One year after the coronavirus outbreak, renting a car sure is a different experience. At least it is for someone like Alena Iskanderova.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, car rental locations were often crowded and the vehicles were pricey. Sometimes, the vehicles were clean, sometimes not, she recalls.

What a difference a year makes.

Prices are dramatically lower now. In some markets, they’ve plunged by up to 40%. Today, the car rental locations are quiet, and the employees keep a safe distance. 

“Many rental companies have decreased the interactions between their employees and customers,” says Iskanderova, a paleontologist from Seattle. 

The vehicles are squeaky clean, but she doesn’t take any chances.  She always packs disinfecting wipes and cleans the steering wheel and other high-touch areas before driving away. Iskanderova also stores all of her personal items in a zip-lock bag.

Renting has changed — a lot. I covered some of the immediate shifts for FORBES last year. But some of the changes appear to have become permanent.

What do you need to know about renting a car now?

Here’s what you have to know before you rent a car:

  • Demand for rental cars is increasing but is still well below 2019 levels. 
  • The experience is dramatically different. Rental companies are sanitizing their vehicles and offering more touchless rentals.
  • During the months ahead, your car rental company may run out of vehicles even if you have a confirmed reservation. Plan ahead.

Demand for rental cars is revving up again

One of the first things to know about car rentals in 2021 is that more people are renting. Ross Callander, head of online marketing for Halo Insurance Services, which owns the site, says he’s seen a rise in the number of people renting cars for domestic travel. 

Part of the reason people are driving more is that they are vacationing closer to home since they can’t travel internationally. “However, customers have also told us that they feel safer traveling by car at the moment, compared to using public transport,” he says.

Travel insurance companies also report uptake rates for car rental insurance are rising. Companies like Allianz Travel are seeing more interest in car rental products like Rental Car Damage Protector, which at $9 a day costs significantly less than some of the car rental insurance sold over the counter.

While demand may be revving up, it’s still below where it was a year ago. The trade publication Auto Rental News valued the U.S. car rental market at $23 billion (in revenue) for 2020, a historic 27% decline from the year before. That’s the lowest overall revenue since 2011. While industry projections for 2021 are more optimistic, the industry still has a long way to go.

The car rental experience is different now

The car rental business was already moving toward self-service and a digital-first approach. But the pandemic has accelerated it.

For example, Avis Budget Group customers can manage their entire rental experience through the Avis mobile app, which practically eliminates the interaction with anyone at the rental counter. The company introduced a new digital check-in feature that makes the check-in process totally contactless. Just flash your license and credit card at the counter for your key. 

Enterprise has also implemented what it calls permanent low- and no-touch rental options. They include advance check-in at Enterprise’s neighborhood locations and enhanced curbside and delivery processes. Both are essentially no-touch processes that let customers bypass the counter to reserve and choose a car, check out and go. 

“We’re making significant investments to upgrade the cleaning and car wash facilities across our global operations,” says Enterprise spokeswoman Lisa Martini. “This includes everything from enhanced industrial vacuuming, to cleaning equipment, to lighting.”

Car rental companies have also doubled down on their cleaning initiatives. Enterprise rolled out its Complete Clean Pledge last year, which describes in meticulous detail its cleaning protocol before it rents you a car.

Hertz has taken similar steps to upgrade the cleanliness of its vehicles. Its new Hertz Gold Standard Clean program guarantees your vehicle will undergo a 15-point process, including a thorough disinfection, cleaning and inspection. 

Sridhar Tayur, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, says the focus on cleaning has affected the operations of car rental companies — and the customer experience. “The sanitizing of cars between rentals increases the turnaround time between rentals,” he explains. 

While that hasn’t really been a factor for customers yet, because of lower demand, it could come into play later this year as more people travel.

Car rental inventory may vary by location

During the pandemic, car rental companies moved quickly to scale their fleets. They shifted some of their cars away from the less busy airports and to locations closer to cities. In late 2020 and into early 2021, that meant some locations had limited inventory or, in some cases, no cars at all.

“There were times that inventory was limited for Friday pickups at major airports because of an increased traveler interest, especially over the summer and through the holidays,” says Lucy Bueti, vice president of rental cars at Priceline

This trend is likely to continue this year, she says. So if you plan to rent a car, you should know that the location may run low on vehicles.

“You might save money by picking up your car earlier in the week or by traveling across town to the airport to pick up your car,” adds Bueti.

“Like walking into Starbucks and hearing they have no coffee”

Sometimes, car rental companies can’t manage their inventory. That happened to Victoria Stepanov when she rented a car in Texas recently. When she arrived at the counter, a representative had bad news for her.

“They had no cars,” says Stepanov, a therapist based in Montenegro. “Makes no sense, right?  It’s like walking into Starbucks and hearing they have no coffee. Obviously, after that, I began calling the place a day before pickup, to find out if they had cars available.”

And that brings us to the biggest takeaway for anyone renting a car in 2021 and beyond. The industry remains in a fragile state. Plan accordingly.

“The risk is greater for smaller mom-and-pop rental companies than the bigger brands,” says Giuseppe “G” Frustaci, founder of StickShiftDrivingAcademy.Com. His recommendation: Book directly with a car rental company. If anything goes wrong, the company can refer you to another location that will honor your reservation.

The road ahead will not be easy for car rental customers. Your vehicle may be cleaner and you might be able to rent it without interacting with another person. But that assumes your rental company will have a car for you. 

It might — or it might not.