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Rental Car Shortage Means Extra Cash For Some Montanans

A customer returns a car at Dollar Car Rental. Dollar Car Rental is one of many national chains experiencing a shortage in their rental fleet. Tuesday, July, 13, 2021.
Megan Johnson
Montana Public Radio
A customer returns a car at Dollar Car Rental in Missoula, MT, July, 13, 2021. Dollar Car Rental is one of many national chains experiencing a shortage in their rental fleet.

Visiting Glacier National Park had been on Jim Schneider’s bucket list for years. So, he and his wife booked flights to Montana from Omaha, Nebraska and rented a cabin in June to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. But a few months before the flight Schneider realized they hadn’t reserved a car.

“There was not a rental car to be found anywhere around Kalispell,” Schneider says.

A shortage of microchips around the world has slowed car production and limited rental car supply after some companies sold off vehicles during last year’s pandemic-related economic downturn.

This means as tourism surges, some visitors to Montana like Schneider are having a hard time finding a vehicle to rent, putting their trip in jeopardy.

After considering alternatives, like renting a U-Haul, Schneider found Bigfork resident Wayne Grilley. Grilley is one of many Flathead Valley residents hosting vehicles on the car-sharing marketplace, Turo, to help meet the rental car demand. The online platform works like Airbnb, but for cars.

“I just felt in the Flathead Valley, it was a need, because it's not just this year that there's a shortage on cars,” Grilley says.

In addition to Grilley renting Schneider one of his own cars, “He rented us two canisters of bear spray at a cheaper price than anywhere else that we’d found to rent bear spray from,” Schneider says.

Grilley owns an Airbnb and figured offering renters a car on Turo would be a good complement. He bought one car and started renting it out right before the pandemic hit. Since then, he’s bought two more cars, and all three are booked through the summer season.

“Am I in the right place at the right time? I think I am for this year. Will that be the same next year? I don't know. I don't know. But this year is going to make it. I'll make twice as much money as I did last year,” Grilley says.

A screen capture from on July 19, 2021. The page headline says 'Accelerate your entrepreneurship' along with text encouraging people to list their vehicle on Turo.
A screen capture from on July 19, 2021.

Kalispell resident Tasha Powers put her 2019 Toyota Highlander on the car-sharing marketplace to help make some extra money for car payments.

“When I first listed it, I had inquiries, probably within 20 or 30 minutes. It was kind of crazy at the beginning. It's kind of tapered off now. We're basically booked through the middle of August,” Powers says.

So far in 2021, Glacier National Park is seeing a 22% increase in visitors over 2019.

Amanda Caldwell, a manager at Hertz/Thrifty car rental at Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell says visitors started arriving early this year during the traditional shoulder season in April. From morning to night her office has been getting around 50 calls per hour from visitors looking for a rental car.

“The volume of people coming to our area that are already booked on the flights is more than what we have fleet for. 2019 was our record year for visitation. And we are exceeding that in spades,” Caldwell says.

With traditional car rental companies tapped out, Glacier County Tourism president and CEO, Racene Friede, thinks car sharing marketplaces emerged at exactly the right time to meet tourists' needs.

“Turo has been a really amazing option for people locally who want to rent out their extra vehicles to visitors. I think that Turo has made a huge impact,” Friede says.

Vice president of communications and brand partnerships at Turo, Steve Webb, says they are seeing tons of demand across the country.

“What we do hear from our hosts is that they can't add vehicles fast enough,” Webb

But it’s unclear how the car-sharing marketplace fits into the future of the car rental industry.

J.D. Power is a market research company best known for its car studies. Michael Taylor, J.D. Power's practice lead for travel, says there is no historical context for this type of global car rental shortage. But, he doesn’t think the shortage is a long-term problem.

“I think by next year, we'll probably have regressed to the mean that they'll right-size their fleets, but it's gonna take them several months to do it. So in the meantime, someone is picking up the slack, whether that be Turo or Uhaul,” Taylor says.

Whether this is a unique moment in time or a long-term shift in how visitors get around, Grilley and Powers are helping meet the demand for rental cars in the Flathead Valley as travelers continue to arrive daily.

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