It was around this time last year when the rental car giant Hertz filed for bankruptcy, its profits having plunged off the deep end during pandemic lockdowns. Now that vaccination rates are rising, and infection and hospitalization tallies are leveling off (in some parts of the country anyway), people are looking to hit the open road after a year stuck inside. There’s only one problem: Rental cars are going for a premium, when you can find one at all.
Although the three major rental agencies declined interviews with the Wall Street Journal, they did tell the publication that the shortage will be an ongoing issue:
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.
Parks Shackelford of Washington, D.C., bought a ticket on Southwest Airlines to Jacksonville, Fla., for a hunting trip in southern Georgia in late March. Then he found he couldn’t get a rental car. He tried Tallahassee—no luck. Finally, he had to cancel his nonrefundable flight and buy a Delta Air Lines ticket to Valdosta, Ga., near the Florida border, because he could get a car there.
“If you’re going to have to have a car to travel, you need to check that first,” he says. “I can suck it up and pay more for the car, but I just could not get a car nine days before the trip no matter what.”
Hertz entered bankruptcy in May of 2020, and the thing that saved the company was dumping thousands of cars from its books and onto the used-car market. Luckily for Hertz at the time, the market heated up as COVID-19 fears kept folks from ride-sharing or using public transit. But the company could desperately use some of those vehicles now. Travelers are finding cars completely booked up, even at rates of hundreds of dollars a day, WSJ reports:
Many travelers had grown used to renting a car for $39 a day or less before the pandemic. A quick price scan suggests how much has changed.
The cheapest price at Hertz, National or Avis for a one-day rental for Friday at Chicago O’Hare Airport, priced a week in advance on Kayak, was $117 for a Ford Fiesta economy car. Major agencies were all sold out for Friday at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport, at least according to a Kayak search over the weekend. Sixt offered a Toyota RAV4 for $373.
And on Friday in West Palm Beach, Fla., one day with a Chevrolet Impala sedan would set you back $234 at Hertz. A follow-up found that Hertz location all sold out. (Those daily prices are without any sort of corporate discount.)
Honestly, the pandemic is far from over. While the Centers for Disease Control say fully vaccinated people can safely travel domestically, and avoid testing and quarantine two weeks after receiving their final dose, it is still recommended that these people wear masks, avoid crowds and practice social distancing. And while the risk of contracting the disease is low after vaccination, the CDC is still recommending that Americans do not travel due to the rise of COVID-19 infections in hot spots across the country, Reuters reports.