Europe’s black car problem could be yours

The pandemic has disrupted travel in numerous ways, and the black car industry has not been immune. Although booking a car with a driver tends to be expensive, in many cases, it offers the most comfortable and convenient way to get from one place to another in Europe.

Some cities are difficult to reach by train, plane or bus,” explains Candice Criscione, a Tuscany-based travel planner who has been helping travelers plan vacations for 18 years.

“I recommend rent with driver (a rental with a driver) when my clients visit country destinations such as wineries or small villages, or if they have a lot of luggage or just want more flexibility in their schedules.”

Many travelers also prefer European limousine services with English-speaking drivers to get to and from airports, as well as for private shore excursions at cruise ports.

The impact of increased demand and low supply

Mike Coletta, an analyst with travel industry research group Phocuswright, suggests several factors have come together to make booking a black car in Europe more challenging and expensive.

“During the height of the pandemic, many limo owners downsized their fleets to cope with the rapid and prolonged drop in demand,” says Coletta. “A very similar thing happened with car rental companies,” he adds.

With the rise of “revenge travel” that emerged after the drop in infection rates, along with new vaccines and treatments for COVID, the industry began to face major supply chain issues.

“With vehicle shortages and labor market disruptions affecting both drivers and call centers, the self-driving car industry is having trouble growing back,” says Coletta.

He cites another reason for the increased demand for black cars. “During the pandemic, many travelers perceived a chauffeured car as safer than public transport or taxis.”

Travelers who previously relied on rental cars are finding that supply issues, higher gas prices and increased wage demands have also increased the costs of renting a car. “Along with the cost of renting cars, the rates for chauffeured cars have definitely gone up,” says Criscione. “The services I’m booking now are up 20% from last year, mostly due to our high gas prices.”

“Many drivers who quit their jobs during the pandemic have not returned,” says David Litwak, co-founder and chairman of Mozio, a global ground transportation search engine that compares limousines, taxis, trains, ships and buses.

“As on-demand rides from car-sharing services became more difficult, or less attractive as prices doubled, the demand for advanced booking drivers has skyrocketed,” says Litwak. Some of our suppliers cannot hire enough drivers to meet demand and have had to stop bookings at peak times.”

What can travelers do?

Experts agree that to avoid disappointment, travelers should not wait until the last minute to book a black car reservation, especially during peak travel periods. “If you wait, the only options may be public transportation, long taxi lines, or high prices,” says Litwak.

Shop and compare costs (and reviews) online. Litwak notes that many ride-hailing services use their own drivers in certain cities and outsource them to others; the latter can bring an increase of 20-30%. Using a local service can result in cost savings.

Coletti also suggests checking travel forums on Facebook and Trip Advisor for personal recommendations.

Work with a travel advisor or tour operators, who usually have a roster of pre-vetted and experienced drivers, says Charles Neville, of JayWay Travel.

Close your rate; most companies honor the prices for pre-booked services. “I always recommend booking transfers as much as possible,” says Criscione. “Prices will go up, but they rarely go down.”

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