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Most travelers start vacation planning by scouring the internet for a great flight deal. Then, it’s time to scout out hotels. Booking the rental car is a boring afterthought.

But in 2021, you need to consider completely flipping the order of operations in which you book your next trip.

Among the many travel industry changes surrounding coronavirus is a seemingly bizarre one: Now, you may need to book your rental car before — or at least in tandem with — booking your fligh

The wild case of Glacier National Park

Some experts caution that we’re on the precipice of a “rental car apocalypse,” citing examples of extreme pricing and sold-out cars. Whether or not apocalypse is a bit of hyperbole depends both on whom you ask and what city you’re renting a car in (and for what it’s worth, many car rental companies have plenty of availability). But on the whole, rental cars are generally in far higher demand than they were in 2019. What’s more, there are many cases where there’s simply not enough supply to keep up.

Consider this: NerdWallet conducted a search in April 2021 for rental cars at each of Glacier Park International Airport’s seven rental car companies and found zero availability for car rentals in July and August 2021. Good luck getting a taxi to drive you from the airport to 6,600 feet above sea level at the top of Logan Pass.

What caused the 2021 rental car shortage?

It’s no secret that demand is up in 2021 as many travelers take what might be their first vacation since the start of the pandemic.

But high demand isn’t the only factor at play. Due to a global semiconductor shortage that’s impeding the production of not just cars, but phones, refrigerators and other electronics, there’s also lower-than-usual supply.

And with that, the automotive industry experienced a domino effect that led to higher prices.

» Learn more: Rental car insurance explained

Why a car rental should be one of the first things you book

The Glacier Park example is certainly extreme, but it illustrates how an insanely cheap flight deal is meaningless when rental car prices are massively inflated, or worse, sold out completely.

“Don’t do what you did in the past, which is plan a trip, book your airfare and hotel, and then book a rental car,” CEO and founder of car rental site AutoSlash Jonathan Weinberg tells NerdWallet. “Turn that strategy on its head this year. Check that the rental car is available and affordable first.”

Rental car demand has gone up

Airline and hotel prices dropped during the pandemic, and they’re only slowly creeping back up.

Rental cars never had the massive price drop that airfare and hotel room rates did, likely because while interest in air travel dropped, interest in road trips increased.

A national survey conducted by Cars.com of 1,000 Americans found that just about 25% of spring break travelers had planned to fly this year, compared with 38% of spring breakers who flew in 2019. Meanwhile, about 70% of spring break travelers in 2021 intended to drive to their destinations, up from 57% in 2019.

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