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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tales from the ‘car rental apocalypse’: How travelers are coping

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post)
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The scene sounded like something out of a zombie movie: an empty parking lot, angry wanderers and desperate scrambles for a lifeline.

“It’s the hunger games out here with people fighting for cars because you have none…in the Atlanta airport? NONE?” wrote award-winning actor and singer Audra McDonald in a tweet last week. “And when one comes up people are all running for it? This is ridiculous.”

The missive was directed at Hertz, which emerged from bankruptcy on June 30. But few rental car companies have come out unscathed in this year of car shortages and price hikes.

“We’re in a situation where everything is expensive everywhere,” said Jonathan Weinberg, founder and chief executive of the discount car rental site AutoSlash.

Representatives for Hertz and Enterprise did not respond to a request for comment, and Avis Budget Group declined to answer questions.

Why your next rental car might cost more than a plane ticket

After selling off huge portions of their fleet during the pandemic, operators have had difficulty building their inventory back up to meet the demand of a rising tide of travelers. Cars that are available are often causing sticker shock; last month, the travel booking site Hopper said prices were up 95 percent compared to the beginning of the year. A shortage of semiconductors is holding up car production, making the situation even more dire.

Stories of painfully long waits, nonexistent cars, astronomical prices and other travails are common on social media. Some frustrated customers have taken to invoking a scene from the sitcom “Seinfeld,” in which comedian Jerry Seinfeld reacts to a car rental company running out of cars: “You know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation.”

While companies are managing to add some vehicles, Weinberg said, the situation overall is not much better than it was in the spring, when the problems started ramping up. He said because rental car operators anticipate a high no-show rate — meaning some customers don’t pick up the car they booked, especially if they didn’t pay in advance — sometimes the estimates are off, cars might be returned late and then there are no vehicles available, even for people who have reservations.

Weinberg said the low-inventory, high-price trend started emerging earlier this year in leisure areas including Florida, Arizona and Las Vegas, and then spread to Hawaii, Alaska and national parks. He predicted in the spring that it would spread to the rest of the country as travel continued to pick up.

“That’s basically what’s happened right now,” he said.

Weinberg said his company is seeing prices typically between $100 to $150 a day for an economy car. While Weinberg expects demand to fall after Labor Day, he said it will pick back up over the holidays.

“I think that folks who want to rent a car for Thanksgiving probably want to be thinking about that right now,” he said.

Neil Abrams, president of the auto-rental-focused Abrams Consulting Group, said the landscape could stay the same into next year.

“When will this situation normalize?” he said. “I think when computer chips begin to flow freely again [and] auto manufacturing increases to pre-pandemic levels, we will see a more normalized market and more stable pricing.”

But Abrams cautioned that even if rentals get more affordable, 2019 prices might be a thing of the past.

Companies “may learn that, you know what, higher prices with less cars are better than lower prices with more cars,” he said.

Abrams had his own calculations to make for a five-week trip to New York from Florida. A full-size rental car plus shipping up boxes and golf clubs would have cost about $2,900. Instead, he had his own vehicle hauled north and then back for about $2,150.

“So all in, I saved about $750 AND I had my own car to drive for 5 weeks vs. a rental vehicle,” he wrote in an email.

Other travelers have found their own creative solutions. Four of them shared their stories.

How the pandemic led to a rental car crisis just as Americans are ready to bust loose

U-Haul at the wedding

Katie Rodgers was getting frazzled. The Raleigh resident had found a reasonably priced flight from North Carolina to Maine for a late June wedding and wasn’t paying much for a place to stay. But then she got to the rental-car part of the search.

“For, like, four days, it was $800 for the cheapest little sedan,” said Rodgers, 29. She realized: “I absolutely cannot pay triple my flight and accommodations for this rental car.”

As she searched for alternatives, she came across a TripAdvisor post in which one mom mentioned her son had rented a U-Haul to get around.

Rodgers, who works for the North Carolina state government, thought to herself: “I am just the type of person to do this. I feel like this is meant to be.”

But first, she wanted to make sure the bride wouldn’t mind if she rolled up in a vehicle meant for moving days instead of celebratory occasions. She texted a friend with the question.

“My friend said, ‘The bride says you can only get the U-Haul if you let everyone take pictures with it,’” Rodgers recalled. She decided to go for it.

Rodgers wondered if prices would be sky-high given rental car demand. But she was able to book a Ford F-150 pickup for less than $200 for four days, she said. It even had a backup camera and “incredible” air conditioning. She declined the offers to add on boxes, tape and moving pads.

“The guys at the U-Haul place, they didn’t look at me weird,” she said. “Honestly, I think a lot of people must be doing this because I certainly am not a trendsetter.”

Tourists in Hawaii are driving U-Hauls because rental cars are so expensive

‘We just kept searching on Google Maps’

When Brianna Hoglen, 28, of Harrisburg, Pa., started looking for rental cars in May for her trip to Maui the following month, she ran into one bad option after another. One company had no cars. Another had luxury vehicles for about $6,500 a week. Even standard vehicles, she said, were $3,500 or more for a week — more than accommodations.

“We might as well just sleep in the car,” she joked.

Hoglen, who was traveling with her husband and another couple, considered taking a ride-share to the hotel and just renting a car for one or two days. They explored the car-sharing platform Turo and “seriously” contemplated a U-Haul.

Then she put Google to work — but not in the typical way.

“We just keep searching on Google Maps, just would zoom in and try to find a rental car company,” she said. Using the satellite view, she looked for any local companies that might not have shown up in a major travel booking site like Kayak. That’s how she found Manaloha, which offers older vehicles at a comparative bargain.

Hoglen, a public health researcher, said they ended up paying $1,000 for an early 2000s Toyota Corolla for six days. The company left it in the airport parking lot, unlocked, and gave instructions on where to park it when the trip was over. Also included, she said: instructions not to drive the car if it got really hot.

“We were thrilled we found something,” she said.

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Summer plans become September plans

The last time she flew to Las Vegas to visit family outside the city, Amy Ransom remembers paying around $200 for a rental car for four or five days. But when she looked for a car for a summer trip she hoped to take, she found prices just under $500 for four days — for a subcompact.

“I knew that it would be higher than normal, but I had no idea how much higher than normal,” said Ransom, 54, who works in the school system in Portland, Ore.

So she postponed her plans until September, when she hopes peak summer pricing will be over and car rental companies will have bought more vehicles.

In the meantime, she is going to take a train to Seattle to go to a baseball game with some of her adult children (no rental car required). And in the middle of August, she is taking a trip to Iceland. She decided to go with a group tour — “so somebody else was doing the driving.”

These car rental alternatives will get you there this summer

A Lyft from Philly to the Poconos

Virginia Breece and her boyfriend had their rental car all locked in for a mid-June wedding in the Poconos. Or so they thought.

“As soon as we landed in Pennsylvania, the car company called us and said, ‘Hey, we don’t have a car for you,’” said Breece, a 23-year-old night shift nurse living in Raleigh. “It was as soon as we landed. Like we hadn’t even gotten off the plane yet.”

In shock — and maybe a little bit of denial — they took a shuttle to the Hertz office, she said.

“They were like, ‘Sorry, not sorry, we don’t have a car for you,’” she said. In line were 20 or so other people with the same problem, according to Breece, and employees told the couple they wouldn’t have anything all weekend. Hertz did not reply to a question about rental car shortages.

After calling “every rental car company in Pennsylvania, I seriously think every single one,” Breece said, they couldn’t find any cars.

“So we had to take a $200 Uber up to the Pocono Mountains,” she said. (Actually, a ride with Uber would have been much more expensive, Breece clarified, so they went with Lyft.) The roughly two-hour ride with a stranger could have been awkward, Breece said.

“Luckily, he was one of the nicest guys ever,” she continued. “But it could have been really, really bad.”