Drivers in need of wheels are being forced to pay up as a thin offering of rental cars becomes available again in Houston, the vehicle-dependent city still reeling after Hurricane Harvey.
Avis Budget Group Inc.'s Budget website shows Hyundai Elantra compact cars are available starting Thursday for $55 if paid in advance or $78 if settled at Hobby Airport, more than double the $36 drivers would pay at the same counter 30 days later. Avis had a Chevy Cruze on offer for Thursday for $57 in advance -- or $123 at the counter -- versus $43 if rented in advance for October. And Hertz Global Holdings Inc.'s Thrifty advertised on its website Tuesday afternoon Chevrolet Spark subcompact cars for $60 a day plus fees at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, nearly a quarter more than the following month.
The hefty retail prices in the Houston area come as drivers there scramble for replacement wheels in the wake of Harvey. Early forecasts suggested Houston lost as many as 500,000 vehicles -- more than were destroyed in Superstorm Sandy, which hit the East Coast in 2012 -- leaving many residents of the water-logged metro area reliant on rental cars to get them to work or out of the region altogether until their homes are repaired.
Some of the higher prices for Houston rental cars may be more related to seasonal factors than rental companies trying to take advantage of tight supply, said Neil Abrams, president of Abrams Consulting Group Inc., which tracks rental car rates. Prices often climb after Labor Day when business travel surges, with the national average for a weekly car rental climbing to $330 this week from $225 before the holiday, he said.
"There's a fine line between supply and demand pricing and gouging," Abrams said. "We're not at the point where they are gouging."