How best to deal with the rental car crunch in Hawaii

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Waikiki packs a wealth of attractions and activities into three square miles, minimizing the need for transportation.
Waikiki packs a wealth of attractions and activities into three square miles, minimizing the need for transportation. Photo Credit: Joe Solem/HTA
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

The sticker shock is real. With not enough vehicle stock available to meet the quickly returning tourist demand in Hawaii, car rental rates in the Aloha State have soared.

In 2019, it was common to find car rental prices in the neighborhood of $50 per day, but as visitation has steadily climbed through early 2021, tourists are finding daily rates have jumped to more than $300, and in some cases travel advisors reported receiving quotes for as much as $600 per day.

At the outset of the pandemic, tourism saw an unprecedented drop, and car rental companies responded by shedding vehicles to keep costs down. Now, with vaccination distribution well underway in the U.S. and all types of travel returning, the car rental companies are struggling to replenish their fleets and keep pace with demand. A drop off in new car manufacturing has only exacerbated the problem, and the shortage could continue through the summer.

That's bad news for those planning Hawaii vacations. Specialists say demand is high in the Islands: vacation bookings were strong for spring break and are looking promising for summer and beyond, as well.

"More travelers are coming, and Waikiki is getting crowded again," said Keiko Mori, a travel advisor with Kittle Travel on Oahu. "But a lot of travelers are looking for very discounted packages right now, and the car rental prices are quite the shock."

Travel Weekly spoke with several travel advisors who know Hawaii well or live in the Islands themselves to get their tips and advice for managing the car rental crunch and making sure an exorbitant transportation bill doesn't drag down a client's experience.

The best time to book? Yesterday

Many Hawaii specialists said that in the past they paid little attention to the timing of a rental car booking and felt comfortable leaving it until the last minute. The current situation has led to a complete reversal.

"I tell my clients as soon as they have the plane ticket booked, they should be looking at rental cars," said Jasper Stevens of Island Time Travel in California. "Really, if you think you'll need a rental car, you should be making a reservation the minute you have your dates set. It's the most important piece of the puzzle right now; flights and hotels are not so hard to come by."

While many Hawaii visitors have been hit with high daily rates, others who waited too long found some car rental lots were sold out.

"Right now, you have to be looking two, three, four months in advance at least to get anything reasonable," said Laura Lukasik, of Viking Travel in Illinois. "The prices are just outrageous, and if you're looking a week or days in advance, good luck."

For travelers headed to Hawaii during the busy summer months or the holiday season at the end of the year, the landscape for car rental cars could be even more competitive.

Consider alternatives

It was national news when a U-Haul operator in Hawaii issued a statement saying tourists were booking the moving company's smaller vehicles to get around the Islands. The white-and-orange trucks showing up at beach parking lots were just one indicator of tourists and advisors getting creative when it comes to transportation.

Commonly called "the Airbnb of cars," several travel advisors said they have turned to the online service Turo, which enables people to rent out their private vehicles and operates in more than 50 countries. A recent search on Turo for vehicles available in Honolulu for one week in mid-June found more than a dozen options for less than $75 per day. The service offers a wide range of vehicles, everything from Ford sedans and compact, easy-to-park Fiats to Teslas and exotic Italian sports cars.

"Just anecdotally, I've heard that a lot of people in Hawaii, where we've had very high unemployment during the pandemic that is thankfully getting better now, are turning to things like Turo to make extra money," Debbie Misajon, owner of Coconut Traveler on Oahu, said. "It's added to the stock of available cars on Turo when the service is getting some attention."

Other travel advisors said they are turning to online portals and services outside of the nationwide car rental companies that tend to be the first place consumers go, such as Enterprise, Hertz or Avis.

"For car rentals I regularly check on the Funjet Vacations site," Mori said. "So far, they've still had rental cars available for booking."

Choose wisely when booking a hotel

For those who want to skip the headache of finding an affordable rental vehicle altogether, it pays to be particular about your hotel or accommodations location.

Resort areas such as Wailea and Kaanapali on Maui, Kona on Hawaii Island and Poipu on Kauai pack a bunch of properties, restaurants and other amenities and services into carefully planned and manicured communities. Walking paths make moving between properties easy, and many resort areas or the individual properties offer shuttles that cover the immediate area. Finding out the shuttle situation at a resort is a smart thing to do right now.

Some small towns, such as Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu, Lahaina on Maui and Hanalei on Kauai, are also easily navigated by foot and pack a lot of tourist activity into a small area. On the other hand, travelers who book vacation rentals or hotels in more isolated, less urban areas may feel stranded without a vehicle.

"It really depends on what the client wants," said Alan Cordera, an independent travel advisor based in Portland, Ore. "If they want some beach time, high-end shopping and great cuisine without much hassle, I might recommend keeping it simple and focusing in on one of the resort areas. If they have their mind set on doing a bunch of hikes or staying in off-the-beaten-path areas, then a car might be a necessity."

Waikiki, the state's largest resort corridor, is just 10 miles from the Honolulu Airport and packs a wealth of activities into a three-square-mile area. Without ever getting behind a wheel, visitors staying in Waikiki can surf, snorkel, eat at award-winning restaurants, visit the Honolulu Zoo and choose from a roster of shows and luaus. Using the city's bike share program, Biki, travelers also have easy access to the shops and parks of Ala Moana to the west and Diamond Head State Monument to the east.

"The [rental car prices] have created a situation where you have to dig a little deeper and find out what the person wants from their trip," Stevens said. "If they need to be out of the hotel every day doing something new and unique, transportation might be required. But maybe they can get everything they want staying in a certain area, and they'll thank you for saving them $2,000 for a week of car rental."

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