When it comes to renting a car after the pandemic, what’s different? Alex Davis wondered when she rented a car from Alamo in Chicago recently. Agents in hazmat suits? Antibacterial car washes, maybe? Perhaps an extra cleaning fee? It was all a mystery.
So Davis was surprised when everything seemed so normal, all things considered. Signs pointed her and her husband directly to the Alamo booth in the parking garage.
“Two attendants were working in the office, wearing masks,” says Davis, a wellness consultant. “The other customers in line were all wearing masks as well.”
An employee walked the couple to the parking lot and asked them to choose a car — all were the same price.
“We picked a Jeep with Michigan plates and within 15 minutes were on our way to Minneapolis,” she says. “Alamo didn’t charge us the different location drop-off fee, so a day and $46 later, we dropped off the rental car at the Minneapolis airport. Overall, it was the fastest, easiest, and cheapest transfer we ever had between the two cities.”
So what’s new when you rent a car after the pandemic?
It might seem like the car rental process hasn’t changed. One reason: The companies have been keeping a low profile. MediaRadar reports that car rental company ad spending plummeted 95% between January and April. (Although car rental companies didn’t get a government bailout, I’ve argued that travelers should.)
But it’s not business as usual, according to experts. Far from it.
“We are seeing a complete change in how we look to rent cars now,” says Michael Lowe, CEO of Carpassionate.com. “There’s an impact on the turnaround. People are very unlikely to accept a car that comes straight in from being rented. Consumers are looking to rental companies to really take ownership of thorough cleaning after each rental.”
Here’s how car rentals have changed after the pandemic
- Cleaned and disinfected cars.
- Retrained employees who keep their distance.
- Safety seals on the doors.
- Touchless rentals.
- Dramatically lower prices.
These changes are more important than you might realize. Rental cars will be in high demand this summer — and potentially for the rest of the year. This, despite the fact that two car rental companies, Advantage and Hertz, recently filed for bankruptcy protection.
“We anticipate that the majority of travel this summer will be done locally by car,” says Natacha Bouaziz, group head of auto at Europ Assistance. “We’ve already seen more than double the normal number of roadside assistance requests in Italy after the first day of unlock, due to cars sitting idle for an extended period.”
What you need to know: Everything is getting cleaned
Car rental companies have introduced new programs designed to reassure customers that their cars are clean and virus-free. For example, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car have rolled out a Complete Clean Pledge across all locations. It’s an “enhanced” training protocol for cleaning vehicles with a particular focus on more than 20 high-touch areas.
It includes a thorough cleaning and wiping of a car’s interior with a recommended disinfectant — the dashboard, instrument panel, steering column, wheel, accessory panel, center console, cup holders, compartments, and seats, as well as the doors, door pockets, and the areas between the seats and the console and doorjambs.
“We are committed to maintaining the highest standards of cleanliness in the industry,” says Chrissy Taylor, Enterprise Holdings’ CEO.
Car rental employees are keeping their distance, too
Car rental companies are also quietly retraining their workforce so that they can provide the safest rental vehicle. That’s one of the points emphasized by Avis Budget Group.
“In the last few months, as a society, we’ve learned how each and every one of us has a responsibility to stop the spread of viruses, germs and bacteria,” Joe Ferraro, Avis Budget Group’s CEO, told me. “We’re embracing these new challenges by increasing precautions to ensure the highest level of safety for our customers — something they have come to expect.”
Among the changes: introducing new products, methods, and behavioral changes for employees.
“We’ve provided additional personal protective equipment for frontline associates, increased hand-washing procedures and incorporated social distancing measures,” says Ferraro.
He says Avis is also paying close attention to CDC, state, and local government guidelines. The company is adjusting its disinfecting measures based on those guidelines.
What’s changed about renting a car after the pandemic? Safety seals
Car rental companies want to certify their cleanliness, so they’re introducing safety seals for their vehicles. Hertz is placing a “Gold Standard Clean” across the driver side door after the car undergoes a 15-point cleaning and sanitization process that follows CDC guidelines. Herz promises its cars have been sanitized with an “enhanced” vehicle disinfectant and sanitization process “designed to give you total confidence when you rent a car,” according to the company.
Safety seals have also appeared in hotels recently. Although there’s no way to independently verify that the promised cleaning took place, they provide peace of mind.
It’s all going “touchless”
“Some changes will be immediate,” says car rental expert Bob Barton. “Some will take a little longer.”
Barton, a former car rental executive who now consults for software developer RentalMatics, says everyone should expect car rental companies to “fog” their cars with antibacterial mist similar to what the airlines are using to disinfect planes at the gates.
“These misting systems are portable, highly efficient and will become part of the standard routines of vehicle cleaning,” he adds. But soon, car rental companies will be moving to a touchless system.
“Long term, this will accelerate technology development toward making the rental process a keyless entry with an app on your phone. This will eventually evolve to a nearly self-service model, with minimal interaction between the renter and customer service agent,” he says.
In other words, you may not see an agent the next time you rent a car. One company, Silvercar by Audi, is already far down that road. Matt Carpenter, Silvercar’s CEO, told me that after the COVID-19 outbreak, Silvercar doubled down on employee and customer safety.
“In direct response to the evolving needs of travelers with essential travel needs, we have launched touchless rental, pickup and delivery, and extended rental terms,” he says. Silvercar already used an app to minimize contact with its agents. A new option also allows customers to have a vehicle delivered to them and then retrieved from their preferred location at the end of their rental.
Lower prices for your next rental car
The wave of car rental bankruptcies and depressed demand this spring for rental cars have lowered prices. Analysis by RateGain suggests that car rental rates are on the skids. One car rental company was even offering a 50% off coupon during the pandemic.
How much longer can that last? Industry-watchers predict demand will pick up soon as more American leisure travelers consider a road trip this summer. Having two car rental companies operating under bankruptcy protection might push prices lower.
Consumers are a little confused about car rentals after the pandemic
Travel advisors say consumers feel a little lost as they try to figure out car rentals after the pandemic.
“People are confused about cleanliness and disinfection because there is no leadership with one voice saying, ‘This is what must be done and this is how we will do it,’,” says Mitch Krayton, a travel advisor from Aurora, Colo. “To rent, I would want assurances that confirmed ways of disinfection which are lab tested and proven to be effective are consistently applied as a new routine. We all balance risk against advantages. Renting a car should not involve the risk of infection, or worse.”
Although you’ll never be able to remove all the risks from renting a car after the pandemic, your next vehicle will be a little safer — and cheaper.