I attended college in Washington, DC and got through four years without ever owning or even using a car. But when I decided to stay in the area after graduation , I realized I might occasionally need a set of wheels.
I planned to use public transportation  for getting to and from work, but I knew there would be times when an errand’s purpose or location would require driving. I didn’t have the money to purchase a car, nor did I want to deal with the additional costs  of insurance and parking for a car I would use only occasionally.
Enter…Zipcar . Zipcar is a service that allows you to rent cars by the hour or day. Zip cars are parked in public areas and members reserve them online and enter the cars with a digital card.
- Availability: Zipcar has cars in over 50 cities  and 100 college campuses  nationwide. Campus cars are limited to students/faculty affiliated with that college. Zipcar locations tend to be in cities with robust public transportation systems, where there is also a large car-free population.
- Eligibility: Members must be over 21, have had a driver’s license for at least one year and have a good driving record .
- Application fee: $25 for a normal Zip car membership, college memberships appear to have no application fee.
- Annual Cost: $50/year for normal membership, $25 for college.
- Driving Cost: Zipcar rentals are $7+ per hour and $65+/day, depending on the city. Most cities have cars for under $10/hr and under $75/day. Weekday rates are cheaper than weekend rates. New York cars are much more expensive than most other locations.
- Frequent Users: Extra Value Plans  give the option to waive the annual fee and instead commit to a certain amount of driving per month in exchange for a 10-20% discount on hourly and daily costs.
- Fees: No charges for gas or insurance! Late fees start at $50, plus the cost of additional driving time. Cancellations made after a certain deadline cost the same as the original reservation.
How I use Zipcar to Save Money
I am on the “Occasional Use” plan, so I pay $50 each year and anywhere from $8-11/hr to drive. There are a few cars in Zipcar DC within walking distance of me. I have used Zipcars to drive to the grocery store when I couldn’t get a ride and had an order too big to walk with. I rented a pickup truck to transport some furniture in the midst of my recent move. I’ve used a car to pick up friends from the airport, get to a doctor that was 5 miles away but would take 1 hr+ via subway and bus, and occasionally just because it’s easier and faster than taking public transportation. I’ve saved a ton of money by:
- Avoiding a car payment, maintenance, insurance and gas costs (this is kind of the obvious one!)
- Being able to buy furniture used on Craigslist and transport it using a Zipcar, rather than buying it new AND paying for shipping AND putting it together
- Using Zipcars instead of cabs to reach distant locations
- Using Zipcars instead of hiring movers and/or renting moving trucks
Final Zipcar Review Thoughts
- The bad: I definitely recommend reserving one as soon as you know you need it as they tend to book up quickly, especially on weekends. It is a very practical solution for quick errands or appointments with a definitive start and end time. The exorbitant late fees make it hard to take it to something with an open-ended end time such as a dinner or meeting. While I understand that the cancellation policy is in place to keep people from hogging reservations, I hate that you have to pay the entire amount of a reservation if you cancel it less than a certain number of hours before. I lost $20+ because my brother’s train was delayed and would not arrive in time for me to pick him up using the Zipcar I had reserved. My final complaint with Zipcar is that the hourly rates make it somewhat cost prohibitive to take one on an errand that will last more than a couple of hours. Using it to go outlet mall shopping, for example, means that I pay for every hour it sits in the parking lot while I shop. My absolute dream would be for Zipcar  to introduce one-way rates, but I know that the public-parking model makes that nearly impossible. Zipcar’s day rates are not very competitive with actual rental cars and since the rental fees only include 180/miles a day, they are not conducive for road trips.
- The good: Now that I’ve gotten some of my complaints out of the way, I want to reiterate that Zipcar has been a great way for me to have access to a car without the costs  of owning one. Most of the time renting one is far cheaper than taking a cab and much faster than public transportation. Gas and insurance  are included, so I never have to worry about additional costs. The customer service is superb – you can get an actual person on the phone right away and I have never had them be anything but friendly to me…even when I’m asking dumb questions like how to start a certain type of car! Best of all, I pay for what I use – if I don’t drive for several months, I don’t pay for several months. Zipcar reservation costs are charged directly to my favorite rewards credit card  so I don’t have to worry about watching for/paying another bill…and I get cash back every time I drive! Many of my friends have used Zipcar  over the years and we’ve all been very happy. If you are in a Zipcar city and have no desire to own a car, or you want to donate your old car , I definitely recommend Zipcar  as an option for those days when you just need to drive.
If you currently use Zipcar, how have you enjoyed the experience? If you are thinking about joining, what questions do you have about the service?