Many have heard of how a thunderstorm, plus a failure of a crew scheduling system, drastically impacted operations at Delta Airlines for a week. Thousands of flights were canceled as a result of what many travelers -- frequent and infrequent -- believed should have been an easily recoverable event. That story made the national news (until supplanted by United abusing physicians) but there's a hidden story behind the scenes that's of critical importance to AutoSlash users.
For a period of a week (or more), the rental car providers at the three major New York City airports and the three major Washington, D.C. airports were all sold out. Six of the top 30 largest airports in the United States technically had a combined zero cars available for new reservations
- Baltimore-Washington Marshall International (22nd)
- John F Kennedy International (5th)
- New York-LaGuardia (20th)
- Newark Liberty International (15th)
- Washington-Dulles International (26th)
- Washington-Reagan National (23rd)
How can all of these airports "sell out" because some of Delta's procedures failed? There are a number of reasons:
- Renters who already had cars kept them longer than initially reserved when flights were canceled -- I personally ended up in this group.
- Many travelers reserved cars on new one-way trips to get to where Delta couldn't go.
- Amtrak wasn't an alternative in the northeast corridor due to an accident at New York Penn Station.
- Spring Break and the Cherry Blossom festival in D.C. already were causing high customer demand.
- The rental car companies had to save some cars for pre-reserved future reservations, and
- Some renters have a trump card when it comes to reservations (more on that in our "Tips and Tricks").
Delta's meltdown had a dramatic effect on travelers but situations where rental cars sell out through an entire region actually happen a few times a year. For instance, Hurricane Matthew and other coastal flooding events in 2016 similarly made rental cars unavailable for extended periods of time. As a consumer, the goal is to understand how to respond when there are travel hiccups with rental cars.
Tips and Tricks When Things Go Wrong
Heading toward -- or already in -- an area where some form of disruption is impacting rental car availability? Getting the vehicle you want at the most competitive price is going to require quick, intentional actions.
Don't Yet Have a Reservation?
- Consider rental car alternatives -- Ever notice that we sometimes post specials with ride-sharing companies like Uber on our Twitter and Facebook pages? In many regions, mass transit, Uber, and even Amtrak are reasonable alternatives we use. While we love rental cars, we love getting where we need to go quickly and effectively (without having to worry about parking).
- Already have a rental car? Look at keeping it! -- That's what I did for an extra day when I knew the incremental cost would be a fixed amount. The rental car company may charge contract modification and late return penalties but if your rental car contract describes your daily rate as being valid for a set period of time, that might be an avenue to explore. I paid about $40 for a vehicle from DCA when others couldn't rent a car at any price.
- Stranded due to an airline? -- Check to see if a one-way rental is available. While cars might not be available at the airport, there might be something available at a neighborhood branch off-airport. Just note that in-town rental car locations tend to have more restricted hours than airport locations - these sites tend to close at 6 p.m. on weekdays, noon on Saturday, and have few or no hours on Sundays. Which leads to our next point:
- Use AutoSlash! -- If you search on other sites for rental cars at an airport, only results from that airport will get returned. If the airport's sold out, many customers stop searching there and forget to search in nearby neighborhoods. If you do an AutoSlash search for an airport location and there's no availability, our rental experts will search through adjacent neighborhoods on your behalf (we're just that cool). In fact, we directed many AutoSlash users to neighborhood locations in the D.C. and New York City areas on Saturday morning (before those locations closed for the weekend). (It works the other way, too--if you try to search for a neighborhood pick-up and nothing's available, we'll help you find options at nearby airports.)
Already Have a Reservation?
For customers who already have a reservation, don't attempt to modify the reservation and don't cancel -- even if the rental car company tells you there is no car available. If you have a confirmed reservation and are heading to an area with major problems with availability, leave the reservation alone. Even if the rental car company contacts you or tells you there's no car available, leave the reservation alone. A reservation means that the rental car company has made an obligation to you that they have to fulfill. A customer who cancels a reservation -- whether of their own volition or at the recommendation of the rental car company -- just solved the rental car company's problem. There's simply no obligation (current or future) to the prospective renter once the reservation is canceled.
This brings us to oversold situations. Sadly, rental car companies will run out of cars at times and have difficulty meeting confirmed reservations. The rental car companies, like most airlines and hotels, expect a certain percentage of renters to not show up; changes in travel plans, weather, and customers who simply forgot to cancel reservations. Yet the rental car companies are still paying for any vehicle that's sitting on the lot (finance costs plus depreciation), which leads to exceptionally rare incidents where customers feel as if they are within a Seinfeld setup:
The station manager's goal is to have few cars left on the lot each evening but there are instances when a company may truly run out of vehicles. When that happens, we frequently direct renters to these two articles:
- Dealing with overbooked hotels and cars (Chicago Tribune)
- When car rental reservations aren't honored (Associated Press via Huffington Post)
If a rental car company says they don't have a vehicle available, hold their feet to the fire. If an upgrade is available, the company should be providing it at no additional cost. If the company expects vehicles in a matter of hours, have them pay for the taxi to/from your destination and provide a discount. And if there's another company at the airport with cars, have the company with your confirmed reservation cover any differential in cost to get on the road quickly. While it may sound a bit silly, we've also found that the Twitter feeds of the rental car companies are often great ways to get fast assistance during traditional business hours in the United States. The social media personnel tend to fix customer problems on a daily basis, and a Direct Message in Twitter is one way to put the complaint in writing.
Finally, Some Renters Can Play the Trump Card
Many major rental car companies provide benefits to the top-tier elite members of their loyalty programs. In some programs, one of the benefits is guaranteed vehicle availability on rentals booked a specified timeframe in advance. While I hold the top level in National's Emerald Club (Executive Elite), many of the AutoSlash team hold Hertz's President's Circle status -- both of those status tiers allow a renter to rent a car with enough notification, even if the location is "sold out".
As a National Executive Elite, I am guaranteed a car if booking at least 24 hours in advance directly through National - no AutoSlash discounted rates. However, National even allows award redemptions and one-way rentals for Executive Elites when the location is otherwise "sold out". As an Executive Elite, I had the option to book a *$211 plus tax* rate on a one-way rental at a completely sold-out airport...or I could redeem a free day, paying just $3.69 for the rental.
Renters at Hertz who hold President's Circle status are guaranteed a car with a 48-hour advance booking but they received no other benefits at all; award coupons are not valid and pre-tax rates started at $149 per day for economy cars. Ouch.
In a crunch, the top-tier elites in these programs can get a guaranteed rental car. The rental rates won't be pretty but there are days when a rental car is truly necessary.
In any case, for frequent travelers on mission-critical travel, it pays to remain loyal and aim for elite status.
My Own Experience during Delta's Meltdown at Washington-National Airport
Not only was I helping renters find alternatives during the Delta debacle, I also happened to have a rental from Washington-Reagan National at the time the airport sold out of cars. My pain was lessened by playing by the rules for my benefit. Quickly realizing that an extra rental day was going to be needed, I reverted to the terminology of my existing contract (yes, that piece of paper or e-mail is a legally-binding contract).
I had a "Get Out of Rental Car Jail Free" card. Knowing that the rental companies love to charge rental modification and late return fees, all I needed to do was call Hertz to get the late return fee waived, then I could keep the SUV another day for an extra *$38 plus tax*. On a normal weekday, that was a pretty good deal. On a weekday when the company is otherwise sold out, that's a fantastic deal.
I then went two days without a rental car; no need to pay for a car when one's not driving. The airport was still sold out when I next needed a car, so I picked up a rental car from a neighborhood location. This took some negotiation; I booked a car approximately 6 miles away, then walked to the rental car station attached to my hotel and asked them to match the rate. This neighborhood location with very few staff members is the nearest non-airport location to the airport; management at the site blocked all of their availability online because they feared unmanageable demand if their location was the only one in the area showing search results. Let me repeat that, because it's important. The location closest to the sold-out airport actually did have cars but was afraid that listing availability online would result in too many reservations before the company could set availability to zero. The only way to get a car, in this case, was to call in (or walk in) to negotiate; I got a car at an "acceptable" (higher than desired) rate, where I wanted a car, without paging Lyft or Uber for a ride. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it worked out. Sometimes, it pays to just show up.
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