Waiting for Thrifty: Rental car woes expected to continue, with long lines for cars and high daily rates

PHOENIX, Arizona – I doubt this was the welcome that the Arizona Office of Tourism wanted me to have.

Fresh from a four and a half hour flight in United economy last month, I headed to the car rental center at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where I was greeted by a line that snaked all the way through the massive facility.

The line, perhaps 100 people deep, was for one rental agency, Thrifty. Which, of course, was the company I had chosen to rent a car from for the next week.

Tired and impatient, I stood in line. And I stood. And I stood. And I stood. Finally, after more than two hours, I was behind the wheel of my Ford Escape, heading south to Tucson.

It wasn’t an isolated incident – and it’s not happening just in Phoenix. Jonathan Weinberg, CEO of rental-car discount site AutoSlash, said travelers should expect another spring and summer of car rental woes.

He said what happened to me was likely a combination of excessive demand and staffing problems. The problem is not unique to Thrifty.

“Today, it might be Thrifty, tomorrow it might be Dollar or Hertz,” he said.

The problem emerged last year, as interest in travel ramped up after a year of pandemic-induced low demand. Car rental companies, which sold off much of their inventory during the pandemic, were unable to buy replacements quickly enough due to supply-chain shortages.

High demand and low inventory caused prices to spike – or, in some cases, leave travelers without access to rental cars at all.

“The rental car companies have done everything that they can to acquire everything they can and it’s still not enough,” Weinberg said. “There’s more demand than vehicles available.”

Adding to the issue: Because most renters don’t pay for a rental before they pick up their car, the no-show rate for rental cars can be high and hard to predict. “It’s an art as much of a science,” said Weinberg. “When they predict wrong, and they have staffing issues, that’s when things go off the rails.”

A spokesperson for Thrifty apologized for my inconvenience and offered this explanation: “Due to a surge in travel demand, particularly around peak events such as spring break, there can be longer than anticipated waits at some locations. Our customers’ satisfaction is our top priority and we are working diligently to support our customers and get them on the road as quickly as possible.”

At least I had not prepaid for my rental, which several folks near me had done. Hypothetically, at least, I could take my business elsewhere.

As I waited in line, I shopped for an alternative. Several rental agencies at the airport were sold out of cars, while others had same-day vehicles for considerably more money than the $420 per week that I had agreed to pay Thrifty. So I waited.

Weinberg anticipates a summer rental car crunch that may not be much better than last year’s, with high daily rates, particularly in more remote locations. Rental cars in places like Hawaii, Alaska and the areas around Glacier National Park are already commanding rates as high as $200 a day, he said.

He offered these suggestions for travelers who plan to rent a car this spring and summer:

* Sign up for loyalty reward programs that typically let you skip the line at the counter. Weinberg recommends Hertz Gold, National’s Emerald Club and Avis Preferred. “It costs nothing to sign up,” he said.

* Enterprise, National and Alamo seem to have better success predicting inventory and run out of vehicles less frequently, said Weinberg. (Reminder: Enterprise, National and Alamo are all part of the same company; so are Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty; and Avis, Budget and Payless.)

* Reserve early – a month or more in advance, if possible – and then monitor rates. At least you won’t be shut out, Weinberg said.

I was fortunate in this respect – after waiting two hours, there was a car for me. That’s not always the case, said Weinberg. Indeed, I was even upgraded for free, from my reserved economy car to a small SUV.

Weinberg said that travelers who show up for a reservation but are told no cars are available should be able to rent from a competitor and charge the original company the difference. “A rental car reservation is considered a binding contract,” he said.

Getting rental companies to pay the difference, of course, can be a challenge. But if pushed, he said, they often do pay up.

In any case, by the time I arrived in Tucson, I was letting go of my aggravation. A colleague traveled to Phoenix about two weeks after I did and had no trouble picking up his car. Indeed, he said there were no lines in the rental car center at all.

So maybe I was the victim of bad luck. The next time, though, I won’t rely on luck. I’ve already signed up for those reward programs.

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