WHERE HAVE ALL THE RENTAL CARS GONE: NOT ON THE ROAD AGAIN

WHERE HAVE ALL THE RENTAL CARS GONE: NOT ON THE ROAD AGAIN

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If you read my recent story (“Fully Vaccinated But Going Nowhere”) you know that thanks to the novel coronavirus pandemic I haven’t done an away-from-home overnight trip since January of 2020. And if you have been following my on-going re-cap of virus-related travel stories (“The Impact of The Coronavirus on Recent and Future Travel”) you know that COVID-19 markedly reduced both domestic travel within the U.S. as well as international travel by Americans heading abroad and citizens from other countries visiting the U.S. for well over a year.

But the availability of vaccines appears to have unleashed a strong pent-up desire on the part of those who have received “The Jab” to travel because (to steal lyrics from one of Willie Nelson’s famous tunes) they “just can’t wait to get on the road again” and they are booking flights, hotels and (so they think) reserving rental cars.

Unfortunately, as revealed by comments to a Facebook post that included a link to this recent Wall Street Journal article (“Wait, Where Did All the Rental Cars Go?”) those who have tried to “hit the road” after flying to a destination have encountered some very unpleasant surprises.

Those Facebook comments echo what the WSJ said near the beginning of that article:

“The sudden surge in post-vaccination travel is colliding with a relative shortage of rental cars. Rental-car companies sold a huge chunk of their fleets—hundreds of thousands of vehicles—to survive the pandemic. Now they can’t get cars onto their lots fast enough to meet the new demand, especially with car factories stalled by semiconductor shortages.

“Travelers report sky-high prices and sold-out dates even in non-beach destinations like Kansas City, Houston and Memphis. Even travelers with reservations complain that they now sometimes show up and, with no cars on the lot, must wait for a car to be returned and cleaned before they can drive off.”

“SORRY, WE HAVE NO CARS”

The while a shortage of rental cars because companies have reduced their fleets at many locations because of the marked downturn in travel due to the pandemic, finding that there no cars to be had or that the car that you had reserved was not available soon after your flight landed is not a new phenomenon.

Several years ago a good friend who lives on Maui had to fly over to Kauai between Christmas and New Years to attend a business meeting arranged on very short notice. When he arrived he discovered that there were no rental cars to be had presumably because tourists seeking a warm and sunny respite from winter weather at home had snatched them all up. While it might be possible for a rental car location at a mainland U.S. airport to quickly add cars to its fleet by moving some from other nearby locations, transporting cars between the islands of Hawaii to deal with a temporary shortage is not so easy.

I have personally encountered a shortage of rental cars on at least five pre-pandemic trips even though I had reserved a specific type of vehicle far in advance.

At Newark there were no “full-size” sedans so I was given an “upgrade” to a Lincoln Town Car at no additional charge. The car was fine for freeway driving but rocked and rolled like an aircraft carrier in heavy seas on the winding country roads of Pennsylvania and New York where I did most of the driving during the trip.

On a trip to Maui I was upgraded from a standard sedan to a Toyota Land Cruiser at no additional charge. For normal in-town, local driving it was a bit of a behemoth. But it did mean that I could “legally” drive it on the narrow, and sometimes dirt section of highway that curves around the southwestern end of the island on which car rental company contracts usually don’t allow the typical “family sedan” to be driven.

On arrival in Phoenix, I had to wait the better part of an hour to pick up the Honda Prius I had reserved even though as a Hertz “Gold” member the car was supposed to be ready drive off in as soon as I arrived.

When I flew into Calgary’s airport in 2012, I had to either accept a van (it being the only car ready to go) or wait (as I did) for the type of car I had reserved to be cleaned and refueled despite (once again) being a Hertz “Gold” member who had paid an annual fee to avoid having to stand in line at an airport rental car counter to pick up my reserved car.

On my last pre-pandemic “Big Trip” I spent the first three weeks of December of 2018 on Maui and then flew to San Francisco on Christmas Eve so my wife and I could have Christmas dinner with her cousins the following day. At that time the earliest non-stop flight between Maui and San Francisco departed around 1:30 pm Hawaii time and arrived in San Francisco around 9:00 pm local time.

Yet again despite being a Hertz “Gold” member the only vehicle available to us after we landed at San Francisco International Airport was a large pickup truck. The Hertz staff just shrugged their shoulders when I pointed out the truck was not what I had reserved. Fortunately, the family who had beaten us to the rental car garage decided they would prefer the pickup to the full-sized sedan they were given so we “exchanged gifts” and drove away in the vehicle that we had asked “Santa” to bring to us.

While some travelers posting comments on Facebook the Wall Street Journal article have complained about having to wait for a rental car to be returned, cleaned, and refueled, many have said that there were no cars available from any rental car company let alone from the one through which they had made a confirmed, advance reservation.

RENTAL CAR PRICES GO SKY-HIGH

And then there are the car rental rates which in my mind even in pre-pandemic times seemed quite high. Now I read reports of rates double or more what they had been in the past and as even as high as a few hundred dollars per day.

If you are traveling to and staying entirely in a major metropolitan city renting a car often makes no sense at all, especially if you would only use it to drive to your in-town hotel from the airport. Taxis, buses or light rail systems or ride sharing offered by Uber or Lyft usually are a good option for that trip into town as well as getting around town. And since most downtown hotels charge a fee to guests who park a car in their garage, you can save quite a bit of money by not renting a car.

But what I am hearing now is that both “locals” and tourists have been steering clear of the close quarters with other passengers aboard buses, subway, and light rail systems to avoid the possibility of being infected with COVID-19, optic instead to rent a car in which they only will be riding. I have also heard that there have been fewer drivers working for Uber and Lyft during the pandemic.

Life is still not back to “normal” and even though booking of flights and hotels may be on the increase, nothing about travel at this time seems to be the way it was before the novel coronavirus turn our lives upside down.

And, unfortunately “getting on the road again” is not as easy was it used to be.

(Read “How to Deal with the Rental Car Crunch” by The New York Times “Frugal Traveler” for tips for getting around the shortage and high cost of renting a vehicle.)


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