If you are considering treating yourself to a big post-vaccine trip to Hawaii this summer, you should prepare to pay handsomely. Stir-crazy vacationers are swarming to the islands, driving up the cost of just about everything else, including rental cars. But it isn’t just a matter of pent-up demand. There are complicated supply chain issues at play. During the heart of the pandemic, when tourism to Hawaii plummeted, national rental car companies offloaded some of their vehicles to the mainland. The state’s tourism authority reported that the fleet decreased by 40 percent. They weren’t as quick to buy or send them back, and it wasn’t uncommon during the worst spikes in March to see basic sedans going for $500 or even $700 a day.
Some who already had purchased their flights found themselves with no choice but to spend a small fortune on their transportation. But others found creative solutions. Local U-Haul companies have reported that tourists have been renting their moving vehicles, which charge a low flat fee plus mileage, just to get to the beach. The state’s tourism authority has asked tourists to stop, citing the potential for accidents and the concern that locals with legitimate needs for moving vans may not be able to get them. But it looks as if the rental car shortage is likely to last the rest of the summer.
To find out what it was like to tour a small island in a moving van, Slate spoke with Matt Devitt, who traveled to Hawaii in April for his honeymoon. Devitt, the chief meteorologist at WINK News in Southwest Florida, rented two U-Hauls during his trip, which took him around four islands. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: When you were planning this trip, did you prepare for how crazy the car rental prices were going to be?
Matt Devitt: No. When we were thinking about the trip and island hopping between the four islands, we did get rental cars for the Big Island and Oahu. We did the booking for this in November of 2020, so literally six months before. And at that point, the prices were reasonable. I think they were like $50 to $60 a day.
I had never been to Hawaii, and I didn’t really know how close everything was going to be. I just didn’t think that I would need a car [for the other islands]. I thought that we could walk to everything, and it’d be fine. Well, I did more homework at the last minute and realized that I would need some way of getting around. Initially, we were like, “Oh, let’s look into Uber.” And Uber prices were off the charts. Like, just for something within a few miles, it got upwards of $75. So we knocked Uber off the list. Then we looked at the rental car rates. I looked two to three weeks prior, and the rates were laughable. It was $250 to $325 a day.
How did you get the idea for the U-Haul?
I remember thinking about a U-Haul truck that had passed by and on the side it said $19.99 a day. And I was like, “I wonder if that applies in Hawaii?”
I looked it up, and it was legit. You can only go X amount of miles, but I’m not on a very big island, so I was able to make it work. My wife is very, very easygoing. And she’s like, “Yeah, sure, what the hell, let’s do it.” And that’s what we did.
I think I was one of the first to do it. I posted it on Twitter, and then after that, I started to see web articles. And then it started to really catch on. It became a legitimate news story about two to three weeks later.
How was it getting the U-Haul?
I walked in, no line, the customer service was awesome. It was, you know, “How many miles do you need? Do you need any additional supplies for moving?” Of course we didn’t—we were just moving our butts from spot to spot. But it was kind of like a no-questions-asked type of thing. We signed some papers, we paid upfront, and then we were done.
We used the car for two days. I didn’t want to pay the $50 parking at our hotel, so I brought the car back in the evening. The next day, I just rented another one. The first day it was like driving a normal truck. And then the next day, we did have a van, which was the only thing that they had available. It wasn’t the big U-Haul moving van. But it was almost like a big van.
How was driving the van around?
It was literally like having a rental car. And it was fantastic. I will say, for someone who’s not great at parking, I wouldn’t recommend it. It was a little noisy, a little bumpy. It wasn’t like driving a Ferrari. But it got the job done. We got from point A to point B. We saw Pearl Harbor. We had great food, and we had a wonderful honeymoon. And if anything, it was a heck of a story to tell.
When you told people about it, what did they say?
I put it on my Facebook page, and a lot of the viewers were like, This is brilliant. We’ve got to do this.
How was it when you were dealing with actual rental cars?
Two out of the three rental cars, I had a horrendous experience. On one, I had to wait like 45 minutes in line, and there were ants in the car. Even worse, on the Big Island, the paperwork process went fast, but none of the cars were ready. None of them. There was a gigantic line of people waiting for cars that weren’t available. We waited an hour and 15 minutes after the paperwork to get our car. And we needed to get to the other side of the island by sunset because where we were going was very remote. I did not get to our Airbnb until like 10:15 at night, and it was one of the scariest drives I’ve ever done, because I’m going through volcanic glass and literally no lights, in the middle of nowhere.
Was everything else about your trip pretty smooth?
Yeah, very smooth. Here in Florida, when you walk around, it’s like, What COVID? And then in Hawaii, they take it very seriously. When we got off the plane, you would have to show that you had your negative COVID tests. At the airport, right off the gate, they would have the National Guard with guns waiting to see your status. So it was just very strict.
How much did you end up spending on the U-Haul?
In total, we spent $90 a day on the U-Haul, compared to the $300 or $350, without tax, that it would have been at Hertz or Enterprise. I literally saved $500 in two days. If people are in a bind, and they see rental car rates that are off the charts, and if the U-Hauls are available, and if you can get it within their specific mile radius, then it’s the way to go. It’s a wonderful backup in a pinch. I would do it again, and I would recommend it to anybody.