$279 a Day: Good Luck Finding a Cheap Rental Car in N.Y.C.


For nearly four months during the lockdown, New Yorkers have been confined to famously cramped apartments, front stoops that served as the center of social lives and a handful of parks that often overflowed with people.

Now New Yorkers desperate for a break from the city but wary of traveling by plane or train are reimagining their summer vacations — and turning to rental cars in record numbers.

In June, car rental reservations in New York City on Priceline, a hotel and car rental booking website, jumped by 73 percent at rental locations excluding airports compared with the same time last year. On Kayak, a travel site, the demand for rentals surged even higher: In May, as the city entered its third month of lockdown, car rental searches were up 56 percent compared with the same time last year. By June, they had spiked 98 percent.

The surge in demand has caused a sharp increase in prices as rental car companies scramble to send their available fleets to the city, a reflection of a pandemic-induced shift in the travel industry toward car travel over shared transportation like planes and trains. It’s a trend industry leaders expect to last months, if not years.

Her searches showed four-day rentals for around $900 — around what she and her friends had paid for the 12-person vacation home for the weekend.

“Even if you split that with friends, that’s a lot more than I planned for,” she said.

While demand in New York, where 54 percent of households do not own cars, is surging, other major cities have also seen increases. In Chicago and Washington, car rental searches on Kayak were up around 30 percent in June.

Still, in other places where car ownership is more widespread, rentals have not yet rebounded to pre-pandemic levels: In Boston, rental searches on Kayak had declined 15 percent in June compared with the same time last year. In Los Angeles, they had plummeted 38 percent.

In response, rental car companies have clambered to send their available cars to New York and have sought to discourage one-way trips that take cars from their fleets out of the city.

Not surprisingly, prices for rentals in New York — already the most expensive major American city in which to rent a car — have risen even more.

The average price for a one-day rental in New York City in June hovered around $279 — a 12 percent increase from the same time last year and a 25 percent increase over the average prices in February before the pandemic, according to Thinknum Alternative Data, a data analytics company.

By comparison, average daily prices for one-day rentals hovered around $210 in Boston, $185 in Chicago and $160 in Washington in June.

The soaring prices have caught many New Yorkers — for whom booking a rental car was once an afterthought of vacation planning — by surprise.

Christine Serdjenian, a mother of three who lives in Astoria, Queens, and her husband began looking for a rental vehicle last month for their annual beach trip but could not find a weeklong car rental that could fit her children’s three car seats for under $1,000 — more than twice what they paid last year.

“I would have considered the hotel the big expense,” she said. “Once you’ve booked that then you think, ‘Oh, I’ll get the car.’ But now the car expense is a big add-on.”

Even finding available cars — much less an affordable one — has become challenging. Zipcar has sold out of rental cars nearly every weekend in New York City since the end of May. The company has also seen 70 percent more members apply to use its services from the beginning of June through early July than the same period last year.

Industry experts have urged customers to reserve cars well in advance of their trips and to look for rentals at airports, where business from airline travelers has dwindled, or rental locations outside of the city in Connecticut and New Jersey.

But prices will probably remain high until car rental companies fully recover from the economic tailspin they plunged into in the early months of the pandemic when lockdown orders halted travel and demand plummeted. In April, car rentals on Kayak dropped 74 percent nationwide and 32 percent in New York City.

In response, many rental companies began trimming their fleets, though many struggled to sell their cars for their expected values as the looming economic recession pummeled the used-car market. Hertz, one of the largest car rental companies in the world, filed for bankruptcy protection in May.

“It was the perfect storm for the rental business because not only was there a massive falloff in transaction volume, but at the same time the car market was cratering,” said Neil Abrams, president of Abrams Consulting, which specializes in the car rental industry. “I’ve been in the business since the 1970s, I’ve seen a lot of cycles and ups and downs. I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

Even now, despite soaring demand in some major cities, the industry is only beginning to recover: In May, searches for car rentals on Kayak across the country were still down by 34 percent compared with the previous year and surpassed last year’s searches by just 1 percent in June.

Still, many industry experts expect the shift toward rental cars to continue to grow as public health concerns around traveling by plane or train linger, causing many city dwellers, desperate to escape a curtailed version of urban life, to hit the road.

R.V. rental companies have reported large increases in bookings this summer as people looking to avoid hotels have embarked on R.V. vacations instead.

A recent survey by Expedia found that 85 percent of American travelers were likely to take a road trip this summer; searches relating to domestic travel, particularly as the European Union barred American tourists, were up 10 percent in June compared with the same time last year.

People are also renting cars for longer periods of time, suggesting cars are becoming the main mode of transportation facilitating entire vacations, experts say.

On Expedia, the average rental car period between April and June increased by 15 percent nationally and 30 percent in New York. Similarly on Priceline, the total rental days for cars picked up from rental locations excluding airports spiked 62 percent in June compared with the same time last year.

But as long as prices stay high, and the prospect of the pandemic rebounding in New York remains, some people are thinking about buying cars to avoid mounting rental costs.

Luis González, 41, a professor of chemistry at the City University of New York, spent days searching online and checking in with rental company locations in Jersey City and Hoboken for a car to rent for a holiday weekend, only to find prices double what he was accustomed to paying.

Now, he and his wife are considering buying a car to avoid the rental scene and more easily flee for the weekend.

“We have been working from home, me and my wife, since March 12, and we are quite strict with the lockdown,” Mr. González said. “Sometimes you need to escape.”



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