If You Think Flying Sucks, Try Renting a Car

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

For about two decades, Troy Ford spent three weeks out of every month on the road. He’s a salesman, now pitching construction chemicals, but he used to sell cell-phone towers, so he’d have to rent cars to go to remote places. While most travelers may have a hard time distinguishing one rental company from another, Ford preferred Hertz and had been a member for more than 20 years. “They were always the best,” he said. “You get out of your flight, you walk up, there’s a big board there, they tell you your number, you walk over and get in your car.”

So at the beginning of the year, Ford, 52, booked a car for four days from Newark Airport with the company. He and his family were flying up from Miami, where they live, to drop off their son at West Point at the end of June. The weekend rental cost $425 for a midsize car — “a little high, but reasonable,” he said.

As it got closer to the drop-off date, Ford changed their flight to arrive on Saturday, a day later. He also canceled the rental. When he tried to rebook it, the prices had shot up substantially: $1,100 altogether. As a member, he tried to talk with a representative to get a better deal, but an automated message told him Hertz would tack on a 5 percent surcharge to speak with a human being. “That was the final straw,” he said. (A Hertz spokesperson defended the 5 percent surcharge as common among airlines and hotels.) Frustrated, he canceled the reservation and went to Budget, one of Hertz’s biggest competitors. In the end, though, he still ended up paying about $500 for the two-day rental — and had to wait in a line of more than 30 people for more than an hour just to get his sedan.

To rent a car right now is to live through an expensive, frustrating American nightmare. Garages normally full-up with cars are these days sitting practically empty. Prices online are routinely over $100 a day for midsize cars— and that’s before insurance and other dubious add-ons. With fewer vehicles and plenty of eager travelers still wary of public transportation and airports, customers are coming up against rental-car companies that seemingly act with impunity, jacking up prices for some and denying others for what can appear to be arbitrary reasons.

“They’re capitalizing on the poor conditions of public transportation,” said Joseph Heitman, a 26-year-old dance instructor who spent about $500 on a two-day rental from New York to Connecticut for Mother’s Day weekend.

The rental crisis has its roots in the early days of the pandemic. When governors issued stay-at-home orders and travel collapsed, the major rental companies sold off some 770,000 vehicles, or more than a third of their total fleet. Last May, Hertz filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allowed it to keep operating as it paid down $18 billion in debt. Then, just as a microchip shortage stalled car manufacturing and stymied the ability to restock fleets, demand bounced back. Prices have risen so high — about 88 percent from a year ago — that rental cars are now one of the key factors driving the biggest rise in inflation since 2008. In a whiplash-inducing turn of fortune, the rental-car companies are now in the black, having slashed their expenses and cut down on services. Avis Budget Group, one of the big three rental-car companies and the owner of Zipcar, recently saw its stock price hit an all-time high. Now that the company has emerged from bankruptcy, Hertz’s shareholders are getting an unusually large payout, thanks to a host of private-equity companies that bought in.

One Brooklyn Hertz employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job, said that the experience of dealing with sticker-shocked customers can be stressful. “I get cursed out all the time,” she said. “It takes a lot of patience.” She has seen people pay as much as $500 a day for cars, with the rates shooting up around weekends and holidays. The high prices have come hand in hand with more customer tension. They’re only supposed to hold a customer’s reservation for an hour and will rent the car out to someone else who shows up — which has caused “entitled” customers to yell at her, she said.

“We’re seeing strong demand for car rentals across the country and actively adding vehicles to our fleet nationwide amid the microchip shortage that continues to impact the car-rental industry. We anticipate demand for car rentals to be strong throughout and beyond the summer, especially in popular tourism destinations,” a Hertz representative said.

Customers have said that it’s not just the sticker price that’s driving up their rental bills, but tacked-on fees that pad companies’ bottom lines. Heitman said a Miami sales rep for Dollar told him recently that he would automatically be charged as much as $2 million if he got into an accident unless he purchased their insurance. Ryan Hunter, a Delaware actor who served ten years in the Air Force, said he was denied a 5 percent veteran’s discount by Enterprise for a nearly $1,000 rental he needed for work on a movie set in Baltimore — and only received the money back after complaining on Twitter. (An Enterprise representative said it’s not its policy to deny discounts.) Hunter was also charged a $600 deposit for the rental. “I’m almost 40,” he said. “I’m not a kid that doesn’t have a driving history. I have a clean driving record, my license is valid. Everything’s good. I’m providing my own insurance. Why do I need a $600 deposit on top of $1,000 charge for a vehicle for two weeks?”

It’s not just the traditional rental companies, either. Lexi Montée, a 37-year old marketing manager in Manhattan, was seven months pregnant when she used Zipcar to reserve a car for a four-day trip to the Hamptons over the July 4 weekend, only to find that the air conditioning didn’t work and the CHECK ENGINE light was on. “To spend $1,000 for a shitty, smelly, fabric-covered, dirty, not-well-kept Volkswagen Golf is already annoying, but now for there to be both the CHECK ENGINE light on and no AC working is so frustrating,” she said. When she reached out to report the issue, the customer service person offered her $16 in return. When pressed, Montée said, they doubled it to $32.

Nick Heller, a documentary filmmaker who goes by New York Nico, also saw firsthand how service had declined with Zipcar. In March, Heller spent about $400 to rent a car for a trip upstate. The vehicle, however, was filled with roach clips, reeked of weed and body odor, and was covered with “gooey, liquid substances,” he told Intelligencer. “It looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years,” he said. He tried to deal with the smell, but it was so overwhelming he gave up on the car to take a train, delaying his trip by a day. At first, he said, a Zipcar representative told him the company would only reimburse him for a cleaning, and he would still be on the hook for the full weekend. It was only after he complained on social media — and posted pictures of the car’s condition — that the company paid him back, also covering the cost of his train ticket and of part of his Airbnb.

“We sincerely apologize for the member’s negative experience, and we worked with them back in March to resolve this specific issue,” a Zipcar spokesman said of Heller’s rental. “We are always looking for ways to improve our service, including removing nearly 3,000 members for violating our community rules this year.”

Heller, a city native who only got his driver’s license in December, said he has since canceled his membership. “You know, they were telling me that the whole entire company hears me, and they’re gonna promise to do better. And to this day people still hit me up about awful Zipcar experiences that they’ve had.”

If You Think Flying Sucks, Try Renting a Car