Usually, getting your rental car from the airport is a relatively simple and quick process, especially if you booked it in advance. I certainly thought that was going to be my experience when I booked my rental car last weekend.
But that was certainly not the experience of myself and 50 or so others at the Budget car rental line at the Minnesota Saint Paul airport.
I was in Minnesota to run the famous Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. Since flight prices were so expensive to get into Duluth, I, like many people, flew into Minneapolis and took a rental car to get to Duluth. It was better to drive the two and a half hours than pay an extra $500.
Apparently, a lot of people had the same idea. The Grandma’s Marathon usually draws over 17,000 participants, and it hit close to that number that year. A lot of people from outside Minnesota, like myself, did the same thing, which people at the Budget car rental attributed to the extraordinarily long lines at Budget.
When I got to Minneapolis, it was around 2:30 p.m. I was just going through the motions of my day when I hit the car rental line. Needless to say, it was the longest line I’d ever seen in a car rental line. This particular car rental separated rental agencies by different agencies that shared the same booth. Budget and Avis shared the booth that had the incredibly long line, while Hertz, Alamo, and Enterprise, the other car rental agencies had their own booths.
The reason the Budget line was the longest is because they had the cheapest cars. For the three days I needed the car rental, I only needed to pay $200, plus gas. While some people and I were on line for twenty minutes, we looked up how long we would have to wait for other agencies like Enterprise or Hertz. Getting a car on the spot would require expending $200 or more.
So the group and I waited even longer and chose to stick it out to wait for our prepaid Budget rental cars.
How long could it be, after all?
You would expect this piece to be about a super boring wait, but it was anything but.
Although I enjoyed meeting and chatting with other people from the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) area, we ended up waiting two hours. Every time another flight came in, the line grew exponentially longer.
Most of the time, there was only one person checking people’s driver’s licenses and giving out cars, making the line move excruciatingly slow. The two couples next to me started counting with me how many people we had to wait for in front of us. We guessed how many were whole families or couples versus just individual people.
Every person took approximately five to ten minutes to get checked out, and I did really feel bad for the one lady who bore the brunt of the 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. line. Eventually, at around 4 p.m., another person who worked at the Budget car rental at the airport came to seemingly save the day.
He worked on checking out an older man. I’m not entirely sure what was going on, but people started noticing that this particular transaction took over 20 minutes. I overheard the male employee informing the old man he was new to the job and that the Budget car rental was just completely overwhelmed from the marathon happening in Duluth, a problem I, of course, was contributing to.
This particular transaction took even longer, and I was close enough to the front of the line to overhear that the old man not being satisfied with any of the cars that were available. This made everyone nervous that Budget would have enough cars to accommodate a growing line that stretched to the door, where almost fifty people needed rental cars.
The other booth also came to a halt. The lady who had placated the line for an hour and a half left to take her much-deserved break, and another younger man took her place. But the younger employee expressed that the computer was frozen when he tried to log on, which was causing the whole line to come to a standstill between the first male employee and the older man and the younger male employee trying to log on to the computer.
Almost another ten minutes passed by. People behind me grew a lot more agitated, wondering what was going on. I would like to think I’m as accommodating and polite a person when it comes to waiting in lines and overwhelmed service industry employees, but I was growing somewhat agitated too, even if I was less vocal about it.
Before we knew it, everyone heard a huge thump. The older man hit his head against the counter, fell backward, and was seemingly unresponsive. We started to see blood on the floor — but I noticed it came from an open cut on his calf rather than any injuries to his head. Three medical professionals — two doctors and one nurse, instantly came to his attention, trying to check for identification and providing medical attention. The new male worker called 911 for EMS to come, but there were about ten minutes prior to any response.
The medical professionals tried to get emergency contacts for the older man to see if there was anyone they could call. One mentioned something about possibly being diabetic. One started to provide CPR.
Obviously, with someone undergoing a medical emergency, the line to get checked out for rental cars came to another halt. As the two male workers looked for the AED and ushered in EMS, the lady came back out and started to check people for rental cars again.
One older Asian couple somewhat far behind where I was, close to the front of the line, started talking to the lady at the counter. The couples around me started murmuring, questioning whether they cut the line and expressing incredulity that the employee would just let them cut a line we had spent over an hour and a half waiting in.
I was overcome with a sense of duty or obligation I couldn’t explain, and I said “I think they’re just trying to get a refund.” It was a little difficult for me to see people ganging up on the older Asian couple, so I felt like I had to say something to defend them. But it was revealed they did try to cut the line when the employee tried to hand them keys, and everyone’s outrage was justified. They were not given their keys, and I don’t know what happened to them next.
As for the older man who passed out on the floor, EMS had arrived at this point and started giving medical attention. One EMS worker screamed, “he has no pulse!” which led to gasps from the entire line. We did our best to move the line to give the EMS workers space, and the male employee who attended to him gave them an AED. I’m not a medical professional, but soon afterward he was stable and taken to a stretcher, so I’m not sure whether he really had no pulse or they just restabilized him.
This male employee then started breathing very heavily, holding his hand to his chest and rushed into the break room. I heard a mother about three or four places behind me tell her daughter that he was having a panic attack and that that’s completely normal since seeing someone almost die in front of you is traumatic. I did really feel bad for the guy because that’s a whole lot to deal with being new to a job and on your second or third day.
The two other employees started checking people out again, and at one booth, I heard screaming and cussing from one lady. Apparently, despite that area of the car rental line being designated for Budget and Avis, they were only checking out Budget cars. She had to go to a whole other section of the airport to get her Avis rental car (just above us, really). Understandably, the woman was irate about having to wait for two hours only not to get her rental car. She said something about leaving them a terrible review and having her whole day ruined as she stormed off and went to get her car.
I felt really bad for her, but that meant I was finally at the front of the line. I got my car within three minutes after providing my ID and signing some stuff. I tried to get to the car past where the older man had to be taken on the stretcher and saw streaks of blood and medical equipment left on the tile. It became apparent I had to take a different, more roundabout way to get to the rental car. I got to the car, resolved to get the hell out of the airport as soon as possible to get to Duluth and prepare for my marathon, and then called a friend and my wife about the experience.
A two hour wait to get a rental car is by no means a fun experience. I’m not sure what the staffing issue was at the Budget car rental line, but they were clearly very overwhelmed, so I try not to be judgmental, even if everyone on line expressed they had pre-booked and pre-paid for their cars. It’s probably a lot easier to be a critic than to have actually worked that line.
But it clearly could have been a lot worse for me and most people on line. I didn’t have a medical emergency and have to be taken to the hospital. I didn’t get turned away right when I waited two hours to get to the front of the line.
It was like a scene out of a dystopian memoir, one where I really wish I made some of it up. Of course we were all agitated and impatient. But at the end of the day, keeping perspective and maintaining kindness in those situations where everyone is overwhelmed is essential. This was a situation where a man passed out, collapsed, and an EMS worker said he had no pulse. At least everyone was okay and safe at the end of the day.
However, I did go on Google reviews out of curiosity to see if anyone else recounted the experience. I saw 37 one star reviews for this particular Budget car rental in the past week. Not all of them were about two hour wait times and lines, but a lot of them did. Most talked about one lady trying to give 60+ people rental cars.
One reviewer who gave a one-star rating, however, recounted the exact same experience:
“During this time, there were four agents (only two at the desk at one time) who would appear and then disappear throughout this entire time. Two guests stood at the desk for more than 30 minutes alone! One being an older man who collapsed (probably from stress and exhaustion from trying to get his car) and was seizing. None of the reps called 911 but rather stood there and panicked. Guests had to call 911 and attempt to provide the address/location. Only after this incident were extra agents called in. As you can imagine the line finally started moving.”
Yes, having this long of a wait for pre-paid and pre-booked rental cars is what most people would consider horrible customer service. I like to think I’m above it, but I considered leaving a horrible one-star review too, but seeing these reviews would make me feel bad about joining the pile-on.
To me, this is a symptom of a larger problem of understaffing and people doing the best they could. It’s a time of surging rental car demand. Maybe there are more important things than being inconvenienced in that capacity. But next time, I’m going with Hertz or Enterprise and just paying the extra money.
Originally published on June 23, 2023 on The Partnered Pen