Car rental prices in the U.S. are soaring as popular tourist destinations struggle to keep up with demand from travelers emerging from a year-long pandemic.
Nationwide, the average daily car rental rate is $109, up 90% since 2019, and in some markets there simply are no cars left to be rented. “If you were to plan a trip to Alaska right now, you would have to go without a rental car,” said Jonathan Weinberg, founder and CEO of AutoSlash, a company that helps consumers track car rental prices. “People are canceling trips because they can’t find a car.”
Car rental firms haven’t been able to bounce back as quickly as the American traveler, partly because they sold off a lot of their cars during the pandemic, and because of a global semiconductor shortage that’s slowed down auto manufacturing.
In the markets where rental cars are available, they don’t come cheap. Car rental prices are up nearly 278% to an average of $259 a day in Bozeman, Montana — by far the most expensive car rental destination in the U.S., according to data from Kayak.
The market for rental cars is likely to remain tight through the summer, but there are a few things travelers can do to improve their chances of finding a rental car without blowing their budget.
Travelers typically book flights or hotels first, eventually getting around to booking a car rental sometime before their trip, but that strategy won’t work this year.
In Maui, rental cars are so tough to find that people are heading to Facebook to rent their personal vehicles to tourists. “Everything is sold out in June,” said Stacy Small, the Maui-based Founder and CEO of Elite Travel International.
Small says she’s already booking Maui car rentals for December. “Anyone coming to Maui needs to book the car as soon as they know their dates,” she said.
In terms of pricing, two months ahead is the sweet spot, according to Kayak data from, the company’s North America GM Steve Sintra said. “It may take more planning, but if you do it, you can save some money.”
If you’re not heading to a hard-to-reach destination like Alaska or Hawaii, consider renting your car in a different location.
Instead of flying into Bozeman to rent a car for an epic national parks road trip, rent from a location that’s closer to home and plan for a longer drive. Sometimes opting for a city rental car location instead of an airport rental counter — or vice versa — can make a difference.
While rental car prices are surging in places like Hawaii, Florida, Las Vegas and Puerto Rico, there are parts of the Midwest, West Coast and Northeast where pricing and availability is better, Weinberg said.
If renting from a different destination isn’t an option, consider extending your rental to take advantage of a weekly rate, a move that could shave hundreds off the price of a car rental.
If neither of those alternatives work, consider a service like Turo, a peer-to-peer car-sharing service. Turo allows individuals to rent their cars in 5,500 cities across the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
Use your discounts
Whether it’s through a professional association or a group like AAA or AARP, chances are you’re affiliated with something that offers discounts at one or more car rental agencies. Now is the time to shop for and use the best of those discounts.
Join loyalty programs
One sad truth about rental cars: just because you have a reservation doesn’t mean the company will have a car for you, especially nowadays.
Weinberg suggests signing up for loyalty programs to have an edge in this tight market. “It won’t create cars where they don’t exist, but it could be the difference between getting a car and not getting a car,” he said, referring to the priority loyalty club members receive.