Surviving the car rental apocalypse by stepping outside the box

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A few weeks ago, we published a post highlighting what is being dubbed by some as a car rental apocalypse. Over the past few months, we have seen more and more reports from travelers about increasingly expensive rental rates and in some cases readers have arrived at a rental center only to find no available cars. While one reader posed the idea of renting a U-Haul – which may not be crazy in some situations – another reader gave a great tip for surviving the rental car crunch and getting the car you want: renting from dealerships.

The nightmare that inspired a helpful tip

What really put this situation on my radar was a situation faced by a member of our Frequent Miler Insiders group (this story originally led to a post about hotel guarantees here):

Flew into West Palm Beach. Confirmed res with National. Executive Elite status. Rental car shuttle driver at airport pulls up and says no cars whatsoever at Alamo, National or Enterprise. Leaves us at curbside only saying try tomorrow.
Call National. They offer to pay $100 max for Uber to/from hotel. Ok, angry but whatever. Take Uber to hotel.
IHG Holiday Inn Palm Beach Airport. Platinum Elite status. Confirmed res on Chase free night. Turned away. Oversold hotel. 15 people behind me all turned away as well. No compensation offered, no options given. All hotels within 5 miles full.
Midnight, with wife and two young children. No car. No hotel.

Stranded at midnight with no car, no hotel, no help and two kids. No thanks. In response to his post in our Facebook group, we received many more reports from members who had faced either empty rental lots and/or increasing prices, which led to the follow-up post about car rentals becoming the most expensive part of the trip in some cases.

In the comments on the post about the car rental apocalypse, one reader made a joke about showing up to the Andaz Maui in a U-Haul rental (and I said I’d do it! Those local van rentals are like twenty bucks a day plus mileage – aloha!). But for those looking for a more inconspicuous option, a keen reader named Mary gave a hot tip:

We just got back from Park City and had a wonderful experience renting a Subaru Ascent (8 seats + cargo) for $460 for 7 days directly from Nate Wade Subaru. The car was brand new – very easy after hours pickup – and when we dropped it off they gave us a courtesy ride back to SLC airport! HIGHLY recommend!

Wow, that sounded brilliant. Of *course* some car dealerships offer rentals: they may have customers whose cars are in for insurance-claim work and it makes sense that they would provide rentals (especially since the insurance company is footing the bill in some of those circumstances). Offering rentals might also be a way to let interested customers check out a vehicle for an extended time to help decide if they’d like to buy. It provides the dealership with an opportunity to snag a customer with good service and a nice car.

I was surprised to find that this isn’t only available at a dealership or two, but at many dealerships around the country (though still a very small percentage of dealers overall). Since dealerships don’t have as much visibility for their rental services as an on-airport rental agency, I wondered whether there may be less competition and more standardized (i.e. less variable) pricing since it likely isn’t a major revenue center for the dealership. Furthermore, I can’t imagine that you’d be turned away from a reservation empty-handed — in fact I would expect dealers to honor your exact model choice, which could make this a great way to rent exactly the type of vehicle you want.

A sample comparison

To do a rough example comparison, I decided to check out the city that started this off: Fort Lauderdale. Jon in Frequent Miler Insiders (who was stuck with no hotel and no car) had no car for days after arrival until finally borrowing one from a family member since he was unable to get one anywhere in the area. Could he have found something at a dealership? How would it have compared price-wise? I have no time machine to answer those questions for sure, but I wanted to take a look at a future date to get a rough comparison.

Thus I decided to look at the week from Friday, June 4th to Friday, June 11th and compare options.

The best prices from Autoslash for the cheapest car for that week were:

  • Easirent: $415.15 (Mini Car)
  • Budget: $496.36 (Compact Car)
  • Hertz: $508.01 (Compact Car)
  • Thrifty: $551.96 (Compact)
  • Fox: $557.13 (Economy)
  • Dollar: $559.15 (Inermediate)
  • Payless: $568.12 (Compact)
  • Ace: $593.69 (Economy)
  • Avis: $600.31 (Compact)
  • Alamo: $615.34 (Special Car. Note this means supplier’s choice on arrival).
  • Enterprise: $622.46 (Special Car. Note this means supplier’s choice on arrival)
  • Sixt: $651.29 (Economy)
  • National: $681.91 (Compact)
  • NextCar: $14,652.02 (Full-size SUV). Not. A. Typo.

Let’s eliminate the ridiculous NextCar price and say that the median price is $568.12. Incidentally, the mean price excluding the NextCar price is $570.84 – roughly the same.

Contrast the prices above with those available for the same week from Toyota of Hollywood, which is less than 8 miles from the airport. Note that these rates include unlimited complimentary miles but do not include taxes & fees (more on that below).

  • Corolla: $325
  • Camry: $360
  • Avalon: $375
  • RAV4: $399.99
  • Sequoia: $449.99
  • Tacoma: $475
  • Highlander: $499.99
  • Tundra: $600
  • 4Runner: $650
  • Sienna: $750

I found Toyota of Hollywood through Toyota’s website, which features a search page to find dealerships with rentals. The search results there indicate which dealerships offer rentals, whether they only rent for body shop / service customers or also to business/leisure travelers, and it includes links directly to online reservations for those dealers offering them.

Not noted above but later in the rental policies I was surprised to find that Toyota of Hollywood even offers an airport shuttle.

Unfortunately, the prices shown for the Toyota vehicles above are not inclusive of taxes and fees. For example, the $360 Camry above looked cheaper than anything available at the airport (by a large margin in most cases). However, there were some optional add-ons priced per day (I later found that not all Toyota dealerships add these fees…and some of the amounts weren’t consistent with the rental policies found at the end of the process):

  • Additional Driver: $10 (note that the policies link at the end say that this is $5. YMMV.)
  • CDW: $25
  • Out of state fee: $25
  • Under age driver: $10

The following charges were not optional (state tax and a $14 surcharge was added even at dealerships that didn’t have the above fees):

  • State Tax: $26.18
  • Surcharge: $14.00

It wasn’t clear whether the out of state fee applies if the driver is from out of state or if that applies if you will drive out of state. You do have the option whether or not to choose it. Here were the totals:

  • Without out of state fee: $400.18
  • With out of state fee: $575.18

Verdict: Toyota is either cheaper than all of the on-airport options or only a few dollars more than average. That’s not bad considering that Toyota is offering the ability to reserve a specific model.

Do other dealerships offer this service?

The above pricing from Nate Wade Subaru in Salt Lake City looks very fair if you know you want a specific model Subaru.

In short, yes. I found many random dealerships through repeated searches. I also found that a few brands offer web search tools to easily find participating dealers:

Dealerships from other brands also offer rentals. A found several Honda dealerships in different areas (like Earnhart Honda for instance) and some ford dealers like this one that offered rentals. In some areas, like Hawaii, I didn’t find any dealerships at all offering rentals. Still, this is something I would look for in the future if prices continue to be high across the board.

While I found that most Subaru and Toyota dealers listed very transparent pricing, I found that other dealers tended to list starting price ranges or required you to fill out a contact form for pricing. If you fill out contact information for a car dealer, I highly recommend giving a phone number other than your primary number. It might be worth setting up a free Google Voice number just for this purpose. Car dealers tend to call relentlessly. Even though you’re looking to rent rather than buy, I’d not provide my phone number to a car dealer without the expectation of receiving far more sales calls than I’d like.

Note that this may also be an option on international trips. I was surprised about Toyota dealerships offering this service in the US, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been: I saved a bunch of money renting from Toyota Rent A Car in Japan just a couple of years ago.

We picked up a one-way Toyota rental from the parking garage of a random office building in Tokyo and it worked out great.

Other non-traditional options

Turo.com

Considered to be the “Airbnb of car rentals, Turo.com allows car owners to rent out their personal vehicles (note that this is not available in all states). With Turo, you are renting a specific vehicle from an individual, so you’ll get exactly the car you choose and there are often a wide range of options in terms of make / model / year, from someone’s 2009 Sonata:

to fancier stuff:

I found vehicles to suit all tastes and budgets for my sample week in June and deals could be had that were far cheaper than airport rentals.

A potential trouble with Turo is that there is some risk of the host backing out (which could be totally legitimate – it’s not like they have a fleet of backup cars ready to go if their car ends up in the shop). The “no-backups” issue could also come into play if you’re unsatisfied with the car for some reason. On the other hand, I’ve heard from plenty of people who have been very happy with Turo and it looks like it could be a great way to save some money.

U-Haul cargo van

Some readers will think I’m crazy, but if you wind up at an airport with no car, don’t forget about U-Haul. Note that this won’t work if you have kids since their vehicles don’t have the additional seating you’d need, but U-Haul rents cargo vans and pickup trucks for “local” moves (i.e. you can’t rent these one-way but rather have to return to the place where you picked up). The nice thing is that in comparison to many of today’s rentals, the price is right if you don’t need to put on a lot of miles.

For example, just a few miles from the Fort Lauderdale Airport, I found a location that offers both cargo vans and pickup trucks for the standard $19.95 per day plus $0.79 per mile. Keep in mind that credit card rental insurance typically does not cover moving trucks, so even though the cargo van and pickup truck are more like “standard” cars than the big box trucks, your card may not cover you. I looked up a 7-day rental for the same set of June dates and either vehicle came to $139.65 + $0.79 per mile. Adding their collision damage waiver (which comes with a $150 deductible) was $140, so with insurance it would be a total of $284.65 plus $0.79/mi. If you’ll put on less than ~150 miles over the course of the week, you’ll come out ahead with the U-Haul over Toyota or the on-airport rates. I know that you’ll feel ridiculous pulling up to your swanky points hotel in a van or pickup plastered with U-Haul logos, but the pain is temporary and might beat having to take Ubers all week. Like I said at the top of this section, this technique won’t work with kids since both the cargo van and the pickup truck only have front seats. Years ago when I got into product resale and before I made a Craigslist trade for a pickup truck to haul stuff, I rented plenty of U-Haul vans. The quality of U-Haul rental shop varies wildly, but the vans themselves were fine in my experience.

Bottom line

Car rentals are becoming quite expensive in many markets and in some cases airport rental lots are unable to keep up with demand, selling out of cars and leaving some people stranded. A reader gave us a great tip to check car dealerships for rental vehicles and it looks like that could be a great option for locking in the specific model you’d like and in some cases you may even save money over booking through more mainstream options. Personally, I’d even consider renting a model before buying it in the future. This was an excellent reader tip that I’ll keep in my bag of tricks as travel picks back up.

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