Rental car shortage grinds gears in Teton County
Ryan Dorgan, Jackson Hole News&Guide photos
JACKSON — At the R Lazy S Ranch, the dude ranch sitting just below the quieter, southern entrance to Grand Teton National Park, people pay an all-inclusive weekly rate for food, lodging, horseback riding and on-ranch fishing: about $2,000 per person, on the lower end.
But this year getting around the valley could eclipse that cost if guests choose to rent a car.
“It’s ending up that it is cheaper to stay at our ranch for two, all inclusive, than to rent a car,” Kelly Stirn, owner of the R Lazy S, told the Jackson Hole News&Guide.
That, of course, depends on when people visit Jackson Hole and what sort of car they rent.
But Stirn’s concern about the price of rental cars is widespread. Nationally, rental prices are up 30% according to a widely cited study conducted by CheapCarRental.net, a website that helps consumers find budget car rentals. Part of the reason is supply: Firms like Avis Budget Group, which operates Avis and Budget, and Hertz, which does the same for Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty, sold off hundreds of thousands of cars in 2020 according to the New York Times and Washington Post. And now, when firms are looking to buy cars and newly vaccinated Americans are looking to get out and travel to places like Jackson Hole, an international shortage of microchips is hampering efforts to rebuild fleets.
The resulting shortage and prices are sending people in Teton County scurrying.
Visitors at Jackson Hole Airport complained about paying more than they expected, though not as much as what’s being quoted for later in the summer. A local company that rents cars is already sold out for the summer as the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce encourages visitors to carpool. And taxi drivers are wondering whether they’ll see any benefit — and be able to keep up with the demand — while some enterprising cab companies are looking to rent their cars in exchange for a few bucks.
Underlying all of that are predictions that the upcoming summer is going to be a busy one. People are emerging from the pandemic vaccinated and, by all accounts, ready to travel.
“Between people getting vaccinated and restrictions being relaxed, we again have that which people want, which is the outdoors, the scenery, the beauty, and just the ability to enjoy nature,” said Rick Howe, vice president of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. “We can expect an incredibly busy summer.”
That has people like Stirn worried about traffic, parking, and crowds at restaurants.
“The upside, of course, is businesses in Jackson will do well,” he said. “The downside is Jackson is being loved to death.”
Texas resident Cody Clark, 32, picked up a rental car Monday at Jackson Hole Airport. He had originally booked a Jeep for a week, expecting to pay $400. Then his and his wife Macy’s plans changed, and he went to change the reservation, dropping from seven days to six days.
But he said he was told the same car would cost about $2,700 — about seven times as much for less time.
So Clark settled on a smaller car, a Chrysler.
But he said he was still paying $700 for the week, $300 more than planned.
“It’s not a good time to travel,” he told the News&Guide.
And Clark may be getting out ahead of the curve.
The News&Guide called multiple rental car companies in Jackson Hole Tuesday, but representatives declined to comment or sent the paper up the food chain to corporate offices or managers that did not respond.
Leisure Sports, a Jackson-based company that rents cars in addition to rafts, canoes, drifts boats and other outdoor gear, did say, however, that its rental car fleet is already booked for the summer, a month earlier than usual. And that’s without raising rates.
Prices are high elsewhere, especially getting into busy months like July, August and September.
On Priceline, a premium SUV like a Chevrolet Suburban is renting for $650 a day in the week spanning July 18 to 25. Including taxes and assorted fees, that’s roughly $5,600 for the week.
Other prices are lower but still expensive. That same week, the cheapest car on Priceline is the “supplier’s choice” option from Hertz: an option that will run renters $340 a day, roughly $2,900 for the week with fees and taxes.
For some, the increasing price of rental cars may spell opportunity.
“We hope that means that more people have to take cabs,” said Steve Lancaster, a 71-year-old cab driver who was waiting outside Jackson Hole Airport Monday. But he acknowledged there are unknowns, like whether people travel as much as they’re expected to — and how many people show up if they do.
“If the COVID thing backs off and people get back to even like 75% of normal, then I think the tourists are going to flood in and overwhelm the system,” he said. “There’s not going to be enough rental cars. There not may not even be enough taxis.”
Mike Rohde, the business development director and fleet manager at Rocky Mountain Yeti, said as many as four or five people a day have called the dealership asking for rentals.
Some who can’t find rentals have just turned around and bought cars.
“I’ve actually had two personal customers that have said, ‘We’ve tried looking at renting,’ and they just said, ‘You know what? It’s going to be easier for us to buy a car,’” Rohde said. Those people, he said, have been second-home owners who decide they’d rather have a permanent vehicle than a short-term rental.
“I was born and raised here, so I’ve seen a lot of changes,” Rohde said, “but this one is definitely new.”
Howe, of the Chamber, said the rental car shortage has his employer encouraging visitors meeting other families or friends in Jackson Hole to go in on rental cars together. That’s something it was doing before the pandemic began, and the rental car shortage started to hit companies across the United States.
But the chamber has also started referring Jacksonites to a car-sharing app called Turo, which is sort of like an AirBnB for car rentals. That’s new, something Howe said started after the Chamber started hearing that neighboring communities like Salt Lake City were also seeing high rental car costs.
The platform allows people to put their personal cars up for rent, while the company takes part of the daily fee and has its own insurance.
Vadim Bulibas owns Teton Limousine with Alexandru Lupanciuc and was on dispatch at Broncs Taxi Tuesday while Lupanciuc, who owns the taxi firm, was off.
Bulibas said that the two firms combined have fewer than 10 vehicles and that Broncs would be renting one of its cars on Turo this summer.
The reason was in part what the company could get for it.
“A Suburban is $350 a day, and I’ve seen some people charge $500, $1,500,” he said. “It’s insane.”
People are reserving the Broncs Taxi car, Bulibas said. He and Lupanciuc listed it Thursday and, within five hours, they had four bookings. The car was reserved for a month, and that’s despite the going price in Jackson Hole likely being above the average on the site. Turo reported that the Jeep Grand Cherokee — its second most popular truck and SUV — was renting for an average of $56 a day.
Still, cars on Turo appear to be listed for less than those offered by traditional rental companies. For July 18 to 25, a Subaru Outback is renting on Turo for $208 per day. A Toyota Highlander is going for $278 per day.
On Priceline, the cheapest option is, again, the $340 daily “supplier’s choice” option. The next best is a standard sized SUV, which is set to rent with a $410 per diem.
“You hear these stories about the rates going through the roof and anybody would be intrigued by the possibility they could make some extra money,” Rohde of Rocky Mountain Yeti said. “With the cost of living in Jackson, anybody in their right mind is going to look for an excuse or a new reason to make some cash.”
But for some, like Stirn, the high cost of traditional car rentals remains a concern.
While his clients are struggling to find a way to the ranch — the R Lazy S shut down its usual shuttle service to and from the airport in order to prioritize cleaning rooms between guests — he thinks they’ll be fine in part because the ranch does so many things on its own property.
Instead, he’s worried that people will be turned off if they have to deal with too many inconveniences.
“My fear is we’re going to get a lot of people in here,” he said, “and all of a sudden, we’re going to have a lack of services starting at the airport with taxis, possibly long lines at restaurants or just crowds in the park.” And that, he worried, might impact visitors’ experience and deter future visitors from coming.