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

money dollars car keys cost expenseCost 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:

car scenic view sea ocean road tripAll-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.


Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
TravelersEd@aol.com
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler
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