Heading home for the holidays? Or taking a holiday vacation?

Don't forget to check your list of things to do: Get gifts for Mom and Dad, pick up dry cleaning, take cat to kennel, rent car.Oops! Forgot to rent a car? No problem, you think. As simple as dialing 1-800. Well, think again.

By the time you read this, there may be no rental cars available for the holiday weekend in many cities.

Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year for automobile rentals, according to rental companies and travel agencies. People who have waited until now to reserve a car may be out of luck.

Hertz, Avis, Budget, National, Alamo and Enterprise reported this week that virtually all of their cars in New York City had been reserved for the three-day holiday weekend that begins on Saturday. And there were reports from rental companies and travel agencies that no cars were available for the weekend in all of Florida.

"It's becoming increasingly more difficult to get confirmed reservations with car-rental agencies at various times of the year, and the holidays - Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter - are probably the most difficult," said Steve Loucks, the director of public relations for the American Society of Travel Agents, the world's largest travel-trade association, based in Washington.

"If you've waited until the last minute, you're going to have problems finding a car, whether it's Salt Lake City, Seattle or New York City," he said.

So what's someone without a car reservation to do? Cancel Christmas? Not necessarily.

Loucks said that many consumers search only as far as the big three rental companies - Hertz, Avis, Budget - even though thousands of rental companies are listed in the Federal Travel Registry, a directory updated every month.

Travel agents have access to these and other smaller companies around the country - with names like Pay-Less, 3-C's and Ugly Duckling - and can book directly with no additional charge to the customer. The agencies receive a 10 percent commission from the rental companies.

Some car dealers, including Ford, and companies like Sears, Roebuck & Co. also rent cars and minivans on a short-term basis, said Jan Armstrong, the executive vice president of the American Car Rental Association, a trade group representing auto-rental and -leasing companies. Advertisements in the yellow pages often say which ones rent cars.

Being flexible also helps.

Terry Gordon, the public relations manager at Avis, advised renters to look at locations close to where they're traveling for car rentals.

"If you're traveling to Boston, you might want to check on rental availability in Springfield, Mass.," he said.

"If you're going to New York City, you could try the Hartford airport."

Tom Wilt, the director of market development for the American Automobile Association, offered another tip.

"Stop by the car-rental counters when you arrive at your destination," he said. "On the West Coast, most check-ins on car rentals come in the early morning; on the East Coast, checks-ins are in the mid to late afternoon. After the morning or afternoon inventories, companies sometimes find they have an extra car in the fleet. A walk-in customer might be in luck."

Joseph Nothwang, a vice president and general manager at Hertz, agreed.

"Cancellations and no-shows are part of the process," Nothwang said, adding that on average most locations have one or two such rentals available. "It's best to call a specific location, however, rather than the toll-free number."

Manhattan is an especially difficult rental location because of the number of people who do not own cars, he added. He said Hertz will reserve up to a year in advance and guarantees rates for up to 270 days.

A record 36 million people are expected to travel 100 miles or more by ground or air this holiday season, said Jerry Cheske, a spokesman for the AAA.

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More Americans are combining trips home to see family and friends and to vacation, he said. More so this year, since the holiday falls on Sunday and many people have Monday off. Consequently, travelers are advised to book air and ground transportation, including car rentals, as far in advance as possible, no less than 30 days prior to the scheduled travel date.

As for the three-day New Year's weekend, the three largest car-rental companies had vehicles available this week at some of their Manhattan locations.

Renters in cities like New York may also want to think about searching beyond the traditional to the more exotic. Dieper Vogel, the owner of Vogel's Eurocars Inc. in Yonkers, rents Mercedes-Benzes, starting at $225 a day, plus mileage and tax. As of Wednesday, he had only one unreserved car for the weekend: a Mercedes 500SL, a two-seater roadster.

The price: $495 a day, plus mileage and tax.

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