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Tighter rental car fleets spark higher rates, older cars

If you haven't rented a car recently, get ready for sticker shock.

On Monday, the average weekly rate for booking a compact car at an airport a week in advance was $298.14 — up a stunning 53 percent from a year earlier, according to Abrams Consulting Group in Purchase, N.Y.

It could be worse. The average rate for the same rental in August peaked at $430. "It's pretty remarkable," says president Neil Abrams, whose company tracks rates daily.

The reason is simple: Hertz and Avis, Enterprise and Alamo all have fewer cars.

Struggling Detroit automakers, the industry's big suppliers, cut back production. Financing to buy new fleet vehicles dried up. And like airlines and hotels, car rental companies saw business plummet as the recession took hold.

By putting off new purchases and selling vehicles into the strengthening used-car market, rental companies charge more for the fewer remaining cars. Basic Economics 101.

Take Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group. The company cut its fleet 20 percent in the quarter ending Sept. 30 from a year earlier and collected an average of $50.86 per day for each vehicle, up 11.5 percent.

The change hasn't been a great deal for consumers. Besides higher prices, they're getting slightly older, higher-mileage cars.

Rental companies hold onto vehicles as long as 20 months, compared with between eight and 11 months a year ago, says Chris Brown, executive editor of Auto Rental News, a trade publication. It's not unusual to get a vehicle with 30,000 miles or more. "Fifty thousand," he says, "is the new 20,000."

Tighter fleets also mean occasional shortages, especially for specialty vehicles like minivans. Florida locations — including Tampa Bay, Orlando and South Florida airports — have run short during holidays and peak travel times, Abrams says. He advises to book now for Thanksgiving trips.

Often, you can score a cheap rental car by shopping beyond the obvious places. Travel experts suggest:

• Look at online "opaque" sites such as Hotwire.com or Priceline.com. That's where rental car companies offer big discounts to get rid of excess inventory. You don't know the rental company until you buy and all sales are final.

• Check off-airport locations of major companies or, better, independents. Business travelers like the convenience of going straight from the plane to their car. But airport rentals typically come with extra fees. Ed Perkins of SmarterTravel.com found a major company's off-airport rates in Boston were 40 percent cheaper than at the airport.

• RentalCarMagic.com, which searches deals offered by seven major rental car companies at airport locations. You pay from $17.95 to $49.95, based on how much the special rate comes in under the company's lowest published price. Chris McGinnis, editor of TravelSkills.com, says the service found him a convertible in Hawaii for $30 a day. "I was expecting to pay $80," he says.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Tighter rental car fleets spark higher rates, older cars 10/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 10:43pm]
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