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Waiting for Thrifty: Car rental issues set to continue, with long lines for cars and high daily rates

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PHOENIX, Arizona – I doubt this is the welcome the Arizona Tourist Board wanted me to get.

After a four-and-a-half-hour United economy flight last month, I headed to the rental car center at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where I was greeted by a line that snaked its way through of the huge facility.

The queue, of about 100 people, was destined for a rental agency, Thrifty. Which, of course, was the company I had chosen to rent a car for next week.

Tired and impatient, I waited in line. And I got up. And I got up. And I got up. Finally, after more than two hours, I was driving my Ford Escape, heading south towards Tucson.

It wasn’t an isolated incident — and it’s not just happening in Phoenix. Jonathan Weinberg, CEO of the car rental discount site Auto slashsaid travelers should expect another spring and summer of car rental troubles.

He said what happened to me was probably a combination of excessive demands and staffing issues. The problem is not unique to Thrifty.

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

The problem surfaced last year as interest in travel surged after a year of pandemic-induced weak demand. Rental car companies, which have sold off much of their inventory during the pandemic, have been unable to purchase replacement vehicles quickly enough due to supply chain shortages.

High demand and low inventory have driven prices up — or, in some cases, left travelers without access to rental cars.

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

Adding to the problem: Since most renters don’t pay for a rental before picking up their car, the no-show rate for rental cars can be high and difficult to predict. “It’s an art as much as a science,” Weinberg said. “When they predict badly and they have personnel issues, that’s when things go off the rails.”

A Thrifty spokesperson apologized for the inconvenience and offered this explanation: “Due to an increase in travel demand, particularly during peak events such as Spring Break, expectations may take longer than expected in some locations. Customer 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 hadn’t prepaid my rental, which several people near me had done. Hypothetically, at least, I could take my business elsewhere.

As I waited in line, I shopped around for an alternative. Several rental companies at the airport sold cars, while others had same-day vehicles for much more money than the $420 a week I had agreed to pay Thrifty. So I waited.

Weinberg anticipates a summer rental car shortage that may not be much better than last year, with high daily rates, especially in more remote locations. Rental cars in places like Hawaii, Alaska and areas around Glacier National Park already cost up to $200 a day, he said.

He offered these suggestions for travelers considering renting a car this spring and summer:

* Sign up for loyalty programs that usually allow you to skip the queues at the counter. Weinberg recommends Hertz Gold, National’s Emerald Club and Avis Preferred. “It doesn’t cost anything to sign up,” he said.

* Enterprise, National and Alamo appear to be better at predicting inventory and running out of vehicles less frequently, Weinberg said. (Reminder: Enterprise, National, and Alamo are all part of the same company; Hertz, Dollar, and Thrifty are also; and Avis, Budget, and Payless.)

* Book early – a month or more in advance, if possible – then watch the rates. At least you won’t be left out, Weinberg said.

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

Weinberg said travelers who show up for a reservation but are told no car is available should be able to rent from a competitor and charge the originating 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 says, they often pay.

Anyway, by the time I got to Tucson, I had let go of my aggravation. A colleague drove to Phoenix about two weeks after me and had no trouble picking up his car. Indeed, he said there was no queue at the rental car center.

So maybe I was a victim of bad luck. Next time, however, I won’t rely on luck. I have already signed up for these reward programs.

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