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Zipcar and Beyond: Is a Car Share Right for You?

On our trips to see family, all of whom live in or near large cities, my wife and I often contemplate skipping the rental car — but quickly come to our senses. For example, on a recent trip to Seattle, we scheduled visits to folks from Issaquah to Whidbey Island, with several stops in between, and there ain’t no way to pull that off without a car. We stayed downtown, however, and for much of our visit we used the free bus system, the monorail and our own feet to get around. In the end, we truly needed the car only about three of the 10 days.

Car rentals can be very affordable, though, so no big deal, right? Not quite. Staying downtown added an unexpected premium to our overall expenses: parking the car. Our only real option was our hotel’s $20/day valet parking service, and of course we tipped the valets each time they brought out our car, so we ended up paying an extra $25 or so each day — almost double the car rental fee — just to have occasional access to the vehicle.

On the 10-day trip, the parking added up to an extra $250 for which I hadn’t budgeted. And if you factor in the days that we didn’t need a car at all, in the end we probably paid out at least $400 for services we did not really use — and 400 bucks is no chump change. There had to be another way.

A friend recently introduced me to Zipcar, a “car sharing” service currently available in 57 major U.S. cities and regions, 100+ U.S. university towns, and the international cities of London, Toronto and Vancouver. For a $50 annual membership fee, you gain access to all of these cars using a reservation system that is nothing short of state of the art (in fact, Zipcar is leasing its car-tracking technology to big cities with large vehicle fleets). Rather than having a fleet of cars centrally located in a single but remote location — like an airport — Zipcar has thousands of cars located throughout its service areas in commercial parking lots, on university campuses, in corporate centers and more.

How It Works

Rentals are available by the hour or by the day; rates typically start at around $6 – $8 an hour or $59 a day, and include gas expenses, 180 miles a day, 24-hour roadside assistance and $300,000 of liability insurance (with a $500 deductible).

To rent a Zipcar, first you must become a member, which entails about a week’s wait while a check of your driving record is completed.

After becoming members, users are issued a Zipcard (although reservations take place entirely over the Web or using a mobile phone). The Zipcar site will display the location of available cars in any designated neighborhood or region, and users can reserve by time, price, location or car model. Reservations can be made well in advance or for immediate use, and by the hour or for several days.

Cars are typically located in publicly accessible parking lots; this is one truly convenient piece of the puzzle. In my own home town (a university town), there are two cars within about a block of places we visit almost daily. Of course, we drive to those places, but we are taking two big trips this fall — and there are multiple cars located within a block of two hotels in which we intend to stay while traveling.

Once a reservation is made, instead of going to a rental counter, the user goes directly to the parked car (using Zipcar’s mobile maps on his or her phone if needed) and waves the Zipcard across the windshield, which opens and activates the car. The keys will be inside the car; the same process takes place in reverse at the end of the reservation; the user leaves the keys inside, and locks and deactivates the car with the Zipcard.

Additional mobile features include GPS location of cars using a smartphone and subsequent direct booking from those same location maps; text alerts as the end of a reservation approaches; and information about whether the car is available for an extension (which may not always be the case if another user has made a subsequent reservation of the car).

Zipcar picks up the tab for gas; users are asked to use a fuel card inside the car to keep the car at least a quarter-tank full.

Users also have some flexibility in how they use the service; there are several driving plans, including household/family plans. Zipcar is also building an iPhone app that will allow the whole process to take place using your phone.

Car Sharing

Car sharing was originally established primarily as a progressive-minded solution to urban congestion, pollution and the hassles of owning a car in the city. There are numerous players in the car sharing business, many of them nonprofit operations focused on easing urban congestion, reducing auto emissions and offering transportation services to underserved communities. Many operate primarily on a local basis.

Inevitably, many car sharing companies have become increasingly profit-minded; for example, Zipcar’s addition of BMW’s to its fleet is indicative of a decidedly more corporate effort. After a merger with Flexcar, Zipcar became the biggest player in the space (and not coincidentally has been criticized for changing or even overturning the nature of the industry).

Cost Analysis

With traditional car rentals sometimes costing as little as $10 a day, renting a car for $8 an hour may seem counterintuitive. However, as rental companies have depleted their fleets, these very cheap rentals are much harder to find — so if you’re faced with a $45-a-day rental for a car you will use for a total of an hour or two per day, a car sharing service may work for you.

One important cost consideration is gasoline. Say you’re doing a quick round trip to an airport, and drive 180 miles in four hours in a car that gets 20 miles per gallon. The gasoline alone is worth about $25 — on a $32 car share (assuming $8 an hour). If you are driving only 20 miles, of course, that’s worth only a few bucks, and doesn’t really make an impact.

When visiting big cities, don’t underestimate the savings on parking. Very few downtown hotels offer free parking, and at $20 a day for a valet parking lot, your $12-a-day car rental very quickly becomes a $32-a-day car rental, plus tips. In that scenario, a five- or six-hour car sharing rental is almost a wash once you figure in the “free” gasoline.

Day-long rentals are less compelling financially; at about $59 for a full day rental, you burn up your potential savings pretty quickly. However, if you are sure there will be days where you need no car, you could make up the difference in a couple days’ time.

Also, don’t forget any annual membership fees; you’ll want to be sure you use the service enough times each year to water down this expense.

Finally, many folks are taken by the eco-friendliness of car sharing programs as well, although I will leave this piece of the overall cost equation for each person to weigh and value.

Restrictions

Despite its advantages, car sharing isn’t necessarily a turnkey operation at every, ah, turn. Some possible snags you might encounter:

  • Limited availability at convenient locations; with sometimes only one or two cars in each location, car sharing offers less choice than a rental car counter
  • Accommodations for disabled drivers require at least seven days’ notice by phone
  • You need to have your membership card with you
  • Non-members may not be able to drive the car
  • If someone else returns the car late, you may be out of luck — there won’t be an extensive fleet offering back-up vehicles
  • Reservation extensions are not always available, as someone else may have reserved the car
  • If you return the car late, late fees can be very expensive
    No smoking is allowed inside the car
  • Pets must be crated
  • You will need to provide your own children’s seats if necessary
  • There may be additional charges due to state and local taxes

You’ll want to weigh these issues before you commit wholly to car sharing as an alternative to a traditional car rental.

Is Car Sharing for You?

The benefit of using a car sharing service in a major city with a solid urban transit system is obvious – you don’t have to eat your car to avoid week-long parking hassles and mounting pay lot expenses. If you are visiting your relatives in the suburbs away from any major urban center, of course, a service like this makes less sense — you fly into Knoxville Airport, drive out to visit family, drive the car to the buffet, drive back to the airport, you know the drill — car sharing just isn’t in the picture on a trip like this. But who else might use these services? A few ideas:

All-inclusive package deals: Many packages include transport to and from the airport as well as meals on-site, and they put you right in the middle of the action — reducing or even eliminating the need for a rental car. Many also provide shuttle transportation to area attractions. However, sometimes you want to venture off the shuttled path, and a quick pick-up at a nearby car share location can help you avoid a mid-vacation trip to the airport to endure the full car rental counter experience.

Major amusement parks: A trip to Disney springs immediately to mind here; if you are staying in one of the park hotels, or even at a nearby hotel that offers a shuttle, your need for a car is little to none. But maybe you want to escape the Mouse for an afternoon; a car share would come in very handy here. (Unfortunately, Zipcar offers no cars in Orlando at present….)

All-inclusive resorts: As with the all-inclusive packages above, a resort often has everything you might need and more. But as above, a full week within the confines of a single resort or spa is a long time without a change of scenery. When you want to get out and around, nabbing a rental at an hourly rate makes a lot of sense.

As a “second car” while traveling: While traveling as a family, we have found it would often be very convenient to split up for a few hours for logistical reasons. Our boy and I could head to the beach while Mom drives over to help Grandmom pick out a new rug, or Mom and our boy could hit the local park while I prowl around in musical instrument stores. You get the idea.

Cruisers: Cruise passengers who end up docking in car sharing cities might open up their port options beyond the normal touristy attractions with a quick car rental; I could imagine blasting up to Carlsbad while docked in San Diego, up to Marin while in San Francisco or to Discovery Park while docked in Seattle.

For our next trip, we are getting a ride from the airport, setting ourselves up in a central neighborhood with Zipcars waiting and foregoing the rental car entirely. I’ll update this article if it doesn’t work out.

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