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Central Coast travelers deal with cancellations, surge prices amid rental car shortage

Posted at 6:10 PM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 21:10:29-04

Travel is making a comeback as more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, but booking a rental car may be a challenge as companies deal with a shortage of vehicles.

Travel hit an all-time low during the pandemic and many rental car companies stopped buying new cars and sold off their fleets, so these businesses are having to increase charges or turn down reservations until they get more vehicles.

Marshall Burton flew into the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport from Washington on Friday afternoon, hoping to jump into his rental car right when he landed.

Two weeks before arriving on the Central Coast, he said he reserved and paid for a three-day rental car with Budget, but the car wasn't there when he arrived.

“I found my name on the sheet, but they had already told two other people that they didn't have any cars. I was asked to wait three or four hours for a car, but it didn't sound like I was going to get a car so I didn't bother," Burton explained.

He tried the other rental car companies at the airport and other locations around the area and found a two-day basic rental for nearly $900.

“I just thought it was ridiculous,” Burton said.

According to CNN, the industry has been unable to restock its fleets because a shortage of computer chips needed to build cars has delayed production at some auto plants.

“Especially last weekend, there were no cars in that lot, so I know that there weren't a lot of cars available,” said Craig Piper, San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport Deputy Director.

Piper doesn't keep track of rental cars at the airport, but he does track passenger volume which has increased recently.

The San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport has seen an uptick in passengers in the last month. About 400 more people are flying now compared to last year.

“I think it probably correlates with spring break, but I think it goes beyond that. There's pent-up demand to get out,” he said. “People want to see family so it's a combination of factors."

The Santa Barbara Airport recorded up to 800 passengers last week compared to an average of about 400 during the pandemic.

At its lowest, only about 100 passengers were flying through SBA.

“I think the way California has been rolling out vaccines and our community, in particular, has been very successful. We are starting to see that anticipated want. Our numbers are starting to jump up,” said Angi Daus, Santa Barbara Airport Marketing Coordinator.

Companies like Hertz expect high volume through the summer, saying in a statement:

"Because of the spike in demand in some cities and regions and tighter fleets across the car rental industry, availability may be more limited. We are working closely with our automotive partners to add new vehicles to our fleet as quickly as we can while also moving vehicles to the areas with the highest demand.”
Lauren Luster Director, Communications
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Rental car companies have also cut back their hours at airports.

“We have had passengers reach out to us quite a bit more during this time just inquiring like, 'What's going on with the rental car service? If I get there at 10 at night, will they be open?' and unfortunately. they don't have the capacity to be filling the time like they used to,” Daus said.

According to Daus, rental companies at the airport will start to expand hours again, especially after five new Southwest flights become available at the Santa Barbara Airport in April.

Some visitors said getting the keys to their rental was easy.

“I actually booked the lowest level car and they gave me a really nice car,” said Ridge Vogel, who’s visiting SLO from Colorado.

Others are preparing for future roadblocks.

“I will probably book outside the airport, make sure to call in the days leading up to it to make sure they have a car or have a backup plan to make sure we are not scrambling,” Burton said.

Rental cars are also in demand for people choosing to drive rather than fly to their destinations.

Rental car companies are encouraging customers to book as early as they can or at a neighborhood car rental location when airport volumes are high.