What To Do When A Rental Car Company Is Out Of Cars

We don’t rent cars all that often. We’ve become much more comfortable taking public transportation to/from the airport in major cities like New York and Chicago and then using Uber/Lyft/Taxi to get around whatever city or town we’re in. We only need a rental car on trips when we’re going to places where public transportation isn’t an option (like when we went to South of the Border).

So why is it that on about 50% of our trips, there are no available cars when we get to the rental car counter/garage? 

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I get the concept of overbooking; airlines do it all the time. Hotels even do it, but not as often. Rental car companies seem to be jumping on the bandwagon and plan on people not showing up for their car rentals.

I can understand that not everyone will return a car when they say that they will. People run late so the rental car company won’t have a car when they think they will. However, I’ve twice shown up to rental car lots with no cars. None. Zip. Nada. Now, while I wanted to re-enact this Seinfeld scene, I remained calm and kept my mouth shut.

We’ll have to assume this is the new normal so we have to learn what to do when this happens (notice I said when and not if). Hopefully you won’t need to be somewhere right away (like a wedding or graduation). If you do, you need to weigh your options and take action ASAP.  This may mean renting from another company or taking a car service. If getting to your destination is more important than the money it’ll require to do so, bite the bullet and worry about the rest later.

If you have the time to wait it out, here are some tips based on our rules for being a better customer:

  1. Let the staff know your requirements. Both times we were waiting for cars, we were up front about what we would and wouldn’t accept. Would we take a bigger car? What about a smaller one? Do we need room for luggage? If you’re traveling with four adults with luggage, you’re not going to be happy about getting a compact car when you reserved a full sized one. We were very frank with the staff when we were taking a car for a one way rental that whichever car they gave us would not be coming back to their location.
  2. Be friendly. It’s not the staff in the garage who rented too many cars. They are not any happier about having to deal with unhappy customers than you are that they’re out of cars. Being “that guy” won’t help you get a car any faster. Having them on your side at this moment will be a plus.
  3. Be flexible. Work with the staff to come to a reasonable outcome. You might not get the car your want, but you’ll have a car. Would you be able to come back tomorrow to exchange the car for one more like you reserved? Would that be OK with you and with them?
  4. Be patient. You can’t wish a car back to the garage and neither can they. If you’ve decided to wait it out, then wait. No tapping your foot while waiting, just wait. Play Candy Crush on your phone. Catch up on your Facebook posts. Have a nice chat with the staff. This was how we found out the reason there were no cars in Phoenix. It was Parents’ Weekend at the area colleges and every one of those parents needed to rent a car. Even with the staff driving 4-5 times a day to area locations, they still couldn’t get enough cars to the airport.
  5. If you need to cut and run, check if other agencies have cars available. You may even be able to get the difference in cost refunded by the original rental car agency. Just be prepared to stay your ground with your complaint. If you make a reasonable request for compensation, you should be able to get something back in return.

So what happened during our rentals? Keep in mind, both of these instances were on the first day of a trip where all we had planned for the evening was driving to our hotel and getting something to eat before heading to bed. For our first rental, we needed to sit for about 20 minutes before the desk agent walked to us and handed us a set of keys. She asked if it would be OK for us to take a Jeep Grand Cherokee even though we rented a mid-size car. I said we’d be fine with that and it must have been karma since the reason we were in town was to visit the Jeep-boree (Note from Sharon: No dear, that’s what YOU call it. It was the Great Smoky Mountain Jeep Invasion) (Note from Joe: I know. But my name for it is faster and funnier.).

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The other time we were “carless” was, as I mentioned above, in Phoenix. We waited in the garage with the staff for about 20-30 minutes. Several options were floated to us and we were willing to go along with whatever solution they came up with. Eventually a manager came over to us, thanked us for our patience and asked me if I would be all right with taking a Dodge Charger. I asked if they considered that a “sport” car but he assured me that it was just a mid-size in their inventory. I’d never pay to rent a sports car but if you are going to give me one, who am I to turn it down? I will say it was nice to have the extra pickup when passing cars driving along the desert roads between Phoenix, Sedona, Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. I had to be extra careful about watching the speedometer because it was very easy to look down and see a speed I had no business driving at.

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Final Thoughts

It’s becoming clearer that overbooked rental car agencies are going to become a thing, just like overbooked planes and oversold hotels. Unlike those situations where compensation is spelled out in advance or is even governmentally regulated, there’s currently no requirement for a rental car company to do anything if they don’t have a car. Knowing the possibility exists, weighing your options and working with the staff is always the better way out of these situations. Just don’t lose your **** and become “that person” at the counter.

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