There’s no scenario in which renting a car for a single day should cost $1,300. Yet, that was the price quoted to a few friends and me after our flight home was canceled earlier this month. The only flight we could find at such short notice was the day after our original car rental reservation ended, at a different airport in the same state, and the national rental car agency said there was nothing they could do about the price to extend the reservation.
This was just one aggravating inconvenience in a series of many in the days-long travel nightmare. After a restful trip to a lake in Michigan, it seemed the travel gods were punishing us for actually being able to relax: Flight after flight back to NYC was canceled by a national carrier due to “ground congestion.” I heard from other friends in other locations experiencing similar travails.
After hours of phone calls and pleas to unsympathetic customer service reps, we came up with a plan: Return the original rental car on time to avoid the $1,300 charge, and pick up a second car from a different company for $71. After another flight was canceled as we were driving to the other airport, we picked up a third rental for $300 to drive another 10 hours home, requesting refunds from the airline somewhere along the way.
There are worse things that can happen, and my friends and I are lucky that we could afford to rent a car before getting a flight refund. We were also lucky we were staying at a friend’s house for free and didn’t need to shell out even more money for an Airbnb or hotel last minute. But there are plenty of people who wouldn’t be as fortunate—or wouldn’t be close enough to drive home and still make it to their in-person jobs the next morning.
That’s to speak nothing of the simple frustration of the days-long experience. The whole time—and there was plenty of it, between the various cancellations, phone calls, and miles driven—one question kept ringing through my head: Why can’t anything just work the way it’s supposed to?
I’d be more forgiving of the travel headaches if they were an anomaly. But over the past few years, something going wrong without a simple fix seems to be, more often, the rule than the exception. (And while this article is about travel, it could have been written about any of the countless frustrating modern consumer experiences, from buying concert tickets to avoiding surprise medical bills.) Despite all of the technological advancements society has made, simple travel tasks—from actually being able to book a flight to requesting a rental car extension—seem to have intensified this summer. It has a lot to do with staffing shortages, a lack of government oversight, and, of course, the pandemic.
Failure to launch
Though I’m far from the only one complaining about a canceled flight, things really were worse this summer than they have been in years, says Scott McCartney, co-host of the Airlines Confidential podcast and adjunct faculty member at Duke University. U.S. air passengers endured the highest rate of flight delays this year since 2014. And though airlines are required to refund passengers for canceled flights, they often don’t (or don’t in a timely manner), putting the onus on customers to jump through more hoops.
McCartney, who was the long-time Middle Seat columnist for the Wall Street Journal and an aviation consultant, says a confluence of factors made the past few months miserable for travelers—not all of which can be blamed on airlines. For one, there’s a shortage of air traffic controllers nationwide, which reduces the number of flights that can take off and land safely (McCartney says the problem is particularly bad in New York and Florida).
“When you have a shortage of controllers, you literally have to shut down some airspace,” he says. “It makes the system really inflexible.”
Airlines are also still dealing with staffing shortages related to the pandemic. Or, to put it more accurately, they are dealing with the fallout from offering generous buyouts and early retirement packages to get around the promise they made to the government not to involuntarily layoff staff in exchange for over $50 billion in taxpayer money. Those who have been hired often don’t have the experience necessary to seamlessly solve travelers’ problems, leading to more frustrations, McCartney says.
They’re also still dealing with financial issues from the pandemic, and with high oil prices and more expensive pilot contracts to pay, airlines are less inclined to give refunds or freebies. “Delays are expensive,” McCartney says.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) technology is also woefully out of date, leading to system outages and complications. And then there’s climate change. With storms becoming more and more severe worldwide, he says, more flights are delayed or canceled.
It doesn’t help that the airline industry as a whole has been consolidating for over 30 years into, “essentially an oligopoly,” in which four carriers—American, Delta, Southwest, and United—control 80% of the U.S. market, says John Breyault, vice president for public policy, telecommunications, and fraud at the National Consumers League. Yes, there are a few other airlines, but not all of them service every area of the country, and they increasingly operate in fewer and fewer markets and are cutting routes nationwide. More than 75% of U.S. communities have had service cut since 2020, losing 30% of their flights on average, according to the Regional Airline Association. This is particularly hard on consumers outside major metro areas.
Combined with the plethora of other issues, this summer was “a perfect storm of poor travel experience,” Breyault says.
Because airlines have spent years consolidating flights and squeezing more and more people onto each plane, there often aren’t empty seats available for passengers from the other canceled flights, thus the, at times, days-long wait for the next flight.
“With the very full airplanes, there is very little capacity to recover. If every plane is booked full, you can’t rebook the people who got canceled. It can take three, four, five days to get to where you’re going,” McCartney says. “All of that made this summer in particular much more stressful.”
A canceled flight, of course, comes with countless other headaches—potentially hours on hold with customer service to figure out an alternate plan, getting added to standby lists, missing work, lost baggage, and having to pay for additional hotel nights or for a rental car extension.
For more quotidian cancellations—those that don’t grab the attention of every media outlet on the planet—the process can be more difficult. When you finally make it on your flight, you’re lucky to get a window or aisle without shelling out even more money. And forget about leg room: that’s a rich man’s game. Some carriers have been sued for lying about carry-on baggage sizes; others charge customers to speak to a human being about any of the other issues. Even rewards programs are less generous than they used to be.
“The airline industry is the poster child for nickel and dining consumers,” says Breyault.
For all that, you’re paying even higher prices. Though they’ve come down somewhat, airline ticket prices are still elevated compared to before the pandemic, jumping almost 10% between April 2019 and April 2023, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the airlines’ defense, many aspects of flying have improved. There are fewer cancellations, on the whole, and fewer crashes. It’s more accessible to more people, not just the rich. McCartney says airports are a lot nicer than they used to be—and TSA is much more efficient. “Even with recent price hikes, it’s still a bargain,” he says. “If you adjust for inflation, it gets cheaper and cheaper to fly by air. That’s an amazing thing.”
The rental car racket
Air travel is one thing. Have you tried renting a car lately?
Though things might be a little better than they were during the surge of post-vaccine travel a few years ago when prices increased by as much as 58%, renting a car can still feel like an exercise in pushing the very limits of customer patience and decency. Trying to figure out the actual price after accounting for all of the fees, extras, and insurance can seem to require a PhD.
Some of the problems can be blamed on the monopoly car rental companies enjoy. There are only three major players in the U.S., including Avis Budget Group, Enterprise Holdings, and Hertz Global Holdings.
But there are other factors at play. McCartney notes that rental prices are creeping up because cars, in general, are getting more expensive.
And then there are the taxes and fees levied by the airports and even state and local governments. It’s about 26% more expensive to rent a car at the airport than at a different location, according to personal finance site NerdWallet. Of course, it’s also much simpler to pick up the rental from the airport than figure out a mode of transportation to a separate location.
While an airport fee makes some sense—it costs money to operate them—many communities have slapped extra taxes on rental cars to subsidize “unrelated purposes,” such as building sports arenas or putting on festivals. It’s one way for states and localities to generate revenue that is disproportionately paid by nonresidents.
“Some of these taxes are paid by residents, but this is often an example of ‘tax exporting,’ where taxes are established with the hope that non-resident visitors may pay a substantial portion of the collected revenue,” says Garrett Watson of the Tax Foundation.
A full quarter of Americans say they notice rental car fees increasing, according to a recent survey on so-called “fee creep” by personal finance site Credit Karma. “We’ve seen sneaky ways to increase prices by charging for things people might expect to be free or included,” says Courtney Alev, consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma. “It’s starting to price people out.”
That said, McCartney says the $1,300 quote my friends and I received comes down to supply and demand. The pandemic was brutal on car rental companies—Hertz even filed for bankruptcy in May 2020—and they decided to sell off many of their vehicles to stay afloat (they also laid off hundreds of workers). There are still fewer to go around. Even one customer not returning their vehicle on time can lead to a breakdown in the system and countless headaches for others.
“The $1,300 is just to make you return it,” he says. “That car you had, somebody else had reserved for the next day. If you don’t bring it back, they don’t have a car for whoever has it reserved.”
How to deal
The most frustrating aspect of everything, as McCartney notes, is that we as consumers can’t do much about delays, cancellations, fees, etc. “You’re captive,” he says. Breyault notes there are no quick fixes here, especially for air travel. It takes time to hire staff, and without stricter regulations, the airlines have no incentive to do any better or charge less.
The federal government offers some protections for consumers caught in the middle, not that they are much help in most situations—and not that the U.S. Department of Transportation holds companies responsible even when they are explicitly breaking federal law. There is typically compensation required for those who are bumped from flights. Airlines are no longer allowed to hold domestic passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours without food and water. But American protections pale in comparison to those in other places, like the European Union.
Recently, the Biden administration proposed new rules that, if implemented, would require airlines to compensate passengers whose flights are canceled or significantly delayed due to certain circumstances under their control. McCartney is less than impressed.
“The federal government is operating the air traffic control system. But they want the airline to pay. And the airlines will say, we didn’t cause this problem, the government did,” he says. “I think it’s a fool’s errand to worry about assigning blame.”
Credit Karma’s Alev recommends looking into things like travel insurance, particularly for longer, more expensive trips in which one canceled or delayed flight can cause a chain reaction of financial pain. It also doesn’t hurt to join a rental car company or airline’s loyalty program for potential savings and perks. Paying a little more for a refundable plane ticket, if you can afford to do so, may also give you peace of mind.
For now, when something goes wrong with a flight, customers can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation—a potentially helpful move because the airlines must respond. Then again, DOT is so overrun with consumer complaints they barely have time to actually monitor the industry in the first place, says Breyault.
There’s always the option to complain on social media—indeed, airline screeds have become something of a trope on sites like Twitter/X—directly to the company, or to a media outlet.
As good as it may feel to blast an airline or rental car company on social media—or, ahem, in a major media outlet—the vindication is fleeting. On your next trip, you won’t have many other options besides flying the same airline (particularly if you’re on a budget) or renting a car from one of the big three (even Zipcar, a seemingly independent alternative, is owned by Avis).
McCartney says for all the troubles, it’s possible things will improve in the next few months. Fares are already dropping as demand lessens.
“That will give airlines a chance to catch their breath and restaff and catch up on repairs,” he says. “The next test will be the holiday season.”