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Zipcar offers city-dwellers a viable alternative to traditional car ownership. Its hundreds of hubs around the globe make it one of the world’s largest carsharing companies, and once you have a membership you can use its vehicles anywhere – including Europe. Like the locally based nonprofits it competes with, Zipcar is great for folks who don’t drive frequently. It’s also useful for travelers who want the peace of mind that comes with having on-demand access to a personal vehicle, but who don’t want to pay for – and park – a rental car.
Using Zipcar is a lot like renting a car. With your membership card, you reserve a vehicle and drive it for a predetermined period of time, eventually returning it to its original location. This is different from other ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft. These require you to use a mobile app to hail nearby drivers, who pick you up in their personal cars and take you to your destination – similar to how taxi companies operate.
How It Works
Zipcar offers membership plans through which you find, reserve, and drive its vehicles. Every Zipcar has a dedicated home location where you pick it up and return it after use. These are typically in parking lots near major business districts, hospitals, and universities. All told, Zipcar operates in about five dozen global cities and has separate partnerships with more than 100 North American universities.
To be eligible for a Zipcar membership, you must satisfy the following requirements:
- Be 21 years old, or 18 if you’re a student at a partner university
- Have had a valid, unrestricted driver’s license for at least 12 months
- Have no more than two combined moving violations and accidents within the past three years
- Have no more than one moving violation or accident within the past 18 months
- Have no major violations – reckless driving, speeding in excess of 20 miles per hour over the limit, leaving the scene of an accident, driving with a suspended license, or speeding in a school zone – within the past three years
- Have no alcohol or drug-related driving offenses within the past seven years
These rules may be different in Europe, so it’s best to check with your country-specific Zipcar site to confirm your eligibility. And Zipcar reserves the right to make individual determinations, meaning your application may be denied or approved even if you do or don’t meet these eligibility requirements.
To apply for a Zipcar membership, you need to provide some basic contact information, have a driver’s license and a credit card, and pay a modest application fee. If you’re a U.S. or Canadian driver, the process typically takes just a few hours. If you have a foreign driver’s license, you’ll need to use your passport, and the process will be a bit more involved. Before you apply for an individual account, check whether your organization has an existing account that you can piggyback on – many major universities do.
Once approved, you receive your membership card (Zipcard) within a week and can begin driving immediately thereafter. You can add co-drivers, such as family members, to your account at any time. They must also pass the driver background check, and pay the application fee and ongoing membership fees.
Reserving and Using a Car
You can rent a Zipcar on an hourly or daily basis: as little as 30 minutes for one-way journeys and one hour for round-trip rentals, to as long as seven days for one-ways and round-trips. Through the company’s website or mobile app, you specify a start and end time for your reservation. You can begin your trip early if the car isn’t in use by another driver. If availability allows, you can reserve a car as late as 30 minutes before your desired start time – and you can reserve up to a year in advance.
For reservations less than eight hours, you can shorten or cancel up to three hours before the trip starts. For longer trips, you need to give 24 hours’ notice. If you fail to do so, you’re charged the full amount of the original reservation. You can extend your reservation at any time with no penalty, provided you don’t overlap with someone else’s booking.
To unlock the vehicle, tap your Zipcard to the windshield reader. Your trip’s meter starts running whenever you unlock the car, or at your reservation’s start time, whichever is earlier. Start the car with a regular key (usually hanging from the steering column) or a push-button starter, depending on the model. You can make as many stops as you like on your trip, but you continue to be charged until your reservation’s end time, even if you return the vehicle early.
When your trip is over, the company automatically charges your stored credit card. If you drive more than 180 miles in a given trip, you’re charged 45 cents for each additional mile. Zipcar pays for fuel and insurance on the vehicle, though you may be hit with a fee if you get a ticket, have an accident, fail to refill a low tank, or pass through a highway or bridge toll. If you return the vehicle late, you’re fined anywhere from $50 to $150, depending on how late you are.
Zipcar automatically gives you the best possible deal on your rental rate. This comes into play on longer rentals. For instance, the hourly rate on a 10-hour rental is usually higher than the daily rate.
Zipcar offers five membership plans. All offer the same basic features, but their cost varies based on how much you drive and your status as an individual, business, or student. Plan costs may also vary by location – check your local rates before signing up. Plans come with a 30-day money-back guarantee (free trial).
- Occasional Driving Plan: Usually comes with a $25 application fee and $70 annual fee, prorated and refunded if you cancel before a year passes. Each co-driver costs an additional $35 per year, plus another $25 application fee. Weekday hourly rates for basic cars (non-luxury sedans and hatchbacks) typically range from $8 to $12, depending on the city. Weekend rates range from $7 to $11. Daily rates range from $60 to $90, depending on the city and time of week. For instance, the regular rate in Phoenix is $10 per weekday hour and $9 per weekend hour, compared to $79 per full weekday and $69 per full weekend day.
- Monthly Driving Plan: Usually comes with a $7 monthly fee, which is not refunded if you cancel before the month is up. Each co-driver costs $3.50 extra per month. This makes for an annual fee of $84 for a single driver. Rates are identical to the Occasional Driving Plan.
- Extra Value Plans (EVPs): Zipcar’s extra value plans require you to make a commitment to drive a certain amount each month. You prepay for that amount, then pay as you go for anything beyond it. All driving is discounted 10% relative to the regular rates in your location. EVPs currently come in $50, $75, $125, and $250 increments. With the $50 plan, you lose any unused prepaid time at the end of the month. The $75 plan currently lets you roll over unused time for a single month. For instance, if you only use $50 worth of drive time one month, you get $100 in prepaid driving the following month – but, if you still don’t use the $25 that rolled over, you forfeit it at the end of the month. The $125 and $250 plans let you roll over unused time for two months. Co-drivers don’t cost extra (except the one-time application fee), and you share the monthly commitment with them. You can generally switch from one EVP to another for a one-time (per change) fee of $25.
- Business Plan: Business plans come with a one-time application fee, ongoing annual fees, and per-driver fees. These vary by location and organization, but are generally higher than personal plan fees. Like personal plans, business plans also have hourly and daily rates. On weekdays, hourly and daily rates are discounted slightly (roughly 5%, depending on location). Weekend rates aren’t discounted at all. There’s also a special 7am to 7pm business rate that’s 10% to 20% lower than the full daily rate, depending on the city. In some cities, specialized vehicles, such as pickup trucks and vans, are available, generally at higher hourly and daily rates. You can use a single credit card for the whole account or bill each driver separately.
- Student/Faculty Plan: Students and faculty may get special pricing, sign-up credits, and other perks for joining Zipcar if there’s a lot at their university. Rates vary by place, but tend to be on the low end of the Occasional and Monthly Driving Plan rates.
- Zipcard. You need your Zipcard to open your reserved vehicle. If you lose it, you get one free replacement per year. It’s $15 for replacements after that.
- Vehicle Selection. Zipcar’s vehicles range from subcompacts to SUVs. Typical models include the MINI Cooper subcompact, Toyota Prius hatchback, Nissan Frontier pickup, and Ford Escape SUV, but selection may vary by area. You can choose a particular model when you reserve the car. Keep in mind that luxury models and SUVs may cost more.
- Vehicles With Hand Controls. For disabled members, Zipcar offers cars with hand controls. These vehicles aren’t available everywhere, and you do have to reserve them at least 24 hours in advance. In areas that don’t normally have hand-controlled vehicles, Zipcar asks for seven days’ notice.
- Zipcar Hotline. Zipcar maintains dedicated, country-specific hotlines for membership questions, accident and ticket reporting, and reservations.
- Zipcar App and Reservation System. You can use the Zipcar app to manage your account’s billing information, find your nearest home location, and reserve a vehicle. You can also call Zipcar’s hotline to make a reservation, but this costs $3.95 per use.
- Home Location. Every Zipcar lives in a specific parking area, such as a parking garage, surface lot, or street with parallel parking spots. Zipcar marks its reserved spaces with green signs or green paint on the curb or asphalt. To complete your round-trip reservation, you must return your vehicle to the area you picked it up. If there’s more than one Zipcar-marked space in the home area, you can park it in any one. You can return one-way Zipcars to any space in your designated destination lot. If you don’t return the car to the proper home area, you’re charged a hefty fine: $150.
- Insurance. Every Zipcar is covered by an insurance policy that includes bodily injury coverage of $300,000 (max) per accident, property damage coverage of $25,000 per incident, and personal injury protection (PIP) in the minimum amount mandated by the car’s home jurisdiction. If you’re involved in an accident, you’re automatically charged a $1,000 damage fee, which functions as the policy’s deductible.
- Fuel Card. Every Zipcar has its own prepaid fuel card that you can use to fuel up – you’re obligated to do so if the tank drops below 25% capacity on your trip. If the card doesn’t have enough money on it, Zipcar credits your account.
- Additional Fees. Under certain circumstances, Zipcar may bill you for fees unrelated to driving. In addition to fines for getting into an accident and parking in a non-approved parking area, you can be charged for not refueling ($30), losing the ignition key ($75), returning the car after your reservation ends ($50 to $150, depending on how late), and smoking or having a non-kenneled pet in the vehicle ($50, plus cleaning costs). If you cancel a reservation after the designated window closes, you’re charged the full cost of your reservation. Fees may vary by jurisdiction and over time, so check ahead with Zipcar before you go.
- Other Drivers. If you’re riding with another Zipcar member, you can share driving responsibilities with no restrictions. If the vehicle is involved in an accident or moving violation, the person driving at the time is liable.
- Hourly-Only Vehicles. A limited number of Zipcars are only available for hourly use (at the same hourly rate as other Zipcars). These are designed for short trips, such as grocery runs, and can’t be reserved for longer than a full day. The Zipcar app indicates which cars are available for this purpose.
1. Affordable for Many Trips
Zipcar is often more affordable than its competition. Though prices vary slightly by location, a typical weekday reservation costs between $7 and $10 per hour, or between $60 and $90 per day. With base fees, per-mile, and per-minute charges, Uber and Lyft are more expensive than Zipcar for trips of any length.
2. Wide Variety of Available Vehicles
Zipcar has a much wider selection of vehicles than most neighborhood carsharing services, including SUVs and hatchbacks. Local carsharing services, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Hourcar, are often nonprofits that place a premium on efficiency – specializing in Prius hatchbacks and gas-powered subcompacts – and thus choose not to offer larger vehicles.
3. Some Zipcars Have Hand Controls
Zipcar’s selection of vehicles with hand controls makes it friendly for members who can’t drive a regular car. This is a vital accessibility feature that isn’t common elsewhere in the carsharing space.
4. The App Functions as an Extra Pair of Keys
Zipcar’s app functions as a second set of car keys. If you’re logged into the app, you can unlock the vehicle from anywhere without returning to it – and you can leave the keys in the car without worrying about locking them in.
5. More Widely Available Than Other Carsharing Options
Zipcar is more widely available than many of its competitors. In particular, its university-centric network brings the company to cities that might not normally be able to support a carsharing service, such as Moscow, Idaho (University of Idaho) and Iowa City (University of Iowa). Many small university towns, which have relatively high populations of car-less students, don’t even have a nonprofit carsharing alternative.
6. You Can Drive in Any Country Where Zipcar Operates
If you travel to another country, and you’re legally allowed to drive there, you can use its Zipcar network.
7. The Reservation System Reduces Uncertainty and Extra Costs
Since you can reserve your Zipcar for a set period of time, you don’t have to worry about a vehicle being unavailable when you need it – either before or during your trip. You don’t pay extra for this privilege – the car is simply yours.
1. You Must Return to a Designated Parking Area
Every Zipcar has a home location, such as a surface lot or parking garage, that can’t be changed by users. While you don’t necessarily have to return your Zipcar to its home lot – one-way rentals offer added flexibility – you do have to return it to a Zipcar lot. Your reservation isn’t complete until you do so; you’ll face hefty fines and possibly other penalties for leaving your Zipcar on the street.
This restriction makes it impossible to use a Zipcar on point-to-point trips that don’t involve a second Zipcar lot. By contrast, ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft specialize in point-to-point trips.
2. Membership Isn’t Free
No matter what membership plan you use, you either need to pay a monthly or annual fee, or commit to a certain amount of driving per month. By contrast, ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft only charge you for the rides you take.
3. You Can’t Take Spontaneous Trips
Before your trip, you need to reserve a specific Zipcar and choose start and end times for your reservation at least half an hour in advance. You can’t just spontaneously hop into a car and drive away. This requires some pre-trip planning.
4. Membership Is More Restrictive for Young People
To be eligible for a Zipcar membership, you must be 21 years old, or a student at least 18 years of age at an affiliated university, even if you have a spotless driving record. This rules out membership for young people who aren’t enrolled at the major universities that Zipcar typically works with.
If you don’t need to drive your car frequently or for long distances, a carsharing service such as Zipcar is a viable alternative to traditional car ownership. That said, though Zipcar is affordable, widely available, and user-friendly, it can’t do everything a wholly owned vehicle can.
Depending on where you live, it’s probably best to pair a Zipcar membership with other transportation options, such as cycling, walking, and public transit. Still, the service offers one thing that these other options don’t: the freedom to hit the open road when you want – and go where you want.
Have you ever used Zipcar to get around? What was your experience like?
Sign up for Zipcar and get a FREE $25 driving credit.