rental cars

How will the pandemic leave its mark on travel?

Dreaming about travel? Us too. But how will our journeys be changed by the pandemic?

(This is a slightly different version of a story we prepared for NBC News.)

Sanitizing stations, “stand here, not there” floor stickers, and cotton swabs up the nose were not part of the travel experience before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as travelers edge their way back into airports and hotels and onto airplanes, cruise ships, and ski slopes, they will be dealing will all that – and more.

But for how long? We asked some industry experts to tell us which new travel trends, technologies, and protocols they think will stick around.

Who will travel and what will they expect?

“Businesses are connecting with their customers virtually and leisure travelers are discovering the joys of staying local,” says Chekitan Dev, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in the SC Johnson College of Business. “Many business travelers will lower their number of trips, and leisure travelers will shift from ‘hyper-global’ to ‘hyper-local’ travel for the foreseeable future.”

For well into 2021 travelers will be expected or required to wear masks and observe physical distancing. And airlines, airports, hotels, and cruise lines will be expected to continue making health, safety, and cleanliness a priority.

“People will look at a dirty rental car or bus or airport or airline cabin or hotel room and wonder, ‘Uh oh, am I putting myself at risk?’ says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. “Travelers will continue to hold travel brands’ feet to the fire to keep their facilities clean.”

Entertainment

Once we move past this pandemic “we’re going to have amnesia about some of this and likely go back doing many of the same things we used to do before,” says Devin Liddell, futures and design strategist with Seattle-based Teague global design consultancy.

Theme parks, museums, and other attractions will reopen, and Liddell says the best operators will retain systems put in place to orchestrate the flow of people. For example, “ski resorts that require reservations will likely create a better experience for everyone on the lift lines,” he says.

Hotels

Hotels will likely maintain flexible cancellation policies and keep in place the intensive protocols for cleaning guest rooms and public spaces.

But instead of housekeeping only upon request or not at all during a stay, “elective housekeeping will be more about providing guests with an easy ‘opt-out’ of housekeeping services,” says Bjorn Hanson, adjunct Professor at New York University’s Tisch Center of Hospitality. 

Cruising

Most major cruise lines are maintaining – and extending – the voluntary suspensions of sailings until sometime in 2021.

When sailings resume there will be changes onboard.

“The buffet will move away from the more traditional self-serve approach toward a more crew-served style – something that lines have already said will likely be a more permanent change,” said Colleen McDaniel, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic. And “changes to muster drills could also stick around beyond the pandemic. Rather than mass events that put all passengers in small spaces at once, we’ll continue to see this more self-driven.”

Airports

At airports, “the pandemic has dramatically accelerated the adoption of countless new technologies and protocols to keep people healthy and safe and streamline the entire air travel experience,” says Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International-North America.

“Many of these changes will outlast COVID-19,” he adds.

Those technologies and protocols include sanitizing robots, restrooms that alert maintenance crews when cleaning is needed, contactless check-in, bag check and credential authentication, and the increased ability to order and pay for food or duty-free items from a mobile device and receive a contactless delivery anywhere inside the airport.

The current pandemic will change future airports as well.

“We plan to implement many public health procedures into the design of our new terminal building,” scheduled to open in 2023 said Christina Cassotis, CEO at Pittsburgh International Airport, “It will be the first post-pandemic terminal to open in the country that will be designed with these issues in mind.”

Materials in airports are going to change, too, says Luis Vidal, president and founding partner at Luis Vidal + Architects. “The use of new photocatalytic devices based on antibacterial, antiviral, and ‘autocleaning’ material, such as titanium dioxide, silver or copper, in high-use areas will become the norm.”

Airlines

(PRNewsfoto/United Airlines)

Airlines will maintain stringent cleaning and sanitizing protocols. Generous rebooking and cancelation policies may stretch out for a while. But most airlines will soon stop blocking middle seats.

Coming back soon: the full range of in-flight services, especially at the front of the plane.

“The traveling public is not happy with the bare bones on-board experience right now,” says Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research. “They understand the need for limits, but people are saying they won’t accept paying for a premium experience and getting something that is subpar.”

Vaccines, Travel Corridors, and insurance 

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, it may become a ‘must-have’ for travelers.

The new normal for global travel may also include digital health passports displaying a traveler’s vaccine or negative test status and, by spring, travel corridors (also known as travel bubbles) that allow travel between countries with low COVID-19 infection rates, says Fiona Ashley, VP Product & Solution Marketing SAP Concur.

While there are some great fare deals being offered right now, as demand returns, so will higher prices.  And going forward, travelers will likely need to factor in the added costs of COVID-19 tests and travel insurance.

“Travel insurance may become a non-negotiable as destinations continue to require medical insurance, and travel suppliers tighten their refund policies,” said Megan Moncrief Chief Marketing Officer of travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth

“The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of the global travel industry. I think travelers will be more cautious about investing in expensive trips without insurance.”

Thinking of renting a car now – or later? National Car Rental offers travelers flexibility.

SEA Airport – Photo by Harriet Baskas

Note: I was compensated by National Car Rental for this post. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

As the holidays approach and COVID-19 concerns continue to guide every step we take outside our homes, many households are discussing, debating, and strategizing how they might take a business or leisure trip safely.

Airlines are detailing their cleaning protocols and celebrating a recent study that found the risk of exposure to COVID-19 during air travel is low. Conversely, a recent study noted that consumers deemed car rentals to be the safest mode of transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

To build on these studies and further reassure travelers that there’s no need to rush out on the road airlines, hotels and car rental companies are extending expiration dates on loyalty program benefits for those who must or choose to stay home. National Car Rental, for example, is extending its Emerald Club Program Free Days, previously expiring December 31, 2020, a full year, to December 31, 2021. And was the first car rental company to do so.

“Extending Emerald Club Program Free Days a full year will provide [members] with more opportunity to use the rewards that they’ve earned,” said Randal Narike, Executive Vice President, Global Mobility and Customer Experience at Enterprise Holdings. “We hope that this allows them the flexibility to rent a vehicle down the road for that much-anticipated business or leisure trip when they are comfortable and able.”

The Emerald Club is also rolling over any qualifying rentals and rental days above those needed to get the member to the next tier, giving the member a balance into the following year. Not an Emerald Club Member? You can sign up for free.  

In many communities, car rental bookings are getting a boost now and into the holidays from both car owners and non-car owners who do not feel safe or comfortable using public transportation right now to travel to and from an airport. And many people feel safer being in a car by themselves now too for day trips, road trips and business travel.

The cleanliness promises and procedures car rental companies now offer make renting a car an appealing option. Staff has had time to be trained in the new systems and the programs have been road-tested.  

Courtesy Port of Seattle

In preparation for my holiday road trip, I took a close look at National Car Rental’s Complete Clean Pledge, which promises that each car is washed, vacuumed and sanitized according to CDC guidelines. The system lists 20 high-touch key area that are cleaned both inside and outside of cars.      

The touch points listed for cleaning caught my attention.

Some I expected. Some I had not considered or been previously concerned about, but find myself pleased to see on the list.

And some made me rush down to the garage to do a good wipe down on parts of my own car.

Here is the list:

  • Key/key fob
  • Steering wheel
  • Steering column
  • Seat belts
  • Center console
  • Door interiors
  • Door pockets
  • Door handles (interior and exterior)
  • Seat pockets and seat surfaces
  • Cupholders and cup holder compartments
  • Areas between seats, consoles and the seats and door
  • Instrument panel
  • Accessory panel and touch screen
  • Rear view mirror and side mirrors
  • Visors/visor mirrors
  • Dashboard and vents
  • Gear stick
  • Trunk release

Click here to learn more about National Car Rental’s Complete Clean Pledge. If you’re interested in becoming an Emerald Club member, you can learn more here.

How to avoid rental car toll pass charges

How to avoid getting dinged for rental car toll fees.

My story this week for CNBC is about those irritating and outrageous fees rental car companies charge for using their toll transponders. Here is a slightly updated version of the posted story.

If you are a fearless flier but break out into a cold sweat at the airport car rental counter, you’re not alone.

Pre-paid gas plans, unnecessary or duplicate insurance coverage and post-rental charges for imaginary scratches are just some of the many ways car rental companies can trip up even the savviest traveler.

Now, as more bridges and highways shift to cashless, electronic toll collections, customers are increasingly getting dinged with surprise, hard to decipher and/or exorbitant fees for the “convenience” of driving a rental vehicle on a tolled road. 

Here’s how rental car customers get caught:

On cashless toll roads, drivers can’t stop to pay with cash at a booth. Instead, electronic sensors scan cars for passes or transponders, such as E-ZPass. And cameras snap photos of license plates on cars without passes and send toll bills to car owners in the mail.

If regularly drive your car on a toll road, you likely have a transponder or pay the tolls by mail.

But Rental car companies not only charge renters for the tolls they incur, they also add charges for using the transponders in the cars. Renters who skip paying transponder fees up front and travel on a toll road anyway can be dinged with even higher charges and added administrative fees.

“Here’s where the fun begins,” said Chris White of RentalCarTransponders.com, a website that sells activated Tolltraxx transponders to rental car customers for use in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, “Depending on which rental company you got your car from, different charges will be applied.”

In some cases, one rental car company will charge different fees in different states. And companies that own several car rental brands will have different programs and fees for each brand.

What are the extra charges?

In addition to non-discounted toll fees, for example, Avis and Budget charge renters a $3.95 per day “convenience” fee for the transponder, including days the transponder isn’t used. The fee is capped at $19.75/month.

The Hertz PlatePass program charges tolls at the highest, undiscounted toll rate plus a $5.95 convenience fee each day tolls are incurred, with no convenience fee cap.

With Dollar and Thrifty, if you don’t get the transponder at the time of rental and end up on a toll road, you not only you pay for the transponder and the tolls but get charged a $15 administrative fee for each toll, with a $90 cap per rental.  

Not all companies charge high fees: Silvercar charges a one-time administrative fee of $4.95, in addition to tolls. And travelers who rent from Zipcar don’t pay anything for using a toll pass, although they are still responsible for paying the toll fees.

Finding what a company will charge for tolls and transponders is rarely easy. A few clearly state the toll and transponder fees on their websites. But others bury the information or make it very confusing. And some don’t reveal the charges until bookings are made, if at all.

Worse, man rental customers don’t learn about the transponder fees until they’re at the rental counter being asked (or pressured) to sign multiple “accept” or “decline” lines on a contract.

Even calling ahead to a customer service line may not be much help.

After searching in vain for toll and transponder fees on one company’s website, a customer service agent on the phone tallied them up, laughed and said, “My advice, if you think you’ll be going through tolls, don’t rent this car.”

Workarounds

There are other options. With some pre-planning and extra effort, you can avoid many of the “convenience” fees for tolling when renting a car.

Avoid toll roads

It may mean a slower trip and some round-about routes, but if you plot your journey ahead of time it may be possible to decline the transponder rental and get from here to there without traveling on toll roads altogether. Google Maps, Waze and other mapping programs have an “avoid tolls” option that can be turned on for searches.   

Bring a transponder from home

A transponder you have in your personal car can be used in many rental car situations.

E-ZPass transponders, for example, can be used on bridges and highways in more than 15 states, from Maine to Illinois and down south as far as North Carolina. Florida’s SunPass can also be used on toll roads in Georgia and North Carolina.

If you do bring your own transponder, just be sure the transponder in the rental car is turned off. Snap a photo in case the rental car company charges you anyway. And call or go online to add your rental car’s license plate number to your account for the dates of your rental.

Buy a travel transponder to use on the road

Frequent traveler or not, you can save a lot of money and avoid surprise fees by buying an extra or new transponder or toll pass to use in any state you’ll be traveling to or through. In many cases the fee you pay for the pass goes into your account as credit for tolls.

For the E-ZPass program, out-of-state drivers can purchase from any participating state’s E-ZPass program. So do a little homework and opt for a state, such as Massachusetts, that won’t add any extra fees. And be sure to add your rental car license plate and dates of travel to your account.

Heading to the airport? Hold onto that rental car.

Courtesy State Library of New South Wales , via Flickr Commons.

Courtesy State Library of New South Wales , via Flickr Commons.


Disclosure: National Car Rental sponsored this project.

You finished your meetings, filed that report and now there’s not much else to do but take another pass at the breakfast buffet, check out of your hotel and head to the airport to hang out before your flight.

But don’t return that rental car just yet.

If you plan it right and do a little homework, you can squeeze in a leisure adventure on the way to the airport.

Here’s are some great attractions nearby 5 major airports:

San Francisco International Airport: Burlingame sits on San Francisco Bay, and is home to the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia. Nearby is the Coyote Point Recreation Area, which offers a beach promenade, marina and great viewing spots for watching planes take off and land.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is just seven miles from the sprawling Museum of Flight, with more than 160 air and spacecraft, flight simulators and a brand new, 3-acre Aviation Pavilion that features many of the large commercial aircraft in the collection.

New York’s LaGuardia Airport is less than 2 miles from the Louis Armstrong House and Museum in Corona. The world famous jazz musician and his wife, Lucille, lived in a modest house in Queens and guided tours of the home are offered every hour.

Los Angeles International Airport – The Flight Path Learning Center and Museum is on the south side of the airport in the LAX Imperial Terminal and features airplane models, uniforms, photographs and a wide variety of historic artifacts relating to the aviation industry and the history of Southern California. In-N-Out Burger, a favorite among plane spotters, has a branch in nearby Westchester, less than 2 miles away.

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport: Founders’ Plaza, on airport property (but almost two miles from the terminal), has an observation area offering great views of airplanes landing and taking off, telescopes, picnic tables and a radio broadcasting air traffic control communications. Historic downtown Grapevine, with wine tasting rooms, public art, shops, restaurants and an entertaining glockenspiel clock tower, is just 7 miles away.

The easiest and most time-efficient way to reach most of these near-the-airport locations is by car. A good option: National Car Rental, where some of the time-saving benefits offered to Emerald Club members make it easy to squeeze in leisure time on a business trip.

At these busy airports and many others, Emerald Club members get to bypass the lines at the check-in counter, pick out any midsize (or above) car from the Emerald Aisle and, when they return to the airport, skip the paperwork and get an email receipt after dropping off the car.

I’ve got a work trip planned to Denver and I’m planning now to squeeze in a drive out to Golden to see the Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum and grave before heading back to Denver International Airport, returning my rental car and heading home.

National_Emerald Aisle_image

Don’t give that rental car back just yet. Take a fun side trip before heading back to the airport.

Germiest rides to the airport

My story this week for CNBC will have you reaching for the hand sanitizer next time you hail a taxi, rent a car or use a ride-hailing service such as Uber or Lyft because a recent study found that – no surprise – the surfaces passengers come in contact with most often are full of germs.

A swab-carrying team from insurance comparison site NetQuote took samples from seat belts, door handles and window buttons on three random taxis and ride-hailed vehicles and the steering wheel, gear shift and seat belts in three random rental cars.

The testing was done in South Florida, and while testers expected taxis to yield the highest amount of bacteria, when lab results came back with counts for the number of colony-forming units (CFUs) and bacteria present, it was actually ride-hailed cars that turned out to be the germiest.

The study found more than 6 million CFUs per square inch on average, while rentals averaged a much smaller amount of 2 million CFU/sq. in. Taxis had an average of just more than 27,000 CFU/sq. in.

“To put it in perspective,” the report notes, “rideshares averaged almost three times more germs than a toothbrush holder,” the study said, while the number of microorganisms in both rideshares and rental cars was more than those found on toilet seats and in coffee pot reservoirs.

The research team did not single out which ride-hailing companies it tested, “in the interest of not characterizing specific companies unfairly,” according to a spokesperson.

An Uber representative said the company doesn’t directly inspect cars for cleanliness. However, Uber said its two-way feedback system — where riders and drivers rate one another after each ride — is the main method through which vehicle cleanliness is noted and addressed. If a driver’s car is dirty, they’ll likely get poor ratings and hear about it from local Uber teams, the spokesperson added.

No one from Lyft responded to my request for comment.

Not all germs are harmful, of course, but high bacteria levels increase the chance that harmful microorganisms are present. And some potentially harmful germs, such as bacillus, cocci and yeast, showed up repeatedly in the samples.

Although taxis were the cleanest rides of the three tested, they were by no means free of germs.

The swabs taken in taxis showed that the most germ-filled surfaces were seat belts, with 26,000 CFU/sq. in. Meanwhile, seat belts in rideshares had 38 times more bacteria.

Taxi door handles had 1,570 CFU/sq. in., around 55 times more bacteria than in a typical car door handle, the study notes, while taxi window buttons were surprisingly clean, with just 23 CFU/sq. in.

In the rental cars tested, both the steering wheels and gear shifts had more than 1 million CFU/sq. inch, while the seat belts showed a relatively low rate of 403 CFU/sq. in.

How can you avoid the germs?

“When you rent a car, take a moment to wipe key surfaces such as the steering wheel and gear shift with a soap-based wipe before you touch them,” the report advises. “And once you leave the cab or rideshare, wash your hands as soon as possible — and avoid touching your face until you do.”

There are plenty of products you can carry to help fight germs too, including the Clean Well sprayer, an all-natural, alcohol free, version popular with people looking for something as an alternative to Purell, said Paul Shrater, co-founder and COO of Minimus.biz, a site that sells travel-sized products.

“One thing to note is that once you call something ‘sanitizer,’ ‘antibacterial’ or ‘disinfect’ it is actually considered an over-the-counter drug, and regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because you are making specific medical claims,” said Shrater. “That’s quite different than something that just claims to ‘clean’ like a regular soap, so if you are really looking to kill germs, look for something that has one of those phrases,” he said.