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Car rental companies in Tampa Bay face high demand, tight inventory

Many companies sold off vehicles last year as business fell. Now they’re scrambling to buy more cars as prices for those available spike.
Fidel Ortiz, 29, and his son Julian Ortiz, 4, of New York, walk toward their rental car at Tampa International Airport's Rental Car Center on Friday, March 19, 2021.
Fidel Ortiz, 29, and his son Julian Ortiz, 4, of New York, walk toward their rental car at Tampa International Airport's Rental Car Center on Friday, March 19, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO ]
Published Mar. 22
Updated Mar. 22

With more coronavirus vaccines on hand, restrictions lifting across the country and spring break in full swing, the demand for rental cars in Tampa Bay — and the cost of renting a car — are up.

It’s a positive sign for rental car companies that saw demand crater in the early days of the pandemic, with Hertz filing for bankruptcy protection last May. Many companies sold off vehicles, unsure of when business would turn around, said Jonathan Weinberg, founder and chief executive of the rental booking and tracking site AutoSlash.com.

But now that travelers are back, rental car companies are scrambling to assemble enough car inventory to match demand.

“We’ve heard lots of stories of folks that are actually having to cancel their trips, just because rental cars are either too expensive or they’re just not even available at all,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg’s team saw sellouts in Florida last weekend and average daily rental rates of about $500.

His team saw a 90 to 98 percent sell-out rate in Florida for this weekend, including in Tampa Bay, compared to about 85 percent in places such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Denver.

Travelers walk inside Tampa International Airport's Rental Car Center on Friday, March 19, 2021.
Travelers walk inside Tampa International Airport's Rental Car Center on Friday, March 19, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO ]

Enterprise Holdings, which includes Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Alamo Rent-A-Car and National Car Rental, is seeing week-over-week increases in bookings for the next several weeks in Tampa, consistent with the overall surge in Florida for spring break, said spokeswoman Lisa Martini.

“While we are working hard to fulfill current demand, with supplies tight right now, we anticipate there could be wait times in some cases,” she added.

Manufacturer supply has recently become tighter, Martini said. Car manufacturers are facing a slowdown due to recovery from the pandemic and part shortages, as reported by the Associated Press.

“We are able to hold onto some vehicles in our fleet longer to help meet the local increased demand,” Martini said.

And local demand is certainly there.

Last weekend, Tampa International Airport saw almost 59,000 passengers on Saturday and nearly 58,000 travelers on Sunday. That’s about the twice the daily average in January and February, as previously reported by the Tampa Bay Times.

The airport is estimating 1.2 or 1.3 million passengers in April, according to spokeswoman Emily Nipps. In April 2019, before the pandemic, it had more than 2 million passengers.

Nipps said they’re seeing high rental car demand at the airport. And because travelers are booking at the last minute, as opposed to several weeks out as they did pre-pandemic, it’s harder for rental car companies to manage their inventory.

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Mark Jenkins, spokesman for AAA Florida, said he’s seen a 15 percent uptick in rental car demand since the start of the year, and Florida is a hot spot.

Weinberg’s team started noticing the growth and price hikes heading into President’s Day weekend in February.

“We had never seen that sort of demand before except for times like Christmas and Thanksgiving,” he said.

Weinberg founded AutoSlash 10 years ago in New York to help customers book rental cars and track reservations to get the lowest prices available.

For now he suggests that travelers avoid prepaying for car rentals, in case prices drop, and consider car rental locations farther away than they might like.

“It’s worth exploring all potential options” he said.

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