ZipCar First Impressions

I haven’t owned a car since I moved out of New Jersey about 15 years ago. Lately I’ve been considering buying one, mostly for birding since public transit just doesn’t make the grade for getting to a lot of the places I want to go to. On the other hand, owning a car in New York City is a royal pain, and most of the time just not worth the hassle.

I’d first looked at Zipcar, a subscription based car rental agency that rents by the hour, a couple of years ago. I decided against it then. I shop online or around the corner. For short trips in the neighborhood, a cab is cheaper and avoids parking. Usually I just walk or take the bus anyway. However, paying by the hour I’d actually pay more for a day long birding trip than if I rented from a traditional rental car agency. Recently, however, Zipcar added daily rates that are much more competitive so I took a second look.

The Experience

The way Zipcar works is this: you sign up in advance for a non-refundable $25 application fee, and choose a plan that costs you between $50 a year and $250 a month (applied to your rentals). The more expensive plans have discounts on the rental price and rollover unused dollars from month to month. You have to be 21 or over and have a clean driving record. I applied Friday evening. My application was approved in a matter of hours, and my Zipcard arrived in the mail on Tuesday.

When you’re ready to drive, you reserve a specific car online for an hour or more. No more reserving a nice little Ford Escort and being saddled with a two-ton tank when you arrive at the rental counter, as happened to me on my last trip to San Jose. On the other hand, choices can be a little limited at peak times. I reserved on a Saturday morning for a Sunday trip, and there was only one car available for the full day. There may have been more at other lots a little further away from my apartment. Shorter rentals were also easier to come by, but if you want to reserve a full day on a holiday weekend, it definitely pays to plan ahead.

When you get to the garage (the nearest one to my apartment is about a third of a mile away) you give the attendant your Zip card; and he brings the car out to you with the key. (At some lots you may go get the car yourself.) After that, you drive it like any other car, and bring it back before it’s due. You may be able to call in and extend your reservation if necessary, but only if someone else hasn’t reserved that car for a conflicting time.

I reserved a Mazda Marietta, which proved to be a little small for me; but I was still able to drive it up to City Island in the Bronx, and then Ward Pound Ridge in Westchester. This particular model has some sort of weird manual/automatic hybrid transmission. Zipcar had warned me about this when I reserved it; and once I figured out how to put the car in automatic mode, it drove just fine.

Gas is included in the rental price. No more forgetting to fill up the tank before you bring it back and being charged four times the going rate per gallon. There’s a debit card behind the driver’s visor to pay for gas. The first two stations I stopped at couldn’t figure out how to use the card. (This may have been because neither of those stations had self service or let you pay at the pump. Is that illegal in Westchester? ) The third station I stopped at back in the Bronx had self service and could take the card at the pump.

The car came with an EZPass, though I didn’t use it. I wasn’t sure the EZPass would work, so I looked for a combined cash/EZPass lane. However, the only toll plaza we encountered was on the Triborough Bridge; and there all lanes are cash or EZPass, not both. I didn’t want to take a chance on getting stuck in the EZPass lane, so I just paid cash. I’m guessing that if you use the EZPass they’ll add the fee to your monthly bill. I’ll have to check that before I drive again.

The Economics

The really important part for me is that I can pick up the car at any time. If I need a car at 5:30 A.M. in the morning, I can get one. I can drop it off after midnight if I like. There are 24 hour Hertz and Avis locations in Manhattan; but out here in Brooklyn where the city does sleep, the Brooklyn Bird Club has usually been on the road for two hours by the time the first rental agency opens; and often we return after they’ve closed their gates for the night. Traditional car rentals just don’t work for birding. Zipcar does. Even if I took a zip car out two days a week, every week (probably twice as much as I’ll actually use it) the annual cost would still be about the same as owning my own car. If I use it less than that, Zipcar is much cheaper.

It costs about $100 a day to rent one. (less on weekdays, but I only really need it on weekends). This is very much a New York thing. In Florida and California I’ve sometimes rented a car for a week for less than $200, unlimited mileage included; but in New York City, that’s a typical daily price. In fact, it’s a little better than average when you factor in insurance. Zipcar includes insurance in the price (though only the state required minimum). Most other rental car companies don’t. Indeed the lack of fine print or extra fees is a pleasant difference between Zipcar and typical rental agencies. With Zipcar, the price they advertise is the price you pay.

What finally convinced me to pull the trigger and sign up was realizing that $100 a day didn’t just get me a car. It got me a much better car than I’d ever owned. In particular, it got me a new car instead of the sub-$1000 clunkers I usually buy. Insurance and gas are included saving me another $1000+ a year. Really importantly, zip cars come with their own parking space, which in Prospect Heights runs about $2400 a year. And Zipcar handles maintenance so I don’t have to deal with repairs. If I drove to work every day, it would make more sense to own my own car; but since I only need a car a couple of times a week at most, Zipcar is a much better deal. I figure I’ll rent one about one day a week on average, maybe less. For the $5000 that will cost me, I could have bought, fueled, and insured a used car that might leave me stranded at Jones Beach waiting for a tow truck. Then I could get up at 7:00 A.M. every morning to move my car to the other side of the street. For the same $5000, Zipcar gives me a new car with parking that I don’t have to worry about when I’m not using it. And if I use it less than I expect, I pay less.

There’s one more advantage to Zipcar: I don’t have to rent the same car every time. If it’s just me and Beth, I can get something small and sporty. If I’m driving seven people from the bird club to Fire Island, I can rent a minivan. I’m not driving an empty tank down the highway at 12 mpg or squeezing five people into a Miata.

The one downside is that because I’m paying a la carte instead of in one lump sum, I do tend to think more about whether each trip is worth it than I would if I owned my own car. A trip to the vet (pets are allowed in zip cars) might cost me $25. Lunch at Nick’s Lobster House might be an extra $30. The former is more expensive than taking a cab; the latter less; but at least I have the choice. Both cost quite a bit more than walking or taking the bus. However for what I really need a car for–i.e. for what I just can’t reasonably do without a car–Zipcar beats owning six ways to Sunday.

Zipcar isn’t for everyone. If you live in Lincoln, Nebraska or other cities where parking is plentiful and insurance is cheap, and you drive to work every day, you’re better off owning your own car. However for people like me who live in major urban areas and don’t need a car every day, Zipcar makes a lot of sense.

One thing I’m curious to see is whether this will put pressure on traditional rental agencies like Dollar and Fox to clean up their acts and stop gouging people on insurance, gas, airport pickup fees, and every other charge their greedy little heads can imagine. Zipcar is expanding into quite a few cities I travel to regularly including Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, and London. I didn’t want to bother with a rental car I’d only use for a couple of days when I was in San Francisco this past May; but if I’d been signed up with Zipcar then, I definitely would have grabbed one for a day or two. I’ll probably get one when I’m in Chicago next month too.

They’re still a few missing pieces. There are no one-way rentals, and there are more cities that don’t have Zipcar than do, but overall Zipcar is a very welcome addition to the neighborhood, and I look forward to using it.

6 Responses to “ZipCar First Impressions”

  1. J Donald Says:

    >There’s a debit card behind the driver’s visor to pay for gas. The first two
    >stations I stopped at couldn’t figure out how to use the card. (This may have
    >been because neither of those stations had self service or let you pay at the
    > pump. Is that illegal in Westchester? )

    For the record, self service is absolutely NOT illegal in Westchester. I always pump my own gas.

  2. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    Maybe it was just New Rochelle then. :-) Certainly seemed weird that two stations in a row did not have self service.

  3. Gaurav Says:

    In the tri-state area self service is only illegal in New Jersey.

    A lot of gas stations on highways have both Full-Serve and Self-Serve … depending on what lane you use.

  4. Daniel Says:

    > Insurance and gas are included saving me another $1000+ a year

    But the insurance that is included with Zipcar rental is really not worth mentioning. Liability is covered only up to state-mandated levels which is a bad joke. E.g., for Massachusetts, the limit is $20k for persons — if things go the bad way, this could leave you with several $100k that you have to pay out of your own pocket.

    I’m currently looking for some additional non-owned car insurance…

  5. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    Don’t be silly. The insurance ZipCar bundles most certainly is worth something. Try buying that much insurance yourself and see what it costs. Insurance companies aren’t giving it away. You may want to buy more insurance, but what they’re providing is quite a bit more than nothing.

  6. Andrew Says:

    The liablilty insurance zip car includes is no better than that included by a traditional rental car company like Hertz. However, at least Hertz lets you buy proper insurance coverage. With Zip car you are stuck with the legal minimum in whatever state you happen to have an at fault accident in. In New Jersey the property damage limit is only $5,000. If you hit something like a Mercedes or BMW, you could be digging into your own pocket to pay for the repairs. One “zipster” received a bill for $14000.

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