Alaska is expecting to see a lot of travelers this summer — especially compared to last year.
As COVID-19 restrictions still bar large cruise ships from Alaska waters, most visitors are expected to come by plane — which means many are looking for rental cars. The demand is creating a shortage, sending prices skyrocketing and forcing some travelers to cancel trips altogether.
John Nguyen lives in Dallas, Texas. He wanted to visit Alaska in July, and he’s already booked his flight to Anchorage. Last week, he went looking for a rental car on Expedia.com.
“I type in my dates and whatever, they just show me all of the cars available for each company,” said Nguyen. “There’s like none right now.”
Well, there was something available.
“They said that they don’t have any cars available, but they have, like a manager’s special. And then they told me the manager’s special is like $2,500 or something like that, it was outrageous — at least over two grand for six days of rental,” said Nguyen.
It was more than the cost of his entire trip, plane tickets included.
While Nguyen had hoped to drive to Seward, Homer and Denali National Park, he said spending that kind of money on a rental car just doesn’t make sense.
He’s not the only one who’s noticed how tight the rental car market is right now.
“So far for this summer, my fleet is completely booked up until about the end of August,” said Nathan Speer, co-owner of Cheapwheels Rent-A-Car in Anchorage.
While it’s not unusual to have a full summer of bookings, he said this year is different.
“In 17 years of business, we’ve never gotten more than $100 a day for compact,” said Speer. “And I have some compacts that are reserved now for almost $300 a day, because I’m still cheaper than the airport.”
Speer said he’s had to raise prices by about 50% so his business could survive the summer. Like rental companies across the country, Speer’s company sold half of its cars last year to stay afloat when the pandemic kept people from traveling. Now demand is picking back up, he has just 38 rental cars left. And it’s hard to find more to buy.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the national rental company Enterprise said they’re feeling it, too. A global computer chip shortage is impacting vehicle availability across the industry.
In Alaska, Speer said the issue could have widespread impacts.
“I just talked to one of my friends down in the Kenai Peninsula, who owns a fishing charter lodge. And he’s having people cancel reservations for the fishing,” Speer said. “Because even though they’ve booked plane tickets and booked fishing reservations, they can’t get a rental car. So there’s no way for them to get down to the fishing spot.”
Still, some business owners outside Anchorage are optimistic. Brendan Ryan is co-owner of the Seward tour companies Liquid Adventures and Exit Glacier Guides. He’s also part-owner of the Seward Outdoor Store.
“Seward is kind of well-positioned,” Ryan said. “Because we’ve got the train and we’ve got several different really nice bus lines that come down here regularly, several times a day. So there’s already the infrastructure getting people down here.”
Ryan said the number of people pre-booking tours is through the roof — possibly the best ever. He’s heard from customers who are restructuring their trip to spend even more time in Seward, because of the rental car situation.
“They were going to spend two to three days in Seward and then take off and go somewhere else,” said Ryan. “But that rental car was going to cost them $2,500 for that week. So they’ve now restructured their plans to spend pretty much the entire time between Anchorage and Seward.”
Jack Bonney, community engagement director at Visit Anchorage, is similarly optimistic.
“I’m encouraged in that we do have the kind of road and motorcoach and rail travel and small aircraft travel that allows us to put together multi-destination stops within Alaska very easily any year,” Bonney said. “So we kind of have a built-in capacity to meet this challenge in a way that I can’t imagine many other destinations are set up to do.”
Bonney said Visit Anchorage is working to make sure visitors know their options for transportation if they’re struggling to find a vehicle.
But he wants Alaskans to know the surging demand for rental cars doesn’t mean the tourism industry has recovered from the pandemic.
“Balancing the idea that there is a bit of a capacity crunch for rental cars doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily going to snap back to the kind of visitation that we saw before the pandemic,” said Bonney. “We see some green shoots, but … there’s still cause for concern. So it’s really going to be a mixed bag this year in terms of results.”
Meanwhile, Nguyen, in Dallas, is still trying to figure out what to do.
“Worst case scenario I don’t know — I don’t think I could spend at least two grand on a car,” said Nguyen.
He reached out to locals on Facebook who recommended everything from checking out the car-sharing website Turo, to renting a U-Haul. Several people even offered to rent their personal vehicles.
Nguyen said if he can’t find an affordable ride, he is considering canceling his trip.