Good god, I love a road trip. I’ve driven across the entire U.S. a few times, both the northern and southern route, coast to coast. While I know it’s not very eco, I love a car filled with gas (and Pringles, Nibs, and other road snacks).
Which is why I was intrigued by Zipcar. It’s hard to imagine a road trip with more novelty than the ability to drive a different car every time.
I took Zipcar for a test drive for a 300-mile road trip to the Oregon Coast:
The Zip trip reminded me that novelty can sometimes be magical–and sometimes be a little too open to chance.
First, the things that are fantastic about Zipcars:
- No more time in the grey waiting rooms of rental car dealerships. (The only thing more bleak in travel is soul-numbing travel conferences.)
- Living in the wondrous iPhone-ful future. (I should add Zipcar’s iPhone app to my list of iPhone app favorites for travel.)
- Having cars immediately available on short notice, if you live in one of the Zipcar cities.
In short, Zipcar is the kind of Gen Xish idea that seems like a stroke of genius: Use the Internet to help make car ownership less appealing (and therefore inch us Americans towards a greener future) and provide a quick service to those of us with limited attention spans.
Plus the card itself unlocks the car, which is very Blade Runner:
Now, the downside.
After my first few Zipcar rental experiences, I was ready to write an unending rave about how wondrous this idea was.
The problem with all great human enterprises–especially when novelty is involved–is that it actually involves the humans. Sometimes, you visit a beach that’s pristine, because everyone’s taken incredible care to pack out their garbage. Sometimes, it’s the tragedy of the commons. Zipcar is beholden to the same dynamic.
One of the rules of Zipcar is no smoking, ever. I picked up a rental car in a seedy garage (that should have been my first sign), and was motoring down the road before I realized that there was a creeping smell of cigarettes permeating the car. Nasty.
I had the idea of having the car for a day-long trip, but realized that the subtle stench was giving me a headache. I drove the Zipcar back, returned it early, and wrote them an email once I was home.
Zipcar rules state that you have to declare any damage (including smoke) before you leave with the car. Because I didn’t do the sniff test when I first got in, basically, I was hosed–I wound up paying for hours of a car rental that I didn’t use because someone else was a jackass. To top it off, the email response from the company didn’t offer to refund my cash–and was a little snippy, reminding me that I should have called immediately when I picked up the car, but since I didn’t, there was nothing they could do. (They don’t check every car between every use.)
So that’s the highs and lows of novelty car rental in a nutshell: Sometimes it pays off huge dividends in the form of novelty and convenience…sometimes it reminds you how much other people can suck.
That said, I’ll still use Zipcars again. They have a built-in advantage, since rental cars are certainly no better of a customer experience, and their techie ingenuity is charming and well-designed. But I’ll go into the experience eyes wide open, remembering that some people are still the equivalent of the jackasses who would throw their empty beer bottles on the beach.