Off-the-charts sticker shock is in play as travelers who need a rental car try to make a booking.
Travel is surging exponentially, but the rental car supply is still stuck in neutral after companies sold nearly half their fleets during the pandemic.
Santa Fe native Megan Eaves found that out when she wanted to book a car for her usual visit back home from London, where she has lived for 10 years as a travel writer and communication consultant.
“The prices are astronomical,” Eaves wrote in an email. “$150-200/day. I saw one pretty normal SUV advertised for around $6,000 for my three-week visit. I guess I could probably buy a used car for that amount!”
Eaves recalled rental car rates in prior years at about $40 to $60 per day.
An online review of rental car rates for July 9-12 showed the lowest prices in Santa Fe at about $100 a day and climbing to $150 and $200. Rental car companies at the Albuquerque International Sunport typically listed low prices in the range of $60 to $70 per day, but most daily rentals were $120 to $178.
Jonathan Weinberg, founder and CEO of AutoSlash, a Garden City, N.Y.-based website that helps consumers save money on auto rentals, said Albuquerque rental prices are generally lower than the national average. “I haven’t seen many sell-out situations in Albuquerque,” he said.
Charles and Vicky Huettner traveled the nostalgic way from Chicago to Santa Fe — via Amtrak.
They rented a car from Avis.
“They gave us a good deal,” Vicky Huettner said as the couple waited at the Avis/Budget site for a shuttle to the Lamy station to catch their train ride home.
“We are senior citizens,” she added. “It was less than $400 for seven days. That was reasonable. The first company we called was Enterprise. They didn’t have any cars.”
The car rental market got nailed at the front end of the pandemic and now at the back end. The semiconductor shortage has stifled the new car market that rental car companies rely on to replenish their fleets.
“Back last year when COVID first hit, car rentals dropped 90 percent,” Weinberg said. “They really needed to sell off as many cars as they could as fast as they could. Three-quarter of a million cars were sold to the used car market. I think up to half of their fleets were sold.”
This came amid the collapse of air travel in the opening days of the pandemic. There was no sense of when the pandemic would let up or how long it would take for tourism to resume.
In 2019, typically 2.4 million to 2.7 million people passed through U.S. airport Transportation Security Administration checkpoints each day. That number dropped to 593,000 by March 19, 2020, and 90,000 by April 11, 2020, according to TSA statistics.
As recently as Feb. 2, 2021, only 493,000 people passed through airport checkpoints, but the number was more than 1 million ever day after March 11 and returned to 2 million June 11.
“Fast-forward to 2021, we first noticed a [rental car] shortage on Presidents Day weekend,” Weinberg said. “People started feeling comfortable traveling. Eighteen to 20 airports in Florida were completely sold out of rental cars. We never saw that before. We thought it was a one-time thing. We started seeing it week after week and in other popular places.”
Rental car companies had never had a problem buying vehicles before this year, he said, calling the situation a “perfect storm of factors”: Demand for rental cars returned more quickly than companies could buy cars.
Weinberg said low rental car rates across the country in 2019 were about $30 to $35 per day, with some places offering rates as low as $19 or even $15.
“We doubled or tripled prices, basically,” he said.
Rental car companies in Santa Fe referred questions to corporate offices, which did not specifically comment on local car supplies.
“We anticipate strong demand for car rental throughout the summer and encourage customers to book as early as possible and at the same time they’re making other travel arrangements,” Hertz said in a statement. “Another tip is to consider booking at a neighborhood car rental location which may have more availability when airport volumes are high.”
Enterprise Holdings said in its statement: “In addition to increased overall demand, other trends we are seeing are increases in the length of rentals and demand for specialty vehicles such as vans, pick-up trucks, convertibles, and large SUVs. If you’re planning travel, we encourage you to reserve a vehicle as early as possible. Providing flexible travel dates and branch pick up locations in your search may also help increase your options.”
Eaves, 39, was able to solve her transportation matters without relying on a rental car during her visit to Santa Fe from London.
“I’m keeping an eye on the prices, but a very generous friend has offered me use of their extra car, so I will probably take her up on that,” Eaves said.
“I really want to travel around and enjoy the beauty of the state if I can — camping, hiking, hot springs and wide landscapes,” she added. “I will probably rely otherwise on family, friends and, of course, the Rail Runner. I love that train.”