Travelers may find that the widespread General Motors recalls follow them on the road—to the nearest car rental lot.
Since January, the automaker has recalled more than 13 million vehicles in 30 separate actions, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That exceeds GM's previous record of 10.7 million vehicles recalled in the U.S., in 2004.
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Even drivers who don't own a GM vehicle might feel the ripple effect. Recalls have taken some of the car rental companies' fleets off the road. Plus, in a March deal, companies including Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Hertz Rent-a-Car, and Avis Car Rental committed to help GM provide loaners to the nearly 1.4 million owners of vehicles recalled for ignition-switch problems.
Laura Bryant, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Holdings, which includes Enterprise, Alamo and National Car Rental, said the company's infrastructure has helped it move its fleet to meet demand. "We are working hard to meet the needs of our automotive partners as well as the consumers affected," she said. "In fact, we are working closely with General Motors and communicating daily, if not hourly, as part of this effort."
Hertz spokeswoman Anna Bootenhoff said the "vast majority" of GM recalls involve cars too old to be in their fleet. "The impact on our fleet has not been severe to date," she said.
"As a result of the recalls, we do expect that there will be fewer rental vehicles available, industrywide, over the next several weeks," said John Barrows, vice president of communications for Avis Budget Group, the parent of Avis and Budget Rent a Car. He said the company expects to honor all existing reservations, but is encouraging customers to book early.
That didn't help Kathryn Rasmussen, who reserved a car through one of Avis' New York City locations more than two weeks in advance, to get her and four friends to Philadelphia on May 17 for a bridal shower. When they arrived to pick up the car, there was a crowd of people waiting. Almost an hour later, she said, they were told there were no cars available.
"We were told 10 [vehicles] were in transit from their airport location," she said. "But it turned out they were all 2014 Malibus that had been recalled." (That recall, announced last week, involved 140,067 Malibu sedans from model year 2014, due to a brake vacuum hose that can become disconnected, affecting force and distance needed to bring the vehicle to a stop.)
Rasmussen called several other Avis locations and competitors before snagging an available vehicle through a local rental company—and arrived for the bridal shower an hour late.
Barrows said the situation was regrettable but "not unprecedented in Manhattan on weekends," when rentals often sell out.
"Anecdotally, having cars being moved that could not be rented due to the recall might be what someone said to explain a reservation that could not be fulfilled," he said. "But that's not the case. We haven't even yet received the VIN numbers for the most recent GM recalls, so that's not what's behind this particular circumstance."
But if travelers encounter a no-cars-available situation, it's still more likely to stem from unexpected demand than too many recalled cars in the fleet.
"It's not as bad as it could be," said Lincoln Merrihew, senior vice president of transportation for consulting firm Millward Brown Digital. Some of the recalls have been on large SUVs and trucks that are unlikely to be offered as rentals, and if so, not in large quantity.
Rental car fleets also tend to rack up miles fast, so companies cycle out cars after two or three model years. The bulk of GM's recalls have been on older models. "There's going to be very few pre-2010 cars in the fleet, if any," said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.
Limiting rental car stalls
The extent to which travelers might be affected depends on how many GM vehicles a given rental company has in its fleet, said Merrihew. The usual rental for a given class is something travelers can take note of when comparing rates and vehicles before booking.(Keep in mind that GM isn't the only automaker that has recalled vehicles this year. It's worth checking the NHTSA's list of recall announcements to see if any other contenders pop up there.)
Another reason to pay attention to which models have been recalled: You could end up renting one. Many of the recalls didn't come with a warning to stop driving them—just get them repaired, said Merrihew. "If that's the case, it's at the rental car companies' discretion as to whether to rent them out or not," he said.
Rental car companies say that they quickly take recalled vehicles off the lot. "We do not rent vehicles that are subject to a recall notice once we receive the NHTSA-approved recall notice from the manufacturer," said Bryant from Enterprise Holdings. Policies for Alamo, Enterprise and National also stipulate alerting drivers if a recall notice comes in concerning a vehicle already on rent. Hertz spokeswoman Bootenhoff said vehicles subject to a recall are automatically grounded until they are repaired.
Given high summer demand, travelers may also find it helps to reserve their car well in advance. That gives rental companies a chance to move their fleet to meet demand, (hopefully) lessening the chance of a booked vehicle being unavailable.
And if you do show up to find there aren't any cars available, push the rental company for help, Brauer said. If there are other vehicles available in a different class (say, full size rather than economy), negotiate for a free upgrade. Reps should also be able to help you scout around for available vehicles at other locations.
—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant.