If you're planning to rent a car for the Thanksgiving drive to grandma's house but haven't yet secured your vehicle, you should shift your search into high gear. News reports indicate that many rental car lots in the northeastern U.S. are sitting empty this holiday season, due to Hurricane Sandy.
Although damages from the storm are still being tallied, early estimates put the total number of vehicles destroyed by Sandy as high as 200,000. That's still well short of the 350,000 ruined during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but more than enough to cripple auto supplies in America's most densely populated region.
Proof of that was visible last week, when rental car shortages were reported at Philadelphia-area Avis, Dollar Thrifty, Enterprise, and Hertz outlets. There's some hope that the situation will improve before Thursday, as owners replace storm-damaged vehicles and return rentals, and as recovery workers head home for the long holiday weekend, freeing up more loaners. However, a quick search of travel websites reveals that availability is nearly non-existent in New York City, and the limited number of vehicles on hand in New Jersey are priced much higher than you'd expect.
Our advice? If you've not already begun your search, do so now. If you hit roadblocks at Expedia and Priceline, go directly to rental company websites: those companies don't typically list their full inventory with travel brokers, and you may be able to nab one of the cars they've held in reserve. If that should fail, go local and call your nearest outlet. Chances are, you'll speak to a real person who has first-hand knowledge of the situation on the lot.
If you're still planning to replace your storm-damaged car before Thursday, you may be able to do so, but you'll probably pay a premium -- especially if you're purchasing a used vehicle. That's because America's supply of used cars is stretched thin at the moment, and that shortage has been pushing up used-car prices for months. Hurricane Sandy only made things worse.
If you do opt for a used car, make sure to check it thoroughly for any signs of storm damage. According to Carfax, as many as 50% of storm-damaged vehicles have historically found their way back onto the roads and into used car lots. Thankfully, the company now offers a free service that allows prospective buyers to type in the VIN of their potential purchase and see if it's ever been damaged by floodwaters. You'll find more information at Flood.Carfax.com.