Renting a car is hard. Joanna Heath recently discovered just how hard when she attended a family wedding in a remote part of western Arizona.

The Chevy Blazer she and her husband picked up in Las Vegas looked fine on the outside. But upon closer inspection, it wasn’t.

“It had clearly not been cleaned and smelled faintly like smoke,” recalls Heath, a marketing executive from Langhorne, Pennsylvainia.

A rental agent told the couple they could wait for a different vehicle, but they were already late to check into their vacation rental.

The smell wasn’t the only thing wrong with the car. The next day, halfway between their rental and the wedding, the “check engine” light flashed. The car rolled to a halt. Frantic calls to the company’s roadside assistance number went to a recording.

The Heaths missed the wedding.

“What a nightmare,” she says.

Why is renting a car so hard this summer? Car rental companies are in the middle of the “carpocalypse” – a historic vehicle shortage paired with a historic surge in demand. They’ve been slow to replace their cars or are buying used vehicles to replenish their fleets. But those rentals are often not in mint condition.

Reality check: People have been trashing rental cars since there have been rental cars.

The worst offenders get added to the companies’ legendary “do not rent” lists. Some receive bills for the damage. But sometimes problems aren’t caught immediately, and are inherited by the next driver.

The current carpocalypse is about more than the rental car shortage. Car rental companies also are keeping their cars longer because business stalled during the lockdown, so the vehicles are older and more prone to breakdowns.

Additionally, fewer cars mean more pressure on the car rental company to process returned vehicles faster, so they can rent them again quickly. Also, there are fewer workers to do the processing because of the labor shortage. So they may miss a few details – or skip the cleaning entirely.

As a result, the car rental experience isn’t what it used to be. My last two rental cars each smelled like smoke and had nearly 50,000 miles on the odometer.

Cindi Shank discovered how bad things had gotten when she picked up a Jeep Grand Cherokee in Anchorage recently. She assumed the car was clean, and after a long flight, didn’t bother to inspect it carefully.

“In the daylight the next morning, we noticed how filthy the car was,” she recalls. “The cup holders were dirty and sticky, and the seats had lots of crumbs etcetera. The steering wheel was sticky from some sort of sugary doughnut or other pastry. The floors hadn’t been vacuumed and in between the seats was downright scary.”

Shank, a government worker from Cheyenne, Wyo., hypothesized that the car rental company was so short-staffed that it skipped the cleaning. Fortunately, she had packed sanitizing wipes and was able to clean the car herself.

Patrick Peterson, who publishes AutoDetective, a vehicular database, agrees that renting a car is harder than ever. But he says there are a few options for making it easier.

“The demand for car rentals is so high now that getting a rental car is already a win, unfortunately,” he says.

There are a few things you can do to avoid a car rental surprise. Renting from a known brand can help. Some of the off-brand car rental companies have struggled to make it through the pandemic and are more likely to give you a high-mileage vehicle that is minimally maintained.

If someone hands you the keys to a car that isn’t clean or has a smoky smell, ask for a different one immediately. If you keep the vehicle, you could get stuck with a cleaning fee for the odor – even if you don’t smoke.

Peterson says you can also check the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the front windshield. Then use a site such as AutoDetective or Vehicle History to check for past repairs or maintenance problems. If you see a long history of problems, ask for another car.

One more thing. If something goes wrong, make sure you double-check that the company acknowledges the return. Heath assumed that when the tow truck showed up, she was off the hook.

“Later in the week, I got a call from the Las Vegas location, asking me where the car was,” she recalls. After they found it, the company charged her an extra $50 for not returning the vehicle with a full tank.

“It took a few weeks, and many emails, but someone finally called me back and credited the gas charge, as well as a one-day rental fee reduction for the broken car,” she says. “I’m not sure if that made up for a missed wedding.”

It doesn’t.

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