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Want to rent a car? It’ll cost you

Drivers struggle to find wheels amid low inventory, high prices

Maui is far from pre-pandemic traffic congestion, but, as this line of vehicles on Honoapiilani Highway in Kaanapali on March 23 shows, traffic and tourism are picking up. Amid high demand and a shortage of rental cars on Maui, prices are skyrocketing at major rental car companies. Locally owned rental car companies, which typically offer lower rates, are benefiting from the return to business. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

High demand and short supply that are causing exorbitant prices for rental autos have also been a boon to locally owned rental car companies on Maui.

The 140 working cars in Kimo’s Rent-A-Car fleet in Kahului are “all out,” Manager Daniel Biho said with a chuckle on Wednesday. “If we had 400, we would be all out, too.”

For weeks, visitors and locals alike have taken to social media to sound off about the scarcity of rental cars and their skyrocketing prices. A reservation for a Hertz car from April 19 to 24 showed prices of more than $1,000 and $2,000 for the five-day span, depending on the size of the vehicle. Other third-party booking sites showed no vehicles for rent for various dates in April.

After a year in which travel stopped and thousands of rental cars sat idly in open fields, locally owned rental car companies are welcoming the business.

However, Biho said that unlike the nationally run companies, Kimo’s did not jack up prices because of the demand.

Utah visitor Henry Carver, 5, unwinds while waiting for his father to pick up the family’s rental car Tuesday afternoon at the Kahului Airport Rental Car Center.

“We not getting crazy like the big companies,” Biho added, noting their rentals run about $700 to $800 a week, while he has heard of the bigger companies renting cars for $400 a day.

He said that Kimo’s cars may not be as great as those from the top rental companies, but if “you like save money . . . this is where you come.”

And the demand, it seems, is here to stay.

“Every year gets busy, but not for this long,” Biho said. “February, March, April is looking crazy, even May. It’s a good thing though.”

At Maui Car Rentals, another local company, Manager Kali’i Oliveira said he normally answers the phone by saying the business is sold out for April. Oliveira said the run on rentals has been ongoing since February but that the company, which has a fleet of about 120, missed out on the chance to capitalize.

Travelers get off the Kahului Airport tram at the Rental Car Center Tuesday afternoon

“We increased (prices) way too late. We were booking so fast,” he said.

However, Oliveira said the company didn’t want to “price gouge” anyone and instead has tried to help people find a car. One customer even asked if they could rent Oliveira’s personal vehicle for $100 a day.

“I kind of paused,” said Oliveira, who eventually declined.

Oliveira said April and May are typically slow, and last year, business ground to a halt with the pandemic. Normally at this time, cars would rent for a low of about $14 a day; now they’re running as high as $65 or above.

Maui Car Rentals usually rents by the week but even if they have a car for a three-day stretch, the company is renting them, with customers eager to take the offer.

Visitors are taking what they can get.

Walt McEnery of Ohio, who will be visiting Maui next week, said he found the car prices “totally unexpected” and even ridiculous. Cars that were priced at $320 a day online would be gone the next day, he said.

McEnery, who has visited in the past, said this is the first time he has encountered this issue.

“Thank goodness we’re meeting folks who already have a car,” he said via email. “By the way, we faced the same issue on Oahu . . . but got lucky.”

Dr. Suresh Tunga of Texas is arriving on Maui today. He had initially booked an Alamo vehicle through a third party but was later informed by Alamo that “there was a mistake and there were no cars available for the requested dates.” He said his brother made the same booking and received the same response.

Tunga was able to make reservation at Thrifty for what he said was one of the last cars available. A full-sized car will cost them $1,220 for the week.

Tunga added that not only are car rentals scarce, but it is “almost impossible right now to find snorkeling or scuba tours.”

The family has also been trying every day at 7 a.m. Hawaii time to secure a reservation for the Haleakala sunrise, “but the tickets get sold within 15 seconds.”

“I am not sure if others are using bots to get them,” Tunga said.

CAR COMPANIES CAUGHT BY SURPRISE

National rental car companies, meanwhile, are rushing to keep up. Lauren Luster, a spokeswoman for Hertz, said in an email on Thursday that due to 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,” Luster said. “We anticipate strong demand for car rentals to last several months and throughout the summer.”

She attributed the recent spike to the return of travel to Maui and other locations.

“We’re seeing a surge in demand for leisure travel in Maui and vacation destinations across the industry, particularly around peak travel times like spring break,” Luster said. “This is encouraging given where the industry was during this time a year ago, and we’re happy to help travelers return to the road safely.”

She said the company could not disclose how many cars it had on Maui.

“We also encourage customers to book as early as possible and at the same time they’re making other travel arrangements,” Luster said.

Juliane Pietzsch Murphy, head of marketing USA for SIXT, issued a statement saying, “We work hard every day to satisfy our customers and offer them flexible and reliable mobility solutions at all times.”

Alamo, Enterprise, National, Avis and Budget did not immediately respond to inquires this week.

A combination of factors, including lower airfares and smaller numbers of rental cars on island, are causing exorbitant rental car prices and catching companies by surprise, said Jerome Agrusa, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Shidler College of Business School of Travel Industry Management.

“The lower airfares have helped push the number of tourists visiting Hawaii,” Agrusa said in an email Tuesday.

According to a Hawaii Tourism Authority report, Hawaii had more than 68,000 visitors over the March 27-28 weekend, Agrusa pointed out.

“This sudden surge of tourists visiting Hawaii has caught the rental car companies by surprise,” he said. “Here in Honolulu this past weekend, the lines for the restaurants in Waikiki were very long and due to the COVID restrictions, specifically social distancing.”

During the pandemic, rental car companies sold cars and lowered their inventory because they did not know how long the pandemic would last, Agrusa added. The rental car shortage is also happening in California and Florida, even though cars can be driven from state to state, unlike Hawaii.

Rental car companies also may have to wait to replenish their fleet because of the slowdown in the number of cars being built due to a shortage of computer chips worldwide, Agrusa said.

On Maui, tightly packed rows of unbooked rental cars piled up near the Kahului Airport when trans-Pacific visitor traffic all but ceased last year.

Maui Airports District Manager Marvin Moniz estimated that rental car companies shipped about 3,000 cars back to the Mainland and also sold some vehicles.

About a year ago, an estimated 18,000 rental cars sat idle on Maui while another 2,500 were still “out and about,” Moniz added.

Even Moniz’s office has been receiving calls from visitors trying to get a car. He said that arrivals have reached about 6,500 to 7,000 a day, or about 65 percent of the numbers the airport saw prior to the pandemic.

Maui County spokesman Brian Perry said the county’s Division of Motor Vehicles and Licensing does not have records of the number of vehicles shipped out by various rental agencies.

However, division records show that 453 new rental cars have been registered on Maui since January.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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