I promised a review of my Zipcar experience, and here it is. In brief, it is a great service that works as advertised - a car when you want it, with no hassle. It is best for shorter trips because of the pricing structure, but that's probably what most users want it for, most of the time. For longer trips, you'll probably do better renting from a traditional agency. But if I lived exclusively in the city, and if I weren't a car nut, I would do without a personal car and use Zipcar alone. A longer review follows the jump.
In the following review, I have changed identifying details for anonymity.
Making the Zipcar reservation was simple, and was slowed only by my own process of weighing location against car type and price for the cars available. That is, I needed to decide for myself whether I wanted to walk the extra few blocks to pick up the Jetta I preferred to the Focus, or spend the extra money to get the Mini I really wanted, even though it lives across town. That process was easy on the excellent Zipcar website, which lets you sort by car type or location, but tougher in my head, which sorts by more variables, such as: the likely weather, the time I wanted to leave, my mood, how dorky one looks in a white Honda RAV powered by batteries, and whether Minis are only for gay men (answer: no). In the end, I chose a Jetta. I also chose to reserve it for the whole day for $65 because I thought I'd need it for about 7 or 8 hours (at $8.50/hour that's the decision point). Also, you really don't want to return one late. Not only is it unfair to the person who might be waiting for the car, but also it's expensive. Zipcar charges $25/hour for lateness.
Comparing price was straightforward. I used as my cheapo benchmark the Enterprise rates at the Prudential location. At the government rate, an Enterprise car equivalent to the Jetta (talk about apples and oranges; it was a Pontiac sedan) came out to about $85 for a day, including the taxes and convention center surcharge and the likely cost of fuel. The Jetta, I estimated, would cost about $100 for the same period, but would be cheaper next time because Zipcar argued the state into letting them charge the $10 convention fee only once per year per customer. So the Jetta was higher, mostly due to mileage surcharges (you get 100 miles a day and pay $0.20 per mile after that), but would have been more competitive if it were my second rental. I went with Zipcar anyway, because the convenience factor was solidly in Zipcar's favor
Picking up the car was easy. It was in the promised spot at the right time. I took out my proximity pass, aka "Zipcard," and held it to the windshield sensor. The car unlocked and I got in. The key is tied to the steering column with one of those retractable ID card holders. The car started right up and away I went. Much easier than Enterprise. I was ten miles down the road at the time I would have been wrapping up the paperwork at the Enterprise counter. The Jetta was a bit dirty. Sand on the floor, grime on the paint, but it's the end of winter and I think that's to be expected. I did not wash it, though that's an option they'll pay for.
Driving and Fueling were normal affairs, except the gas was on someone else. Zipcar pays all fuel charges. You pay with the Wright Express card kept above the visor in each car. Or you can use your own money and give Zipcar the receipt. I used their card; it's easier. I had a moment of confusion when I made my coffee stop. I am not the kind of guy who leaves the keys in his car, even when he runs into a DD. I think you're supposed to use the proxi card to lock and unlock the car during your time with it, but there's nothing to stop someone from smashing the window and driving off with the car. (Or maybe there's a kill-switch wired to the proxi card so the car won't start without the proxi unlock, but I'm not sure, and I wasn't going to risk it.) So I detached the key from the holder (probably a Zipcar non-no, but I didn't see it in the rules) and kept it with me. Note: if you do that, be sure to put the key back. Otherwise, I think Zipcar would be quite justified in charging you the $25/hour late fee until they get the car back in service.
Returning the car was the easiest part of all. Just park it in the spot you got it from, being courteous to the other cars around you, especially in tight areas like Beacon Hill, South End, and Back Bay. That's what I did. (I put the key back on the string.) I wrote down my starting and ending mileage to double-check against my bill, but the Jetta has an electronic odo and Zipcar is either tied into the computer, or has an accurate GPS tracker under the hood somewhere. I have no idea which. Anyway, my accurate bill was online at my Zipcar account the next day.
Overall, it was a good experience. I will try to drive something more exotic next time, like a Prius, for fun. My recommendation: if you live in the city and seldom need a car, sell your car and live on Zipcar. If you live in the city and sometimes need a second car, sign up. There's an application fee and an annual fee, but they're reasonable. But if you primarily need a rented car for long trips or vacations, stick with the traditional rental outfits. They're less convenient, but they're cheaper for long trips.
It's a great service, and I hope it makes enough money to stay in business.