I have been a ZipCar member since its initial introduction in Toronto. To sign up, I had to pay a membership fee, provide my driver’s license info, and wait to be mailed a card, which took a couple of weeks. ZipCar also has a recurring yearly fee, and optional monthly plans which allow you to pre-pay in exchange for reduced rental rates.

To use ZipCar, you must book a vehicle in advance. You can do this using ZipCar’s website, painfully slow iPhone app, or interactive telephone system. You select the date and time of your rental, and the system will tell you which cars are available. Once you book a car, your credit card is authorized for that amount, and the car is reserved. You can cancel your reservation, but you must do it a certain amount of time before your reservation begins. A longer reservation requires more notice. Once your reservation begins there are no cancellations and no refunds for unused time.

Once it’s time to get your car, you have to find it. The app and email are helpful, they provide detailed instructions. And once you’ve found a car you like, and you’ve used it a few times, ZipCar will move it. They are always renegotiating parking contracts and moving cars around. It’s frustrating!

The cars are late-model economy cars leased by ZipCar. They’re usually in good shape and are kept mostly clean and tidy. You may get the occasional surprise, but ZipCar does a pretty good job here. The worst offender is the person before you smoking.

If you find problems with the car it is your responsibility to call it in immediately. If you do not, you can be blamed for anything you don’t report. Since the app doesn’t show you what has already been reported, it is rare that I can use a car without a call to ZipCar to report some sort of problem.

It is also your responsibility to return the car with at least 1/4 tank of gas — you can be fined otherwise. If the person before you hasn’t left you that much, you have to call and report it. Plan an extra 15 or 20 minutes on your ZipCar reservation in case you lose the gas lottery. Fuel is paid for by a credit card stored in the car.

Driving the car is no problem, they’re nice cars, they work well. You use your RFID card or the app to lock and unlock the car during your trip, and the key always stays inside. A lot of members don’t understand this and you frequently find cars where the key has been removed from ZipCar’s creative key retention device and tossed in the cupholder. Not sure why people do this — it would seem to add liability if you don’t lock up the car in the correct way.

When you end the reservation, you return the car to where you got it and log out with your card. Easy enough, but I have had times when the ZipCar’s spot was stolen by someone else. Again you call in, wait on hold, and they will instruct you on how to deal with the problem.

Since you have to return on time or suffer a fine, I usually end up returning the car at least an hour early and wasting $10-$20. I don’t like to rush or panic. There is no refund for returning early — even several hours early. The app lets you cancel the reservation and return the car to the pool, but since ZipCar won’t give you a refund even if someone else rents it, why would you?

Here are some other problems I’ve had with ZipCar. They’re not really complaints, and there aren’t always easy solutions, but it’s something you have to expect when you use carshare. It’s not as easy as they say.

  1. Car completely dead due to lights left on.
  2. Car missing entirely forcing cancellation.
  3. Previous renters late returning car.
  4. Car double-parked and stuck in its spot.
  5. Angry parking lot attendants who won’t let you in/out.
  6. Car with windows smashed.
  7. Car with flat tires.

ZipCar is still easier than dealing with traditional rental car, the grumpy attendant, 5 signatures, 20 minutes of insurance upsell, deciding what you should do about gas, and watching the dot-matrix printer spit out your contract. I use it for half-day to 1 day rentals where I have to go somewhere, or just want a nicer car. For everything else, I use car2go, which has its own problems and is the subject of the next post.