Rental car companies and hotels are making it easier for travelers who want to help save the environment and not spend extra money on high gasoline prices.
Major car rental companies are increasingly adding electric cars to their already growing hybrid car fleets. And hotels are installing electric charging stations or giving electric and hybrid car drivers breaks on pricey parking fees.
Travelers have never had so many options for more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly cars. And as pump prices rise, more travelers are taking advantage of them, rental car agencies and hotels say. The average national price of a gallon of regular was $3.76 on Friday, up 28 cents from a month ago, according to AAA.
"Overall, there is interest from our customers in alternative-fueled vehicles — and certainly the increase in gas prices increases consumer awareness and interest in learning more about fuel-efficient car rental options," says Lisa Martini, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Holdings, which also owns Alamo Rent A Car and National Car Rental.
What they'll learn is that they could end up having to use some of the money they save on gasoline to pay for renting the car. Most rental companies charge higher daily rates for hybrid or electric cars.
Indicative of the fuel-efficient rental options open to travelers: — Avis Budget Group has added Chevy Volt electric cars to its fleet at New York's LaGuardia Airport as part of a pilot program. More broadly, the company offers Environmental Protection Agency SmartWay Certified green vehicles that earn high marks for how environmentally friendly they are as measured by air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
• Enterprise has Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt electric cars at about 50 Enterprise Rent-A-Car sites and in its car-sharing program. Electric vehicles also are available at a few Alamo locations. With hybrid cars, the company's alternative fuel fleet surpasses 400.
• Hertz Rent-A-Car offers electric cars in New York, San Francisco and Washington, and in London, Switzerland and China. The company plans to add more cities this year and is also trying out a wireless charging station, in which you drive a car over a pad to get a charge.
Rental car agencies began experimenting with hybrids a few years ago but were slow to adopt electric cars because drivers were leery of them until recently, when charging stations became easier to find.
"As the infrastructure to support EV's continues to be developed, you'll see a lot of cities and towns and whatnot be more proactive in encouraging adoption among consumers," says Paula Rivera, a spokeswoman for Hertz.
Eco-friendly, financially smart Diana Bianco, a health policy consultant, recently rented her first electric car, a Nissan Leaf, for a stay at The Heathman Hotel in Portland, Ore. The hotel took care of parking and charging at an on-site station.
"My primary motive was to reduce pollution," Bianco says. "But if gas prices are going to continue to go up, it makes good, smart, economic sense to drive a hybrid or electric car, whether you're renting it or owning it."
In 2010, there were 400 electric and 274,500 hybrid cars sold in the United States, according to LMC Automotive, a forecasting firm. Last year, the number of electric cars sold jumped to 12,700. Just 268,000 hybrid cars were sold because the Japanese earthquake and tsunami shut down production, says Mike Omotoso, a senior manager at LMC.
By 2017, the firm is expecting 96,000 electric and 1.1 million hybrid cars to be sold, in part because tougher federal fuel economy standards will be in place. While that represents only 7 percent of all cars sold, it's still a significant increase.
It's no wonder that all Element hotels, a Starwood brand, have charging stations, as do many Starwood properties, including six in Hawaii, the state with the highest average gas price, $4.41. Marriott International has 45 electric vehicle charging stations at 22 properties. And most of Kimpton's 52 hotels have free or discounted parking for guests with hybrid cars.
"Green is a really good differentiation in the travel and hospitality industry," says Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of the Green Car Journal, a website that covers green vehicles and technology.
Costlier up front One deterrent to buying electric and hybrid cars is the price. Buyers generally have to pay $6,000 more than for conventional cars.
That means travelers looking to rent a car also have to pay a heftier daily rate. Rivera says Hertz charges about $3 to $5 more a day for the cars because renters have to reserve specific vehicles. "This is just to cover our operational cost for holding the car," she says.
At Enterprise, rentals range from $65 to $70 a day, slightly higher than comparable conventional cars. Martini says the price takes into account the vehicle's cost, demand and operational costs, such as maintaining the charging stations.
John Barrows, a spokesman for Avis Budget Group, acknowledges that the higher daily rates could offset savings from fewer gas expenses.
But, he says, whether travelers save any money depends on "the length of rental, miles driven, driving conditions, how the driver operates the vehicle, use or not of electronic toll collection services, etc."
Bert Martinez, a motivational speaker in Houston, recently paid about $220 to rent an electric car for two days. "There was no savings there," he says.
But he didn't mind, as he's planning to buy an electric car and rents when he travels to test them out. "I think it's worth the investment," he says. "I think they're good fun."
Nancy Trejos writes for USA Today.