Ridiculous or not? Half the car at twice the price

What the heck is going on with car rental prices? Charlotte Drost would like to know.

“I have to pay over $600 for a week of economy rental car rate in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in July,” she says. “These are the most expensive rates I’ve ever seen — and no one would negotiate!”

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Across the country and around the world, travelers are being taken aback by high car rental rates. When Charles Ruffner tried to rent a vehicle in Croatia, for example, his agency quoted him a price that was twice what he’d paid just two years before.

“The quality of the car had gone down, too,” he says. “The model had been downgraded and it had many miles on it.”

No one tracks car rental prices globally, so it’s difficult to tell exactly how much the rates have risen. But risen they have.

“Car rental rates are climbing because fleets are very tight this summer,” says Bob Barton, president of the American Car Rental Association, a trade group. In other words, there’s more demand than supply (the “fleet” is an industry term for car inventory).

“They’re tighter than they have been in a very long time, because of the disaster in Japan, which caused a 30 percent drop in output of cars and the skyrocketing value of used cars,” he says.

Still, how can car rental companies double their prices and offer a smaller car, in some cases? Isn’t that a little much?

Chris Brown, who edits the trade publication Auto Rental News, says you have to also factor demand into to the equation. Drost, for example, is renting a car during peak tourist season, a time when it’s a seller’s market for cars. “Combine that with the crisis in Japan, which has led to rental car companies not being able to stock up for the peak season to meet demand,” he explains.

Still, people are confused and upset by the higher rates. Larry Christensen is visiting his mother in Marquette, Mich., this summer, and all of the car rental companies are charging $80 a day. For a compact car.

“It’s gouging,” he says.

Making matters worse, the high price is often only a base rate. When Richard Wong picked up a rental car in Houston last week, a mid-sized car that cost a reasonable $141 for several days, he was broadsided with $60 in surcharges that included a fee for the city’s new stadium.

“That really galled me,” he says.

So the car rental agencies have fewer cars to rent, and demand is unusually high, which is pushing prices higher. I get it. But how much of this is truly demand- and supply-driven, and how much of it is just profiteering?

I’m given the impression, in talking with car rental customers, that they think there’s as much of the former as the latter going on. And they don’t like it.