LOS ANGELES — You can fly from Burbank to Bozeman, Montana, one of the gateways to Yellowstone National Park, for $38 round-trip, thanks to fares offered Aug. 11-18 on startup Avelo Airlines. Great deal. Then you decide to book a rental car. The best price for an airport rental that turned up on Kayak, a search aggregator, was — wait for it — $2,028 for a week. It’s through Hertz, which chooses the model for you and asks you to pay upfront.
Welcome to car wars, rental version, another side effect of the pandemic. This one threatens to make your rental, usually an afterthought, more expensive than your plane ticket.
The pandemic has hit the rental car industry in the chops. The industry has suffered “much greater disruption than during 9/11 and the Great Recession,” said Chris Brown, editor of Auto Rental News. “Business went from pretty decent in the first quarter (of 2020) to the worst it’s ever been. Business was down 85%.”
Unleased cars were gathering dust in parking lots and many were being sold. About 4,000 were destroyed in an April 2020 fire that burned heavily near Southwest Florida International Airport, which serves the Gulf Coast. They were valued at $100 million, Auto Rental News reported.
Restocking inventory is now trickier due to a shortage of chips, Brown said. Bloomberg said the semiconductor shortage could affect production of 1.3 million vehicles.
As a result, “you see car rental rates through the roof,” Brown said.
Rates are especially high in remote destinations, including Hawaii, locations near national parks, and, surprisingly, some urban areas. Here’s a look at some car rental rates to various destinations, as searched on Kayak, and how they compare to the lowest airfares from LAX on Google Flights. (Dates were chosen at random.) Like the Avelo/Hertz comparison above, these rates may no longer be available.
Airfare: $458 round-trip on Hawaiian, Delta, and Alaska
Car rental: On Priceline, $737 for the week for a Volkswagen Passat (or similar) from Payless. The rate is for a reservation paid in advance. At Dollar, it’s $815 for a Chevrolet Spark, which must be prepaid; cancellation is free. San Francisco
Airfare: $97 round trip on Delta
Car Rental: Several listings on Hotwire were labeled “surprise agency,” including a Kia Rio for $338 for the week. At Fox Rent a Car, in partnership with Priceline, a Toyota Yaris (or similar economy) was priced at $433 for a pay-up-front rental. A Buick Encore compact SUV at Thrifty in partnership with Priceline fetched $757.
Airfare: The best fare to Denver, about 60 miles from Estes Park, home to Rocky Mountain National Park, was $156 on Spirit and back on Frontier, two low-cost carriers. A flight on the old American carrier cost $223.
Car rental: $705 for one week for a Ford Focus at Budget. Several cars have been offered through ‘surprise agency’ and also labeled ‘vendor choice’ meaning you won’t know which vehicle you are getting or from which agency. This price was $519 on Hotwire, but when I clicked on it I was told that the price had changed and I had to “grab it before it goes up”. The tab was now $622 through Ace Rent a Car in conjunction with Hotwire. When I clicked again, the listing noted that there was no free cancellation.
Airfare: $177 round trip on Delta and Alaska
Car rental: $380 for one week for a Hyundai Elantra at Enterprise via Priceline, which notes that you are not charged until pickup and free cancellation is offered. For a better but slightly weirder deal, you can rent a utility vehicle — basically, a pickup truck — that seats two people and nine bags through Hertz for $264.
Book as soon as possible. It’s the board of Enterprise Holdings, which includes the Enterprise, Alamo and National brands. Just check if there are any cancellation fees. Additionally, Enterprise said in an email, “Providing flexible travel dates in (a customer’s) search can also help increase their options. We have been working closely with our manufacturing partners since last summer to continue adding vehicles to our fleet to meet the continued increase in demand.
Consider car-sharing services. Turo, which claims to be the largest car-sharing company, has cars in vacation destinations in the West, the United States and Europe. Here’s how it works: You need a car. A car owner may need to park a car at the airport for a trip or earn extra income from a vehicle that sits empty. This car is leased. The landlord can get free parking at the airport plus the money, and the tenant gets a deal.
Let’s say you want to fly to Vegas but need a car to get around beyond the Strip. On Turo, you can rent a 2017 Camaro for $99 per day, a 2015 Chevrolet Corvette for $187 per day, a 2019 Tesla Model 3 for $142 per day, or a 2019 McLaren 570S for $696 per day. (If you rent the McLaren for seven days, you get a $2,090 discount which brings the price down to just under $700. Otherwise, it’s $995 a day.)
Not all cars are hot tickets: you can grab a Kia Rio for $48 a day or a 2017 Chevy Spark for $65 a day. This makes a Mitsubishi Mirage rented from Enterprise slightly cheaper at around $62 on an off-airport location.
You can also check prices on the app for Getaround, which operates in California, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Washington, Texas and other locations nationwide. Or try Zipcar, which rents by the hour ($10) or day ($83) with a subscription that starts at $7 a month and includes free gas and 180 miles a day (58 cents per mile after that).
Use public transport. It might not be glamorous and social distancing isn’t guaranteed, but you won’t pay to park a vehicle you only use to drive back and forth to your destination.
Compare airport and off-airport fares. In Seattle, which is notorious for the high cost of airport rentals, you can rent a Chevy Spark at the airport for $555 from June 11-18, or about $80 a day, via Carrental8.com. In town, you can rent a Spark from Thrifty for $414 for the week, or about $59 a day. Hertz, which filed for Chapter 11 in May 2020, encourages tenants to check out this option because of its many locations in the neighborhood, a spokesperson said in an email.
Try a car dealership. That $2,000 fare in Bozeman might make your trip to Yellowstone a bust, but before you scrap your plan, check out Toyota of Bozeman, where you can get a Toyota Rav 4 for $222 a week. It was April 30 to May 7, not quite prime time in Yellowstone.
And your plane ticket will increase to $43. Why not wait for those August dates? No availability.
Perhaps we have reached an age where our rental car now determines the dates of our trip.