What to do when they run out of rental cars

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By Christopher Elliott

What happens when they run out of rental cars? Hyapatia Lee found out when she arrived at a National Car Rental counter in Detroit with her two young sons, and a representative told her they’d run out of sedans.

Their only option: Downgrade to a subcompact, “which my children and I could not fit in – much less our luggage,” she recalls.

Car rental companies run out of vehicles almost every day. About 1 percent of car rentals aren’t honored because a car isn’t available. Part of the reason is that they accept more reservations than they can handle, anticipating some drivers won’t show up, or it might be a car recall. Another part of the reason is that the car rental industry, unlike many hotels and almost all airlines, still often allows you to cancel or miss a reservation without paying a penalty. (But not always.)

The problem reached a climax during the pandemic, when car rental companies literally ran out of vehicles. Although there are more cars now, car rental companies still run out of cars.

But there’s a way to get the car you wanted – or better. Knowing a few industry standard rules and an expert tip or two will ensure you’re never car-less when you travel. Here’s my complete guide to rental cars.

Honoring your reservation

A car rental company should honor your reservation. When it can’t, the burden falls on the company – not you – to fix it. Lee, a TV producer who lives in Pueblo, Colorado, explained the problem, but an employee “brushed me off.” So she decided to apply some indirect pressure.

“I turned to my oldest son, who was 4 at the time, and told him that this woman behind the counter wanted me to leave him and his brother with her for the next six days,” she joked.

Her son failed to see the humor and began to cry. So did his younger brother.

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“The woman behind the counter glared at me. I smiled. It didn’t take her very long at all to find a minivan that we could use at the same price,” she says.

Politeness works, too

That’s one way of doing it. But there are other, more gentle ways of persuading a car rental company to do the right thing when they run out of rental cars. A more conventional approach: Talk to an employee and make a thoughtful appeal to help for the sake of good customer service.

That’s what Andy Abramson did when he recently arrived at a Hertz location in San Francisco that had run out of cars.. A representative offered him a downgrade from the SUV he’d reserved to a Toyota Camry – at the same rate.

Abramson, a frequent traveler who runs a Los Angeles communications agency, waited a while for the line to shorten and then asked to speak with a supervisor. He explained that he had a written confirmation, and that he was a Hertz #1 Gold Customer and politely noted that a downgrade at the same price wasn’t an acceptable solution.

“They gave me a Camry at the regular price,” he says. “All the discounts applied.” (Related: Don’t make these car rental mistakes on your next vacation.)

Three car rental rules you need to know

There are three industry standard rules you need to know just in case a rental location runs out of rental cars. First, if a car rental company runs out of cars in your class, it’s an industry practice to offer you an upgrade into the next class of vehicle at no additional charge.

Second, in the unlikely event a car rental company runs out of all cars, it’s an industry practice to pay for a car rented from a competitor. (Here’s what you need to know before renting your next car.)

And finally, if renting from a competing car rental company requires a taxi ride, your car rental company should cover it. It’s also common for a car rental company to offer a voucher or a future discount as an apology.

What if the location balks at covering your new car? A polite appeal to a manager can help, as can a duo of screaming kids. But don’t hesitate to contact the car rental company’s reservation number for a resolution. It may be able to offer a vehicle at another nearby location or intercede on your behalf at that location.

You probably won’t find these rules in any contracts or on a car rental company’s website. Rather, they’re common industry practices that only the most experienced renters know about. If you say nothing, there’s a good chance a car rental company will try to sell you an upgrade or send you packing. Speak up and remind them of your rights.

Tips for getting a vehicle when they run out of rental cars

Confirm your reservation

Contact your car rental agency a day before you arrive. Always bring your reservation confirmation to show the rate you paid. Make a printout, just in case the battery on your phone dies.

Arrive on time

“Check in as close as possible to the time indicated on your reservation,” advises Kimberly Wason, a spokeswoman for Travelcar.com, a car-sharing site. “You don’t want to give the company any reason to think you’re not going to pick up your car. They may just give it away.”

Have a Plan B

Just in case they run out of rental cars, keep a backup plan in your back pocket. That could mean renting from a competitor, taking a bus or using a cab or a popular ride-sharing service.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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