The great carless debate: Zipcar or rent-a-car?

Not only did I sell my car, I also canceled my car insurance. This is interesting because next weekend we need to get up to Santa Rosa, so that we can attend a 2 day long motorcycle safety course, and so we can attend Dawn’s bachelorette party.

The two options now available to us are: traditional rent-a-car (a la Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, etc.) or Zipcar. Let’s compare and contrast, shall we?

Enterprise, for example, is only open from 7:30am to 6pm M-F, and 9:30am to 1pm on the weekend. Since I can only pick up and drop off the car within that window, I’ll end up renting the car for a little longer than I really need it. So if I pick it up at 9am Friday morning, drive to work, and then drive to Healdsburg (staying with Jean-Claude and Sabine), returning the car on Monday at 9am, it’d cost $94. That’s 3 days at the cheapest possible rate plus a CA tourism fee plus sales tax. Not bad, considering the overall flexibility it affords. And incidentally saving me and Stephanie a total of $10.88—the cost of both of our daily commutes to Sausalito and back. Damn that’s a lot all multiplied out like that.

Now let’s compare to Zipcar. Their daily rate for our cheapo plan is $65/day. The benefit is that we can schedule to pick it up and drop it off at any half hour interval of our choosing, 24 hours a day. We don’t have to fill out forms (except a simple web form to reserve the car), we don’t have to deal with rental agents, and both Stephanie and I can drive it. The only catch is that a car has to be available.

Given the greater flexibility of reservation times, we could probably get away with renting it from 7pm Friday night to 7pm Sunday night, only 2 days, for a total cost of $141 (sales tax included). On the surface that seems like it’d cost $47 dollars over Enterprise for one less day.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Zipcar includes all insurance and gas costs. We just have to pay the $5 bridge toll on the way home.

Enterprise on the other hand includes no insurance or gas by default, partly because most people who rent cars already have insurance. According to Enterprise’s website, they offer three types of optional insurance:

Damage Waiver $9-20/day
“waives or reduces the renter’s responsibility for loss of, or damage to, the rental vehicle”

Personal Accident Insurance $3-7/day
“provides the renter and passengers with accident medical expense, accidental death and ambulance expense benefits”

Supplemental Liability Protection $12/day
“provides the renter and authorized drivers with up to $1,000,000 combined single limit for third party liability claims”

Whoa. If I take the low end of those ranges (which happen to match the values on Avis’s website), for 3 days, that adds $72 to the total cost of the rental (plus $6 sales tax on top of that). Oh, and don’t forget gas. My rough estimate says we’ll be driving at least 200 miles. If our car gets around 25mpg, that’s at least $30 at $3.50/gal to fill’er back up.

So in the end, what seemed like a frugal $94 rental more than doubles to $202! I shouldn’t forget to mention that renting it an extra day does save us $11 in bus fares, bringing our total transportation cost for that time period down to $191.

That’s still $50 more than Zipcar, granted Enterprise comes out ahead at $64/day while Zipcar hovers at $70.

When it comes down to it, saving $55 overall, even though I’m actually paying $6 more per day, is totally worth it considering I can pick up and drop off the car on my schedule, and without human intervention. Oh yeah, let’s not forget that Zipcar has cool cars, like the Mazda 3, Toyota Matrix, Nissan Versa, and Scion xA. With Enterprise it’d be a Chevy no-name.


pete e.

Keep in mind that Zipcar’s ‘insurance’ is not necessarily what you think! The only provide state minimums, and that is likely the same as Enterprise.


Ah yes, I am familiar with the Chevy Aveo (Chevy Stupido), which is so stripped down-cheap it resembles a toy car. And drives like crap.


and remember zipcar isnt unlimited miles

pete, thanks for the heads up. I guess I’m just going to have to take solace in the fact that I’m a relatively good driver.

corey, yep I (re)discovered that after I posted. Turns out it’s 125 miles/day. Since we’ll be renting for 2 days, we get 250 miles—which should be more than enough.

Update: now “every reservation comes with a minimum of 180 free miles” regardless if it’s 1 or 24 hours long. Each hour of a reservation after that includes 20 miles, up to 180 in a day.

We recently launched a new company called Sunday that is very beneficial to Zipcar users. You can store your login details in the Sunday Portal and our team of agents can help you reserve a car real time. You can interact with them via email or phone. Use the promo code “zipcar” for a free month trial.

We do a whole bunch more stuff for our customers, too.


Who buys rental insurance? Especially if you don’t have other insurance? Almost every credit card out there has rental insurance built in. Granted, it only kicks in AFTER they get money from your existing auto insurance company, but if you have no existing company there’s absolutely no reason for getting the car companies insurance.

Rich, actually as it turns out Visa only covers collision, and most states require that you carry liability insurance in order to be legal to drive.


Keep in mind that zipcar only lets you rent for a MAXIMUM of 4 DAYS. Not enough if you are going on a long trip

MD, but perfect for a very long weekend.


Hey does anyone know how old you have to be to rent a zip car? I am curious because other car rentals require you be 25. I didn’t know if zip cars had the same rules.


great to hear your breakdown. though single, i am also carless and DEPEND on Muni. I had gotten a Zipcar for a day, a few times now, without realizing that existing rental companies are actually more economical for a day rental.
anyway, fyi that Enterprise has a 50% off weekends deal right now! that kind of makes it compelling, doesn’t it?

ps. i like your layout, and the live comment preview is really nice, how did you do this?

wc, the convenience of Zipcar is being able to reserve online and pick up a specific car 24 hours a day. Given the business hours of the traditional rental car companies, and the fact that every rental company requires some degree of human interaction and form filling out, and of course car insurance costs extra—and gas is on you, given all this, Zipcar is still very compelling to me.

Anyway, the theme I designed (thanks), Live Comment Preview is a plugin.


Who cleans the cars? I keep hearing people getting into zip cars that are filthy on the inside? Typical rental companies clean and shine the cars before giving them out.

Zipcar has a fleet management service that cleans the cars on a regular basis. I’m not sure how often, probably weekly or perhaps based one how much the car is being used.

However, part of the Zipcar carsharing agreement is that you leave the car in the shape you got it in—otherwise you risk losing your membership.

I would say that in my experience (of using Zipcar 2-3 times a month) 1 in 10 cars has been less clean that I would have liked, but never “filthy”.


Zipcar only gives you a fixed amount of miles (180/day, I think). If you’re planning on, say, making an overnight trip to Atlantic City from Washington DC, zipcar doesn’t really help out.

Since Atlantic City and Washington DC are exactly 180 miles apart, I’d recommend just renting the car for 2 days. Alternatively pay the 40¢/mile charge, which usually works out to close to 1 day’s rental.


Where in a world did you find a zip car for that much money? On Mazda 3 you are looking at $119 bucks per 24 hours (thats a monthly lease on Altima), don’t forget that weekends cost $3 more. Your calculations are way off hand. I have been a customer of Zipcar for a year now, and I can tell you that it’s not cheap at all. For a week you can get a decent car from rental company for $300 bucks and that is 7 days. To be honest I use Zipcar only when I really really in a tight spot with wheels. Bottom line if you use zip car on a daily basis, even for two hours at cheapest rate of 13 dollars per hour, you might as well lease a brand new Audi, BMW, Or Benz and I am not talking about low end models.

AVS, where are you located? I’m in San Francisco. I’m guessing it’s different in your city.

I’m on the EVP $50 plan, which means every month I’m charged $50 driving credit, whether or not I use it. I always use it. The benefit is that it cuts 10% of all their hourly rates.

For the cheapest car bracket, that’s about $9-10/hour, and you only pay for 8 hours out of every 24. Hence 1 day rental comes out to about $70 (it was $65 when I originally wrote this post 3 years ago.

Here’s a screenshot to prove I’m not lyin’ :)

Yeah, I could lease a car full time for the $200-250/month I spend on Zipcar, but then I’d also have to pay for gas, insurance, and some maintenance, on top of a lease. Oh and let’s not forget parking, which is $200-300/month. Me, I’m quite happy with Zipcar.


1) rental agencies at SFO are open 24/7, so you can get by with 2 days instead of 3.

2) you forgot the $50/month in your calculations.

3) If you already have insurance (you’ll need that for the motorcycle course, btw), the rental car is cheaper.

As for all the other things – reserving online, pickup/drop-off 24/7, no human interaction (gold club member) – all the car rental agencies offer that. Some of them will even pick you up (ZipCar does not).

I looked long and hard at ZipCar, and although the concept is cool, you have to make up a pretty convoluted example for ZipCar to be cheaper.

MikeR, the $50/month plan goes towards your rental. Since we always rented at least once a month it was always used. Otherwise the minimum no-monthly-fee plan only costs $50/year—maybe that’s what you meant.

Living in downtown SF, you’ve got to be kidding to suggest going to SFO to pick up and drop off a rental car—which incurs a 15 min walk to BART and 30 minute BART ride. So every time I need to use a car in the city for a few hours I have to go to SFO?

Insurance for my Vespa, which is much cheaper than normal car insurance, does not cover me in a car.

Remember there are many types of costs. It’s easy to think only in terms of the almighty dollar, but you also have to consider one’s time and convenience.

Anyway, no one is forcing you to use Zipcar.


Thanks for this comparison. I just became carless in Boston, and am going to need to rent 3-4 days per month. It sounds like the EVP would work for me too.


Great review on Zipcar. I live in Chicago and I have been living carless for a few months now. It’s made me realize just how much money goes into owning a vehicle, with car payments, insurance, permits, registration, parking tickets, & MORE!
Public trans here is great, but sometimes Ive needed a vehicle. Im thankful for your comments and justifications for Zipcar over regular rentals.

Comments are closed.