Business/Economy

‘It’s never been this crazy’: With rental cars scarce in Alaska, a car sharing service takes off

Anchorage resident Jin Chen has a small fleet of vehicles she rents out on Turo, a car-sharing service, including a BMW X6, a Porsche Cayenne and a Volkswagen Tiguan.

The BMW is a new addition she bought in late May.

“It’s never been this crazy,” Chen said.

For June and July, Chen is fully booked and will make $5,000 to $12,000 per vehicle for the two-month span, she said — although those figures are projections, since Turo’s cancellation policy allows users to cancel 24 hours in advance.

Chen is one of many Alaskans now making extra money off Turo, which is similar to Airbnb, but for vehicles. While other car rental companies have a fleet at the airport, Turo “hosts” and renters coordinate how to deliver and return the vehicle. Hosts set prices and a distance that renters can drive daily.

And demand for rental cars is skyrocketing. In Anchorage, the average price of renting a car is $351 a day, based on data from travel search website Kayak over the past week — up 257% compared with 2019.

[Curious Alaska: How is the national shortage of car rentals affecting Alaska?]

Steve Webb, a spokesman for Turo, said the company doesn’t break out numbers for every state, so the company can’t say if more Alaskans are renting out their cars through the service.

“The best indications that we have is the feedback we’re getting from hosts who are saying that they’re seeing a ton of demand — that people are generating a pretty decent amount of income,” Webb said.

A look at Turo’s website shows that booking a car in Anchorage for late June can range from $100 to $380 daily.

Chen said she first listed her personal vehicle on Turo about three years ago. For the past few years it had been “two or three rentals here and there,” Chen said — until more recently, when travel restrictions across the U.S. began to lift.

Chen works in the travel industry, and saw early on how the national shortage of rental cars was leading to higher demand.

She noticed that destinations like Hawaii were unable to meet the demand, and predicted Alaska would have similar problems this summer. So she put another one of her vehicles on Turo.

“I think it was the second day that I listed on there, most of July was booked,” she said.

After that, she went to the dealership and purchased the BMW. Chen said the three cars she rents out range from $175 to nearly $300 per day.

Because of the high demand, Chen has had to enlist the help of someone who cleans and turns around her cars while she’s traveling out of state.

[Big cruise ships aren’t coming to Southcentral Alaska this year. But local tourism operators say independent travelers are helping offset the loss.]

Turo’s business model has led to some friction with local governments in Alaska.

Turo and its hosts aren’t subject to Alaska’s vehicle rental tax. The state sued Turo in 2018 after the company refused to provide records that would help determine what the tax liability would be for the company and hosts, but a judge ruled against the state, and the state did not appeal the decision.

However, the municipality of Anchorage passed an ordinance last year that applies to online car rental platforms, and as a result, Turo is going to begin collecting taxes from renters on behalf of hosts and paying them to the city.

Turo does come with risks for car owners. Earlier this year, Chen said an out-of-state group got two flat tires while “probably (running) over a huge pothole” near Cantwell. She had to buy a new tire set.

“That, to me, was a part of my risk of doing business, and I accept that risk,” Chen said.

There are five different insurance plans hosts can choose from, and renters can choose between four, said Webb. Guests can use their personal insurance — like a traditional rental car company, Webb said — and decline coverage from Turo, or choose based on what deductible the driver prefers.

He said when a host puts their vehicle on Turo, personal insurance won’t cover the car since it’s being used for business purposes. Turo’s insurance policy is through Liberty Mutual, Webb said, which acts as a primary policy on the vehicle for the host.

Hosts can choose insurance plans based on the level of coverage. The riskier the plan, the more money they can earn.

Anchorage resident Cheyene Thomas works at a car dealership and also saw the lack of rental cars available on the market as an opportunity.

She’s been renting out her 2020 BMW X2 for nearly a month.

“I was like, ‘OK, cool, I’ll put my car on there, let me see what happens,’ " Thomas said. “Within 5 minutes, I had like 10 bookings.”

She didn’t adjust the pricing Turo recommended for her daily price: $70.

“My cars always have super low mileage because I don’t drive them. I was like, ‘I’m paying for this car, why not pay for it and let it actually be used?’ ” she said.

Thomas said her car is already booked out through August.

“It’s been crazy busy, I honestly didn’t expect it,” Thomas said.

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