Updated Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 09:01 PM
Nearly 8 million visitors — a record number — traveled to the islands last year, spending $13 billion. Airlines are adding seats. Travelers are again pouring in from the United States, Japan and Canada.
Supplies of rental cars are stretched, leading to higher prices and, during some peak times, shortages.
“When car companies on the mainland need more cars, they just shift them from location to location,’’ says Ron Wigand, product manager for AAA Washington. “In Hawaii, it takes months to address that.’’
Adding to the problem was a longshore strike late last year that affected car shipments from distribution sites in Long Beach, Calif., and Los Angeles, said Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group.
Getting the best rate and the rental car you want in Hawaii will take some planning, so start early:
: Book as far as you can in advance, especially if you travel over spring break, in summer or during the Christmas holidays.
“Come June 15, airlines will charge as much as they can, and car rentals are in perfect alignment with that through early August,’’ says Jeff Tucker of the Beat of Hawaii travel website
Most rental-car agencies don’t charge for changes or cancellations (some do for no-shows), meaning you can take advantage of better deals if you find one later. That doesn’t always apply to discounted prepaid rates, so check cancellation and change policies carefully.
Agencies base pricing on supply and demand, Wigand says. “As demand goes up and inventory goes down, prices go up. Rent now for Dec. 15, and you might pay $250 (per week). Wait until September, and it could be $450.’’
: Almost all major agencies have in-town locations, sometimes just a few miles from the airport. The cost of a taxi can be worth the savings, given Hawaii’s high airport surcharges, taxes and fees.
When I’m in Maui, I rent from Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s Hana Highway location, two miles from Kahului airport. A check on the Enterprise website in late January for a week’s economy-car rental in early March turned up a rate of $239 at the Hana location versus $551 at the airport.
Check operating hours at branch locations before you rent. Enterprise’s Hana branch, for example, closes on Sundays and at noon on Saturdays, and stays open only until 5 p.m. other days.
Get quotes from local firms that negotiate wholesale rates with the major agencies.
Check various third-party websites (airline sites, Orbitz, Expedia, etc.) against rates posted on the car-rental agencies’ own websites. If you haven’t booked early, call directly to see about last-minute cancellations. Ask about AAA or AARP discounts (10-20 percent), or try a travel agent.
: If you want an air/hotel package, find one that throws in a few days’ car rental at no extra cost. Pleasant Holidays has some available.
: Finally, rethink your need for a car. Will you really need one every day or just for a day or two? Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii have inexpensive public buses. They’re easy to use and a good way to meet locals — and save money.
Carol Pucci is a Seattle freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com. Web/blog: carolpucci.com. Twitter: @carolpucci