Pandemic-era business travel: Rental cars and flying on the rise

Written by Marcell Haag

With coronavirus cases on the rise, business travelers in Europe increasingly turn to rental cars – with some also increasingly flying

Infection numbers and lockdowns have a significant impact on the choice of means of transportation – regional differences emerge

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a significant shift in business travelers’ booking behavior. It is obvious that travel figures are down significantly due to travel restrictions and lockdowns, but what might be less obvious is that those who have traveled during this time have chosen to do so differently than before. Business travelers have increasingly turned to rental cars, and in some countries to air travel as well, as an analysis by the corporate payment specialists at AirPlus International shows.

The percentage of rental car bookings by business travelers has increased significantly in some cases during the pandemic. During the period between the onset of the pandemic, in March 2020, and the end of the year, nearly one in ten business travel bookings in Germany went to a car rental provider (9.2 percent). The figure was 6.1 percent during the same period the year before. In France, too, rental cars were more often the first choice than before the pandemic (7.6 percent versus 4.8 percent the year before). The rise was even more pronounced in the United Kingdom, where the figure went from 4.4 percent to 9.8, more than twice as high.

Rental car percentage shoots up with infection figures

One striking aspect is that the data clearly reflect the first wave of the pandemic, in the spring, followed by the sharp rise in cases starting again in the fall. The percentage of rental car bookings as compared to air and rail travel on a weekly basis was 12.9 percentage points above the previous year in Germany in late April and early May, while by early July it stood at roughly the same level as the previous year (+0.9 percentage points). The sharpest rise, at +16 percentage points, came in mid- to late October, when Germany first started reporting more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases a day. The percentage of rental car bookings stayed much higher than the previous year through the end of 2020. A similar picture emerges in the UK, where the sharpest increase came during the first wave of the pandemic, in mid-May (+17.5 percentage points). With a significantly smaller rise in July, business travelers in that country have also increasingly turned to car rentals since then. France saw the most noteworthy increase in April and May, when peak times were more than 18 percentage points above the previous year’s figures.

“These numbers clearly show that business travelers avoid taking the train or flying, especially during periods when the pandemic is worse, and choose cars instead so they can avoid contact with others and lower the risk of contagion,” says Oliver Wagner, Chairman of the Management Board of AirPlus. The coronavirus has completely reversed the trend seen at the start of 2020 within just a short period. Well into March, the percentage share of rental car bookings was down year over year. Another exciting observation is that while Sweden largely refrained from imposing hard lockdown measures to fight the pandemic, there have been shifts in people’s chosen modes of transportation there as well, with rental cars accounting for an increasingly large percentage.

Air travel preferred over rail in some countries

In Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland, by contrast, rental car bookings did not rise as significantly. In these countries, business travelers are increasingly turning to air travel. The major loser here is the rail system. “Instead of booking longer trips by train, business travelers were more likely to choose air travel, which is faster. That means they spend less time exposed to a potential risk of contracting the disease, especially since the airlines are using HEPA filters for cabin ventilation and have enacted impressively stringent hygiene standards,” Wagner says. But there are also regional differences. The reverse was true in Germany, where rail travel was preferred over air for much of the year, especially during the first lockdown, in the spring. “Air traffic was largely halted at the time, and there was no service on many of the long-haul connections that are normally in high demand among German companies, in some cases all year long,” Wagner notes. The number of domestic flights also fell as a result of the lack of long-haul connections, while rail service remained largely the same even during lockdown – and even increased in some cases. Rail travel traditionally accounts for a large percentage of business trips in France at any rate, thanks to that country’s well-developed TGV high-speed rail connections.

It will be interesting to see how the choice of mode of transportation will change as the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Wagner expects the trend to reverse again. “The figures we saw last summer, when infection numbers were low, already indicate that this will be the case. If people also go back to traveling longer distances, rail and especially air travel will once more make significant gains over rental car bookings,” he says with conviction.

The figures are the product of a special analysis of the AirPlus Business Travel Index. To arrive at these numbers, AirPlus analyzed the bookings settled via the payment service provider from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. AirPlus is a leading international provider of solutions in the area of corporate payment and especially business travel management.

Detailed results are available here: Business Travel Behavior During Corona Pandemic - Shares of different means of transportation

Written by Marcell Haag


[i] Banner photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash


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