Turo grew week-over-week sales by 44.9%, outperforming the market, which rose by 5.3%. 

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Hertz Global Holdings, parent of The Hertz Corp. headquartered in Estero, alone sold nearly 200,000 of its rental cars, as part of its broader efforts to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. 

While the hundred plus-year-old company is still winding its way through bankruptcy, Hertz has obtained new financing to beef up its fleet again, as it looks to restructure its operations under new ownership.

In an email, Hertz spokeswoman Lauren Luster said the company has seen "a surge in demand for leisure travel in vacation destinations across the industry, particularly around peak travel times like spring break."

"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 said.

To help ensure the best vehicle and rate, Hertz is encouraging customers to book as early as possible, as they're making other travel arrangements.

Other tips from Hertz? Consider booking a car at a neighborhood rental location, rather than at an airport, where demand is higher, and joining its free rewards and loyalty program, which allows customers to skip the counter, as well as to add products and preferences to their profile in advance of their trip.

In an email, Jack Wert, Collier County's tourism director, said he's aware of the shortage of rental cars, but he's not heard that it's forcing any would-be visitors to cancel their plans because they can't find a car to get them around — or the prices are too high.

"The rental agencies are scrambling to bring in additional cars, but it seems the entire region is experiencing a similar situation," he said.

Returning rental cars are pictured at Southwest Florida International Airport on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

Amanda Cox, director of sales and marketing at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, said her property hasn't noticed any impact from the shortage of rental cars in Southwest Florida.

"This isn’t a challenge we’ve heard from our customers or future customers at this time," she said via email.

The shortage of rental cars isn't all bad. Naples Transportation & Tours, a private transportation company, is getting new business because of it, said CEO Randy Smith.

"Most of our clients travel by private car exclusively, but we have seen an uptick with visitors to the area that are using our private car service instead of renting cars due to cost," he said in an email. "Many have commented how wonderful our private car service is so hopefully they will switch from rental car to private car clients in the future as well." 

He expects to see more business come his way over the coming months if the rental car shortage persists, as air travel continues to pick up at Southwest Florida International with the roll out of COVID-19 vaccinations, bringing in more visitors who'll need wheels to get around.