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Western MT car rental shortage has dealerships, private car owners switching gears

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Posted at 8:30 AM, Jul 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-09 12:25:20-04

MISSOULA — People are finally able to travel again, and for a lot of them, that means hopping on a plane and heading to the great state of Montana.

Tourists can get here, but finding a reliable set of wheels once they’re here has become yet another unexpected product of the pandemic.

“We have tons of people moving to this area and tons of people vacationing here,” said Clark Nissan general manager Audrey Knight.

“They’re from out of state and they’re desperate, the airport is out of rentals until August,” echoed Missoula Nissan general manager Justin Sinclair.

With names like “Big Sky Country,” “The Last Best Place,” and “The Treasure State,” can you really blame tourists for wanting to visit Montana?

The answer is no, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you try to book a rental car and nothing is available.

Car Rentals

“We have a car shortage across the nation and the rental car companies aren't getting the numbers in their fleets that they normally do,” Knight told MTN News.

According to local car dealerships, the problem began when COVID put an end to travel plans last year.

Car rental reservations were canceled, employees laid off, and companies forced to downsize their fleets.

Now, as the country reopens and families reschedule those vacations, fishing trips, and Glacier excursions, the car rental biz is feeling the pressure.

“There’s a huge huge demand and a really really small supply,” said Knight.

The traditional car rental business may not get you on the road this summer, but there are alternatives stepping up to the plate.

Car Rentals

“We have 30 rental cars right now, and we have plans to put in about 20 more,” said Sinclair.

Nissan dealerships in Missoula and Kalispell both predicted this shortage in rental cars, so they’ve begun renting cars out of their own fleets, something they’ve done on a much smaller scale for many years.

“What we've always done is Nissan, the manufacturer, has had an opportunity for us to rent vehicles. Normally, we keep a small fleet to rent to the customers who have their car in the shop or in service or getting a warranty repair or something like that, so this is a program that Nissan has had for a long time.” - Clark Nissan GM Audrey Knight

Seeing this shortage as an opportunity, Nissan of Missoula and Kalispell both jumped at the chance to expand their rentals to retail, a facet of business that’s bound to stick around, and one that other dealerships might try.

“I've gotten a couple phone calls from dealers, and they're asking what we're doing because they heard about it,” said Sinclair.

“We saw an opportunity to kind of expand that program and grow it a little bit to help our community and to help the tourism industry here,” confirmed Knight.

In addition to dealership rentals, a new company called Turo allows private car owners to rent out their vehicles.

Similar to the Airbnb business model, customers can download the Turo app, search their desired location, and choose from local renters. Most vehicles go for about $150 per day.

Car Rentals

A less conventional option, but an option nonetheless, has been spotted as tourists take advantage of moving companies like U-Haul, renting a truck for the day as they tour the state.

Whether you’re itching to mark Montana off the bucket list, or you’re a local, a new way of renting may be the only way to travel the Treasure State this summer.

Even if the car rentals catch up to the demand, Sinclair says, “I think our tourism is here to stay, I really do.”

Some advice:

  • Book your rental well in advance!
  • Consider Uber or Lyft if you don't plan on much driving at your destination.
  • If you're going to a resort or a hotel, there's a chance shuttles may be available.
  • Check into public transportation.