Unexpected COVID-19 Fallout: No One Wants To Wash Rental Cars

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rental car industry covid

Rental Car Industry COVID-19 Fallout: The Car Wash

Last week I headed to Tucson for a few days away in the desert. As you literally cannot get around Arizona without a vehicle, I had to rent a car for my few days (Phoenix and Tucson are both known for their sprawl, not their mass transit). While my rental went smoothly, the experience brought to light an interesting rental car industry COVID-19 issue: companies are struggling to clean cars. Yes. Apparently this is a pain point at the moment.

Budgeting for a Deal

Given that travel is way down from its normal levels, I had every expectation I could snag a great deal on a car. Sure enough, a three-day rental with Budget at Tucson Airport ran me $77 after taxes. Even for a compact, this is one of the better rates I’ve scored.

I arrived to a completely deserted rental car center. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, given the COVID-19 travel situation. Travel is at just 10% of what it was this same time last year. But it was still a little strange.

Aside from the mandated distancing and completely empty queues, this rental was just like any other. I presented my license and credit card (with car rental protections, of course) and was asked the typical confirmation question about my phone number and address.

But then the agent asked an unexpected question: “We don’t have a compact. Would you like a Tacoma?”

rental car industry covid

The Rental Car Industry COVID-19 Predicament

Now, my answer was of course yes. A nice pickup for the three days? I’ll take it. But I was curious why this was even offered. Shouldn’t there be plenty of cars in stock, given the lack of demand? I can’t imagine that Budget is suffering from too many rentals.

It turns out that laying off nearly all your staff has some unusual side effects. The agent at the desk informed me that she, her manager, and one other staff had been retained out of the entire cohort that keeps the Tucson Budget rental car operation going. I guess this was a necessary move to save the payroll cost.

But now people are hesitant to come back to work. According to the agent, Budget is not only fighting worries about coronavirus, but they are fighting economics. Many staff are now making more sitting at home on unemployment, which has been expanded greatly during COVID-19. Why come back to work detailing cars all day for less money, especially if this might lead to increased potential exposure to coronavirus?

Without car detailers as well as additional cleanliness requirements during the pandemic, the Tucson Budget isn’t able to clean their cars fast enough to keep up with even the limited demand. At least this is what I was told. The manager has often been the one out there doing the washing and cleaning. With only a couple staff to handle all aspects of the operation, they are obviously stretched thin.

Thus, the Tacoma was one of the few options they had left. Lucky me, the beneficiary of rental car industry COVID fallout.


While travel is starting to pick up a bit, it is nowhere near what it was. However, as states start to open up and more people take to the skies, travel companies are going to call on their staff to return. It will be interesting to see if they are able to entice them back to work if it means they’ll be making less than they were on pandemic unemployment.

Ian Snyder
After igniting his passion for award travel while planning his honeymoon, Ian now enjoys using points and miles to see the world with his wife and three internationally adopted kiddos. He loves dissecting loyalty programs to find maximum value. His goal is to demonstrate that extraordinary travel is possible for the ordinary family.

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  1. If the HEROES act is approved (in the form some would like) the added $600 would extend until the end of January 2021 (conveniently through the election). I hope not, but there are many that want to buy votes with taxpayer money.

    • That’s definitely a consideration for those currently on pandemic unemployment. It’ll be interesting to see what happens by the end of July.

  2. I agree that the extra $600 for unemployment is a problem for the employer. However, this added $600 ends in July. The last 2 times I rented from budget, 2 different cities I was offered a Tacoma truck at no extra charge. This was well before the CARONA shutdown!

    • Interesting! I wonder why they’re willing to offer such a nice pickup (I’m partial to them). We’ll see how things look by the end of July.


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