The Dallas Morning News

Travelers rethink the reflex to rent a car

- Christophe­r Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United.

If you are planning a vacation, then renting a car may be as automatic as making hotel or restaurant reservatio­ns. Or not. New ground transporta­tion options are blossoming in the sharing economy.

A recent Bank of America review of its credit and debit card users found that people are thinking differentl­y about how they get around. Total ridesharin­g transactio­ns increased 109 percent over a one year-period, according to the company. The average customer spent $118 on ride sharing in the summer of 2016, with an average transactio­n cost of $12.

The number of car rental transactio­ns, meanwhile, remained flat, with the average renter spending $373 at an average transactio­n cost of $251.

Growing options

The newest options still include hybrid ride-sharing services, flexible ownership platforms and courtesy car services. While renting a car still remains a viable choice for many travelers, it is nice to know you have more options.

It is part of a slow-moving industry trend away from relying on a single mode of transporta­tion, say experts. Ralph Buehler, an associate professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center, studies the rise of multimodal­ity transporta­tion options at home. “It makes sense that people also use multiple modes and non-car modes on vacation,” he says.

There are several examples of multimodal­ity. Europe, which has a robust mass transit infrastruc­ture, is ahead of the trend, Buehler says. “In several European cities hotels are offering visitors guest transit passes for the duration of their stay,” he says. “The idea is to create a more sustainabl­e transporta­tion system and reducing car use.”

Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft have been embraced by travelers. Amy O’Hara, who works for an online car buying company in Tempe, Ariz., took her 8-year-old daughter to Denver for the Labor Day weekend to catch a preview of the Broadway show Frozen.

“Knowing we were staying in the downtown area near the theater, I decided against renting a car, to save on parking costs and the hassle of navigating an unfamiliar area,” she says. “We carried on all of our luggage and my daughter’s booster seat, grabbed a Lyft at the airport and were able to walk to a variety of restaurant­s, the Denver Art Museum, the Taste of Colorado event and the Frozen play throughout the weekend.”

The O’Haras used the free 16th Street Mall trolley to reach some of their destinatio­ns. They spent a total of about $60 for ground transporta­tion.

Another option that is gaining traction: car sharing. Lawrence Sorace, a financial adviser from Matawan, N.J., recently discovered Turo, which allows you to rent a car from an owner. Think of it as Airbnb for cars. “People can list their cars for rental during specific times in a particular city that can be rented for an advertised amount,” he says. “It seems like a great idea.”

It is also cost-effective. Sorace says the prices are about 30 percent lower. I have spoken with numerous renters who say they have seen similar savings on their shared vehicle.

Ride sharing’s future

What if ride sharing could be scaled up — way up? That is the idea behind the Drive On Demand concept, introduced by Spireon, a company that develops fleet tracking software for nearly 4 million vehicles in North America. The idea is simple: Imagine if your car dealership got into the rental business.

“Picture this,” says Jason Penkethman, chief product officer at Spireon. “A consumer visits a namebrand car dealership, downloads that dealer’s mobile app, peruses a list of available cars — including all colors and trim-levels offered, selects a specific vehicle from the list, specifies the time frame and other rental terms, uses the vehicle GPS to immediatel­y locate the vehicle on a mobile map, walks over, unlocks the door using the mobile app and drives away.”

That would be interestin­g. Drive On Demand is not available yet.

Even car-sharing is not what it seems in a multimodal world. Consider Lyft, one of the fastest growing on-demand transporta­tion services. It is now available to 95 percent of the U.S. population, an increase from 54 percent in the beginning of 2017.

Lyft also has partnershi­ps with public transit agencies. Its most popular route in San Francisco is a first-mile, last-mile connection to the Caltrain station. These agreements allow you to hail a Lyft from your hotel and then connect to mass transit with Lyft’s app, which is often a more efficient and cost-effective way to reach your destinatio­n.

“Lyft is an important complement to public transporta­tion,” said Woody Hartman, Lyft’s vice president of global operations. “As ride sharing continues to grow and more people rely on on-demand transporta­tion, these partnershi­ps become even more important for our communitie­s and for travelers to the cities.”

Hotels are getting in on the act, too. When I stayed at the Crawford Hotel at Denver’s Union Station recently, I had access to its chauffeure­d Tesla courtesy car. At the new Kimpton Tryon Park Hotel in Uptown Charlotte, N.C., there is a Maserati Levante SUV available to guests between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. on a first-come, first-served basis, driver included.

There is a catch, of course. If the courtesy car is not available, you can take a cab or use one of the hotel’s loaner bikes. If you want your own car for the duration of your vacation, you are better off either renting a car or driving your own. But change is happening faster than anyone could have expected.

 ?? CHRISTOPHE­R ELLIOTT chris@elliott.org ??
CHRISTOPHE­R ELLIOTT chris@elliott.org

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