Pros: Rents to young drivers
Cons: Very expensive, requires membership, impractical for travelers, more...
ZipCar is a very different kind of car rental business. In fact, the company doesn't even use the word "rent" to refer to itself --- it calls its rentals "car sharing". Its an interesting concept, and when you examine the details of how ZipCar works, you can't help but see some merit in the myriad benefits that their marketing people hype.
Unfortunately, when you dig deeper and actually start comparing apples to apples, you find that the hype really is just that....hype.
The reality is that ZipCar's "car sharing" program is a painfully expensive alternative to mainstream car rental companies that is complicated and impractical for travelers and locals alike. In this review, I'll explain a little bit about how the ZipCar business model works, I'll then point out some of the "GOTCHA!" aspects of renting from ZipCar, and I'll show you a far more realistic and probable cost comparison that illustrates just how painfully overpriced ZipCar really is.
How ZipCar Works....
You won't ever find a ZipCar rental counter in an airport, nor a neighborhood storefront location. Instead, ZipCar has parking spaces in various locations throughout a city or near a college campus. Here in Austin Texas (one of few dozen ZipCar cities), they have reserved parking spots and garage spaces on the University of Texas campus, and some reserved street spots in various downtown locations (like next to the Whole Foods Market).
When you reserve a car through ZipCar, you reserve a specific car that should be in a specific parking spot at a specific time. The fleet is more varied than some mainstream companies, with some luxury models, some hybrids, and some pickup trucks. Though this varies a LOT from city to city, with some cities have few or no "cool" cars available. The car is locked when you get there, and you get access electronically with a ZipCard or with a supported smart phone.
Timing is important when you are a ZipCar customer --- you will be charged steep late fees if you don't return the car to its assigned space on time (which is only fair, since there may well be another customer standing there fuming because his rental time slot has already started ticking and there's no car for him).
ZipCar customers aren't just customers either. You have to sign up for a membership before you're allowed to make a reservation. Membership fees cost $60 per year plus a $25 application fee the first year.
Gas and insurance costs are built into the rental rate, which allows 180 miles per rental.
If you travel very often, you know how most major car rental companies work. They have some serious downsides themselves, and some of their business practices are pretty shady, but generally, I think you get a much better deal with them than you do with ZipCar. Complexity and "gotcha" policies are a big part of the reason. These aren't any real secret --- most are spelled out on ZipCar's own web site --- they're just hidden in the marketing hyperbole as "benefits" or "differences", so you have to think about them and what their impact is to the way you use a car when you rent.
* Membership fees: I've never paid $85 for the privilege of making a reservation through Hertz, Avis or National...
* Cleanliness: ZipCar has people periodically clean out the cars, but it's not fully washed and vacuumed between every rental the way it would be if it were in a major car rental company fleet. ZipCar cars might be clean...or not.
* Weekend Rates: Major companies often discount rates on the weekends (when business travelers are home with their kids), but weekend rates go up for ZipCar.
* Insurance: Most adults with major credit cards always decline insurance because it is provided by American Express, MasterCard and Visa (often even with basic card levels). With ZipCar, you'd have to pay for redundant coverage.
* Mileage limits: Major rental companies do unlimited miles on their standard fleets. ZipCar does 180 mile limits per rental. When major companies do impose limits, they're usually more reasonable than ZipCar (a 500 mile PER DAY limit on a luxury car at Hertz is sure going to work out to be cheaper for a weekend road trip than the 180 mile limit PER RENTAL at ZipCar!)
* Flexibility: When you rent with ZipCar, you reserved one specific car. If the previous renter is running late, the car is broken down, or the car is totally filthy, there's not much you can do about it because there's not a parking lot full of extra vehicles for you to jump into in its place.
* Convenience: ZipCar is basically a total NON-option for travel. There's no airport locations and besides....the company only operates in 50 areas anyway (and many of those are college campuses or small cities that a business traveler is unlikely to visit).
* Cool Cars: The ZipCar ads tout their "cool" cars, like Mini Coopers, pick-ups, clean hybrids, or even late-model BMWs. Major companies have these cars too, but just like renting from the majors, you'll find that the VAST bulk of ZipCar's fleet are cars like a Honda Civic or a Ford Fusion. Fine cars for a day or two of utterly practical motoring, but hardly what I'd consider a head-turner.
* Fees: ZipCar is notorious for aggressively charging add-on fees, especially if you return a car late. Majors charge you for late returns too, but not as aggressively (or expensively) as ZipCar.
ZipCar Costs vs. Mainstream Rental Companies...
ZipCar claims that their costs are cheaper than major car rental companies, but that is completely false for most people. ZipCar is actually SUBSTANTIALLY more expensive for everyone except those renting for unrealistically short periods of time.
If you actually DO need to rent a car for just an hour or two to make a short local trip, then ZipCar might save you money. Otherwise, it won't.
Think about how YOU use a rental car....how long do you want to drive it and where do you want to go? Most of the time when I rent, I want the car for at least 3 days. Sometimes I plan to drive to a resort area a hundred miles away and I know perfectly well I'll stack 500 miles on the car over the weekend. When my car was in the shop, I rented a car from Enterprise for a week. It cost me about $100 to do that, with unlimited miles. That one weekly rental would have cost me about ten times more if it were from ZipCar.
Let's see why...
Here's a scenario for you: somebody sideswiped my car and I need to put in the body shop to get the dent fixed and the door repainted. The shop tells me they need 4 days to do the work, so I'll rent a car for those 4 days.
I log on to the Travelocity web site where I know I can compare rates for different car rental companies. I find a daily rental rate of $26 at Enterprise with unlimited miles and the insurance taken care of by my American Express Gold Card. Total damage at Enterprise, $104 plus taxes for 4 days (plus they'll pick me up at the body shop for free and drop me off there when I'm ready to return the car). Now I go to ZipCar to compare apples to apples. A basic rental will cost me $66 per day, including gas and insurance. I hadn't included the gas cost for Enterprise, and gas is expensive right now, so to be fair, I'll add $50 to the rental cost for a full tank of gas for the 4 days I'm driving. The ZipCar option is costing me $264 for 4 days versus Enterprise at $154. Even slanting the scenario in ZipCar's favor I'd save 60% by avoiding ZipCar, but in reality, the hassle factors slant things even more in Enterprise's favor. Because the rate is lower at Enterprise, I'd pay less in state and local taxes: $14.04 at Enterprise (13.5% tax rate) versus $35.64 at ZipCar. On top of that, the nearest ZipCar to my body is shop is a couple miles away, so it's either $30 for two taxi rides or $4 for two bus rides following long waits out in the searing Texas sun.
To be fair, I should also mention that I didn't include a portion of that ZipCar membership fee. Assuming I'm dumb enough to waste my money on their rentals 10 times this year, that still means I should add $8.50 to the cost of the ZipCar rental because Enterprise sure doesn't charge me membership fees to rent its cleaner, more convenient, more reasonably priced cars!!!
Now, if I were a REALLY frugal consumer, I might not even take the Enterprise rate. I might go to Priceline or Hotwire and see if I can "bid" on car rentals. Doing that, I can often lower the rate to around $15 per day.
Now where the heck ARE those potential savings that ZipCar lied to me about??? I sure can't find 'em!!
The Positive Aspects of ZipCar...
While ZipCar unquestionably costs more to use than a major rental car company, there are reasons why some people might find them useful.
If you actually do need a car for frequent, very short trips, it can be cheaper to drive a ZipCar than to maintain your own car (though it's still likely more expensive than renting from a major rental company).
One of the problems with major rental companies though is that they frequently turn away young drivers. They have minimum rental ages (usually 25) and require credit cards and proof of insurance. Young drivers such as college students may be too young. They may not have established credit (or limits too low to support a $500 or $1000 hold). They also may not own a car, and thus not have proof that they have a car insurance policy. ZipCar has made college students a cornerstone of its business with cars located near campuses and age limits and pre-included insurance that makes a rental car accessible.
ZipCar sounds good in concept, but in reality, it's an expensive and complicated way to drive. College students with very infrequent need of a car are some of the very few customers for whom ZipCar may actually make sense. All others should shop around --- you can almost certainly do MUCH better!