Doing the Zipcar thing

Many years ago, I didn’t have a car in Baltimore, but the four Zipcar locations in the city were around Johns Hopkins, not terribly close to where I lived and worked. After I moved to a garden apartment, where I parked a car every night and most days, Zipcar spots seemed to spring up all around my office. I wrote about them in 2010, and my coblogger Mike offered his experiences zipping in New York City.

Five years later I am again without an infernal combustion vehicle, so I can take advantage of all these cars for the sharing. I joined Zipcar a few weeks ago, and took my first voyage today. I had to verify some measurements for a client in Rockville MD – too far for a bike ride – so I reserved a Honda Civic that “lives” in a parking garage a few blocks away. I reserved from 8 AM to 1 PM, which worked out to three dollars more than walking over to Enterprise to rent a car all day for $40.

Keeping a car overnight could be handy for shopping and other chores, but I’m a bit annoyed with Enterprise. Two weeks ago I showed up for a weekend rental and they had no record of the reservation I had made online, and no extra cars. I had to walk back to my office, print out the confirming email and walk back to Enterprise. Then they had a car for me. And of course they always try to sell me extra insurance.

So I tried Zipcar. Getting the car was easy. I walked into the parking garage, and it was parked right next to the attendant’s booth. Unlocking it with the card was simple, but the Civic was a tight squeeze and I couldn’t make the seat go any farther back. As soon as I started the engine, I could see the parking attendant disappearing into a doorway. I found the parking pass in the visor and waited patiently by the gate only to have her come back and tell me that I could have swiped the card myself on a small box.

The fuel level was a bit low, but I made it through heavy traffic on I-95 (Amtrak crash) without incident. On the Route 200 toll road I put the office EZ Pass on the dash, not noticing that the Zipcar has its own EZ Pass next to the rear view mirror. I wonder if they both got charged the toll?

After my appointment, I swapped out the Zipcar EZPass with ours, then drove until I got a low fuel alert. I took an exit and found an Exxon station on Randolph Road. As usual I hadn’t noticed which side of the car had the filler cap. As usual I guessed wrong and had to pull around. Zipcar also includes a gas purchase card in the visor. Instructions were to swipe the card then enter the odometer reading – which did not display because I had stopped the car. So I restarted and got the number, then swiped the card, entered that number and my Gas ID number – which didn’t take. So I gave it the other number on my card, and got the dreaded three words, Please See Cashier.

The cashier asked me how much gas I needed. I wanted to fill it, but he needed a number, and suggested $40. I guessed $30. He had me swipe the card again, enter the Gas ID number again, and, inside, it worked. He said, “Computers only think they are smarter than us.” He said they would refund any difference to the card. It was $29.12.

Dropping off the car was easy, too. I was an hour and twenty minutes early, and therein lies the problem with Zipcar. You get no credit for returning early, but a $50/hr penalty for being late. So you have to be fairly certain just how long you need the vehicle. If you guess long, you pay for an hour or more you don’t need. If you guess short, you get hosed. If you have no idea about time needed, you will be better off to rent a full day from Enterprise, Hertz, National or Avis, which now owns Zipcar.

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