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Marlene Escobar and her family of five had planned to travel to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks at the end of May, first flying into Bozeman, renting a car and driving to the two parks.

As the trip grew closer, Escobar, of Rosamond, California, looked to reserve a rental car for her trip scheduled in mid-May. Many agencies were already booked out.

“The prices were ridiculous,” she said. “Then we changed plans.”

Despite looking for a rental vehicle two months in advance, Escobar said she was quoted about $1,700 for a mid-size car for five days in Bozeman.

She found a similar rental in Boise for $650 for the week. The price difference made the added drive time worth it, she said. Her family flew into Boise instead.

“It took us longer to get to Grand Teton, but we were willing to do that,” she said.

Escobar is just one of many facing inflated rental car prices and a lack of availability as Bozeman faces a high demand and shortage of rentals. Rentals are going for rates upwards of $350 a day in Bozeman.

Searches on booking websites like Kayak and Expedia in June show prices for SUVs and mid-size cars in the range of $500 to more than $650 per day.

Bozeman isn’t alone. A nationwide shortage of semiconductors has slowed down auto-manufacturing in the U.S., leaving rental companies — many who sold large portions of their rental fleets during the height of the pandemic — in a bind.

In Bozeman, that means visitors are paying higher rates, looking for alternatives to rental agencies, or canceling their trips altogether during a year that’s already seen a high volume of tourists.

Yellowstone National Park saw a record number of tourists for the month of April. It was about a 40% increase over April 2019, with about 67,500 visitors.

Explore Rentals in Belgrade sold about 10% of its rental fleet in 2020, owner Will Casella said.

“We sold our high passenger vans because there wasn’t any group travel,” he said.

Last summer, rental demand started to rebound. Casella realized demand would remain steady into 2021 and by fall had placed orders for new cars.

“It wasn’t until this February that we started to hear back (from vendors) that they couldn’t get us the supplies,” he said “Everything has been delayed.”

Issues with the supply chain, and the national shortage in auto-manufacturing, means Casella has been shorted on everything from car rentals to other rental offerings like rafts and outdoor gear.

The rental agency is booked out through August and Casella’s on track to have a record-breaking year for his business. The company has been fully booked since mid-May. On a typical year, he doesn’t get fully booked until late-June.

“2019 had been our best year and we’re crushing that,” he said.

By sourcing from local dealerships Casella has been able to buy back enough cars to compensate for what he had sold off in 2020 — adding about 20% to his fleet.

Even with the additional cars, Casella feels the crunch.

“I wish I had twice as many vehicles,” he said.

One Belgrade dealership decided to get into the rental market in early May after seeing national news coverage of the car shortage.

“We were obviously seeing the nationwide news story that kept popping up and Montana is always mentioned,” said Anna Lowry, the operations manager at Finish Line Auto Sales in Belgrade. “It was an easy opportunity to sit there and say ‘we should probably purchase any vehicles we can get our hands on, even to offer to locals.’”

In the past three weeks, the used car dealership has built a fleet of 27 brand new cars— bought from dealerships in Bozeman, Butte, Billings, and as far as Washington and Arizona — to offer rentals to visitors and locals.

Even with a late start to the tourism season, Lowry said July and August are quickly being booked.

“I’d say about 30% of our calls have been for locals who need an extra car for a few days to get the family to Yellowstone,” she said.

Some local hotels and guest ranches have taken to referring visitors desperate to find rental cars to Finish Line, Lowry said.

Tashina Smith, who works the front desk at 1872 Inn, a hotel in West Yellowstone, has answered a higher number of calls than usual from prospective guests worried about booking a room without first securing a rental car.

“They’ll say ‘let me try to get a rental car and call you back,’” she said.

Normally, guests worry about finding a rental car last, first booking a flight and a hotel.

She hasn’t had a guest cancel a reservation because they can’t find a rental car but said it’s possible “we’re missing out on bookings” in the first place when visitors decide they can’t find or afford a rental car.

Many out-of-towners have taken to calling dealerships, like Finish Line Auto Sales, desperately inquiring about rentals. Others have searched for rentals in neighboring towns, like Butte or Billings, hoping to snag a cheaper rental there.

Anecdotes have also filtered through social media of folks renting U-Hauls in lieu of a rental car.

Josh Buchanan was one.

“I even went as far as possibly renting a U-Haul truck, because we just had to have something. I didn’t care as long as we had four wheels,” he said.

There is no way to tell if people are renting U-Haul trucks in place of rental vehicles as the company does not require reasons for renting, a U-Haul spokesperson said in an email. However, there has been a considerable uptick in demand for pickup trucks and cargo van rentals across many markets, the spokesperson wrote.

Buchanan and his wife, Abbee, booked a trip to Bozeman in December to visit Yellowstone National Park during the first week of June.

The couple, from Birmingham, Alabama, began to look for rental cars in February.

Buchanan, who has nearly a decade worth of experience working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, was hoping to find a mid-size rental for about $100-$150 a day, realizing peak tourism season is nearing.

“I didn’t think it was going to be over $300 a day,” he said.

Buchanan started to feel desperate, inquiring at local rental companies, dealerships and searching for rentals in Livingston, Billings and Butte with no success. Eventually, he found a car off of Turo, a rideshare app where locals can rent their personal vehicles.

He’s paying $1,601 — after taxes and fees — for a Jeep for five days.

“This is essentially doubling the cost of our vacation on the rental alone, which does not include gasoline,” he said.

After searching for nearly two months, Buchanan grudgingly feels like he scored a deal and said he’s going to try not to think about the rental price while exploring Yellowstone.

“It’s our first big trip in well over a year,” he said.

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