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Clare Francis: We're now in the peak holiday season, but as thousands of families are finding out the car hire is costing them a lot more this year than perhaps it has done in previous years, and that's because of a severe shortage of cars for hire in certain destinations.
Bob Atkinson, who is a travel expert at Travelsupermarket.com, is with me just to explain what the problem is, why, and what you can do about it.
Q1: So why is there such a shortage this year?
Bob Atkinson: Well the shortage of car hires this year is really down to two reasons. Towards the back end of last year, 2008, the big Spanish destinations started to see a huge drop-off in arriving visitors, as the credit crunch started to take effect and people downsized how often they go away on holiday -
CF: And also the value of the euro against the pound...
BA: Exactly, and that was compounded by things like the euro against the pound, which doesn't help. On top of that, when they've been planning for this coming year they all literally said "well, we don't need as many cars this year". But when they gone to renew their fleets - and most car hire companies renew their fleets every single year - they found themselves, just like we have in the credit crunch as customers, they found it difficult to actually get hold of the credit they required to fund these fleets that they operate.
So not only have they planned to downsize anyway, but when they've gone to realise the size of the fleet for the year, they've not been able to get the credit in the Spanish credit markets they need to fulfil - hence, a shortage of cars which we saw for the first time at Easter this year when cars practically ran out at the Easter period in Alicante and Malaga.
Q2: And obviously the height of the problem has really become clear just over the last few weeks, because prices have just shot up haven't they?
BA: Yes, they have. I mean, as we've approached the peak summer season, and we often think in the UK "well, that matches our school holidays", well you have to remember that places like Spain - and I have to make it clear that its Spain which is where the problem is, it's in the Spanish mainland areas and the Spanish Balearics - everywhere else is pretty okay around the world, it's the normal thing happening, so we do need to make that clear.
But as we've gone to the main summer season, that's when the Spaniards are on holiday, that's when a lot of our European cousins are going on holiday, so Spain becomes very, very busy. So all of a sudden, people get to the point where they think "hey, we're going away in a week / 10 days, must get the car booked" - because they tend to leave it until the last minute and then found that prices are going through the roof as the demand goes through the roof, and the car companies just can't support the level of demand that is there with the fleet sizes this year.
Q3: And what [kind of cost] are we talking about? Because I was in Portugal for a week last month and paid just over £100 for a car over the week, but we're talking significantly more than that aren't we if you're looking at Spain at the moment?
BA: Yes, we are, and the big main car brokers who we have through on our site, as well as the big main brands - we work with them all very closely - they're telling us that, even 10 days ago, that prices for this summer were running up to 100% higher than what they would be at the same time last year for these peak dates in July and August on the Balearics, and 60-70% higher at that point in Alicante, Malaga, Murcia which are the three biggest arrival points for car hire in Spain.
However, in the last few days it's escalated even further. So whereas you might have got most people tending to go for small cars, a mini-economy or economy car - and you might expect for a week at this time of year to pay something in the region of £150-£200 - you're finding that at the moment if you leave it until the last minute you're paying upwards of £400 for that kind of car. The car groups are running out at the lower end, so you're then forced to take a larger car which then costs you even more!
So our advice at travelsupermarket.com at the moment is to - whatever you do - DO NOT LEAVE CAR HIRE UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE!
In no circumstances try to turn up at a Spanish airport and just think you'll get a car hire. A), you may not get a car hire at all, and B), if you do you will pay an exorbitant rate to do so. So as quickly as you can, check the availability for the dates that you're planning to go. Book as soon as you can because we are seeing prices rise dramatically each day in July and August. As we head into September, October, prices are heading up - they are higher than they would expect to be, so again don't leave it until the last minute. We might be out of school holidays but don't leave it until the last minute because you will pay more.
"Book early, save money" - that's the main tip.
Q4: And there is quite a price differential [between companies] isn't there? Because I know when I was looking on travelsupermarket.com, I ended up with a company I'd never heard of before - it wasn't one of the really big names - but it was fine?
BA: Yes, we deal with a range of companies. We deal with the big brandnames - and most people are familiar with names such as Hertz, Avis - which are very well known world-wide brands and they're the companies who actually often have the cars themselves and market them.
But we also deal with a vast range of what are called 'brokers', and what the brokers are is a kind of middleman if you like, between the small, independent car hire companies in Spain, and places like ourselves the UK where they're looking to sell that product.
That's companies such as Holiday Autos which is one of the most well known one, but then there's a whole other range of companies who then broke and sell these Spanish companies. I can assure everybody that the car hire companies that we have on the site, they're all fully legitimate, they're all fully licensed, they're checked out by the brokers that we use and we know that they offer a good level of service and quality, and you can be assured of getting that by doing your price comparison with travelsupermarket.com and then booking.
Q5: So basically almost as soon as you've booked your flight, you might as well book your car hire?
BA: Really it's the same on a lot of these kind of 'extra's' that we tend to think about. We tend to think of car hire as kind of a last-minute thing, just like travel insurance or airport parking, and our advice is always don't leave it until the last minute - research at that point, get it sorted, get it booked. You'll save money that way and also you've got that peace of mind that it's arranged and you're not going to get stung at the last minute and pay over the odds.
CF: Great, thank you Bob.
BA: Thank you.