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If you’re booking a trip this summer, you might be in for a nasty surprise if your travel plans involve renting a car. The car shortages that started in 2020 are unfortunately still a major problem. The demand for rental cars exceeds the supply of available vehicles, so rental car prices have skyrocketed.
If you’ve been surprised by unusually high car rental rates or the fact that rental cars aren’t generally available, read on. There are myriad alternatives to renting a car when traveling in the United States and some of them require a bit of creativity.
Carpooling and taxis
Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are probably the first thing that comes to mind when considering alternatives to rental cars. If you’ve never used one of these services before, requesting a ride is as simple as opening an app, entering your destination, and accepting the price. Pricing is usually based on distance and time traveled, so carpooling is best suited for short trips within cities. Depending on your needs, these services could be your only source of public transit or increase your use of public transit.
The disadvantages of carpooling include unpredictable prices and availability. During events and other times of peak demand or during off-peak hours when there are few drivers on the road, prices and availability may vary significantly. It also varies from place to place, which means that if you are used to carpooling being available at odd hours at home, you might not find it at your destination. Be aware of this if you plan on carpooling late at night or heading to the airport for an early morning flight.
Ride-sharing services are generally available throughout the United States, but be aware that ride-sharing is subject to local regulations, including previous bans in the United States and Canada. In towns without ride-sharing services, traditional taxis may be your best option for on-demand transportation, so make sure you have a phone number for a local taxi dispatch service.
In the United States, most people think of public transit as coming from certain major coastal cities like New York, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C., but public transit can and is a surprisingly viable option for travelers in outside these coastal centers. Those familiar with Seattle, Portland, Boston, and Chicago know that these cities have robust public transit systems. Many small towns have surprisingly useful public transit infrastructure available if you’re willing to look. Salt Lake City probably wouldn’t make it on the list of cities with good public transit, but it does have light rail connections between the airport and downtown. As another example, the Minneapolis/St. The Paul metropolitan area has a wide range of light rail and rapid bus lines that connect the metropolitan area.
One of the easiest ways to find out if public transport might be right for you is to use Google Maps. Use the app to find transit routes between common destinations in your city. If the application generates available and reasonable public transport connections, public transport may be an option.
Most car rental companies have on-airport and off-airport locations and prices often vary between these locations. When checking rental prices, it can be helpful to check if a downtown or suburban location offers a better price or availability than the airport. This may be due to high airport user fees and taxes used to subsidize airport operations. A short Uber or public transit ride to a place where rental cars are in less demand can mean big savings on rental cars.
Before renting from an off-airport location, make sure you understand when the off-airport location operates. Many off-airport locations are closed evenings and weekends and will charge you the whole weekend if you drop off your car after they close on Friday. Even if you don’t pay an after hours rental fee, you will be responsible for the condition of the car until it can be officially re-registered.
Become more creative with rental
In addition to off-airport options, consider renting from alternative rental platforms. In late 2020, Lyft launched its Lyft Rentals service, which offers car rentals in partnership with Sixt through the Lyft app and website. Car prices and availability vary by platform, and Lyft is no exception.
Also consider that you may be eligible to use a corporate or group discount code on your personal car rentals. Use of a corporate or group rate code may open additional rental availability, lower rates, or both. If you rent cars for work and your company has a corporate rate negotiated with one of the rental car companies, these codes can sometimes also be used for personal travel. If you have a work email address, Lyft even lets you create a work profile and access corporate rental rates for personal travel through its platform.
Finally, memberships such as AAA, AARP, and alumni associations often come with negotiated car rental discounts. Being a member of a professional organization, credit union, or the military may also offer a discount.
Car rental by the hour
ZipCar is the king of the hill when it comes to hourly car rentals in the United States. The concept of ZipCar is quite simple: rent cars by the hour and return them to their original parking spots, usually located in densely populated areas of major cities. You need a driver’s license and a major credit card and you have to buy a monthly or yearly subscription, but once you’re set up you can reserve cars and unlock ZipCars from their mobile app. All ZipCar rides come with secondary insurance, maintenance and gas included with all rides. Zip car charges hourly rental rates starting at $11 per hour or daily rates starting at $91.50.
ZipCar won’t be a good option for long trips or one-way trips from airports, but for quick errands of an hour or two, it might be a good option provided you’re in one of the cities in their coverage area and stay near a ZipCar parking lot.
Carpooling is nothing new. Starting around 2009, several car-sharing startups came and went. The biggest players in the United States are Turo and Get Around. These companies serve as a sort of AirBnb for car rentals; owners (“hosts”) list their cars for rent and drivers book cars through the car-sharing company’s website or mobile app.
Renting a car from these companies is a more complicated undertaking than simply walking up to the rental counter at an airport. In the United States, Turo requires potential renters to submit to an insurance background check and upload an ID before being allowed to rent through the platform.
Additionally, only some of the cars offered on car-sharing platforms offer delivery to places like airports and hotels, and almost always for a substantial fee. (Delivery charges of $50 to $100 are not uncommon.) Most cars require the renter to drive to the owner’s residence or a designated pick-up location to pick up the car.
Finally, you’ll find a much wider variety of cars on these apps than you’re used to on a car rental log. On the one hand, it can be a fun way to rent and drive a fun car for the weekend. Teslas are pretty common on Turo, and there are some fun cars on the platform. Someone in Minneapolis is renting a Bentley Continental GTP and you can even rent a Maserati for a few days in some markets. On the other hand, especially at the lower end of the market, the quality of cars can vary considerably.
In the end, you may have to go through a few steps, but carpooling is a viable option available in most major markets that offers a very similar experience to a traditional car rental.
To be creative
In early 2021, the travel blogosphere exploded with posts suggesting the use of U-Haul truck rentals as an alternative to traditional car rentals. By thinking outside the box or, more accurately, thinking van truck, you could save massively on car rentals. Ultimately, due to high mileage charges and hourly-based rental rates, these options will only be viable for a small subset of travelers.
U-Haul offers vehicles as small as 8′ pickup trucks, starting at $19.99 per day and $0.59 per mile. It might be a little unusual to stop at your hotel in a U-Haul, but if you’re not driving too many miles you can drive to the U-Haul location and need a vehicle for local transport, this could be a viable solution. option.
Many home improvement stores offer truck and van rentals that might get you by in a pinch, though their prices are geared toward hourly users. Lowes and Home Depot as well as many regional hardware stores offer truck rentals starting at $19.00 for 90 minutes, with additional charges per minute thereafter. Some stores also offer daily rental options. Lowes offers truck rentals starting at $89 per day. Home Depot offers similar daily prices.
Ultimately, the viability of either option depends on your ability to get to the rental location, your travel patterns within a city, and how your intended use matches the rental price structure. If you only need a vehicle for a limited number of miles, U-Haul pricing might be worth it. If renting a truck daily from a home improvement store is a substantial savings over car rental rates, that could also be a viable option.
Business and leisure travel is recovering faster than the ability of rental car companies to expand their rental fleets. It is reasonable to expect the current tight rental car supply to last at least a year or two. By planning ahead, being flexible, and being creative, you can find local transportation options that meet your needs, hopefully without breaking the bank.