When the cost of filling up the tank is the same as the cost of renting a car, it’s not a good sign for business travelers, who have been coping with $4-a-gallon and higher gas prices.
“We didn’t see a big change in customer response until we hit the $4 mark,” says Chris Payne, spokesperson for Dollar and Thrifty rental car. Ironically, now an upgrade from a small car to a larger luxury vehicle, once welcomed by business travelers when the class of car they booked was not available, is now objectionable when customers know they will have to spend $75 or more to fill up the gas tank.
At present, consumers are looking for the smaller vehicles and rental car companies are trying hard to meet the demand. The problem, rental companies say, is that the auto manufacturers can’t turn out small cars fast enough, as there is also a surge of consumer interest in buying more economical cars.
Flipping the Prices
Car rental companies may begin charging more for the smaller vehicles and less for larger ones, or at least offering promotions on larger cars. “We have some online discounts for larger cars,” adds Payne, who says he hopes that the lower rental prices will offset the higher prices at the pumps. Other companies are also using discounts to help them get some of the larger vehicles off their lots.
Even as gas prices begin to come down slightly, small cars continue to be in demand. In fact, estimates by several travel booking companies show reservations for SUVs and luxury cars dropping by more than 30 percent since spring 2008.
Hybrids and Greener Cars
The surge in gas prices has also drawn attention to greener vehicles that are more energy efficient. Unfortunately hybrids are not rolling off the assembly lines fast enough, nor are they easy for rental car companies to get a hold of. Dollar and Thrifty have about 200 hybrids on the road, most of which are in the San Francisco area. Other companies, such as Avis and Budget, also unable to land very many hybrids, are emphasizing the “greenness” of their standard fleet. Customers who are unable to reserve a hybrid due to limited availability can still rent a “green” vehicle. Virtually Avis and Budget vehicles, regardless of class, from subcompact to full-size, have SmartWay Certification, which is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s designation for green vehicles.
Even as gas prices begin their decent, major car rental companies agree that the move toward smaller, more energy-efficient vehicles will likely continue. Customers have gained a greater awareness of both the cost and the environmental factors associated with filling up the gas tank. As a result, that upgrade at the rental car counter may now be from a larger vehicle to a smaller one.
There are some things you can do to ensure you get the car you want and save money at the car rental counter:
- Try to make your reservation as far in advance as possible.
- If the rental company is out of small cars and offers a free upgrade to a larger vehicle, negotiate. You want the rental car company to pick up part of the additional gas price or at the very least give you a discount on your next rental.
- Always remember to fill up the tank before returning the car, or you will pay much more to have the rental agency fill it for you.
- For regular business use in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix, Atlanta, Seattle, and other major metropolitan areas, you might consider Zipcar, which has cars at the ready for daily or even hourly use. These cars are all energy efficient. When you become a member, you pay only for the time you use the car.