Money To Live

September 24, 2009

Renting a ZipCar

Filed under: Uncategorized — by moneytolive @ 6:56 pm

For various reasons that I did not anticipate, I ended up in Seattle without my car. It is here now, thanks to my generous parents who drove it all the way from Texas.

Before I had my car though, I needed to get around Seattle to

  • look at apartments
  • go to job interviews
  • transport my stuff between friends’ apartments

Seattle has wonderful public transportation, but it is still sometimes easier to have a car. That’s where ZipCar comes in.

ZipCar is a private company that buys/rents parking spaces around big cities and parks cars there. The cars are wirelessly connected to a computer system that tracks their locations and decides when to lock and unlock the doors.

If I want to rent a ZipCar, this is what happens:

  1. I make a reservation online.
  2. I go to the car’s location and tap my “Zip Card” on the dashboard. The doors unlock.
  3. I hop in and drive away.

For occasional driving, ZipCar is an affordable option.

The fee for not returning a car is pretty stiff: $50 for being even a few minutes late. Obviously, for the system to work, people need to be able to count on a car being available when it is reserved. In a large city, though, traffic can be slow and sometimes unpredictable. I would hate to be late because I underestimated how long traffic would take.

This relatively large penalty creates the dilemma of whether or not to reserve the car for extra time. Initially, my impulse was to just add on an extra hour to each reservation (at an additional cost of $9-10 per reservation). But, that is equivalent to using ZipCar 5 times and being late exactly once. When in reality, maybe I wouldn’t have been late at all.

With my last two rentals, I added an extra hour to each, and each time, I returned the car 1.5 hours early – so I wasted almost $30.

On the other hand, while apartment hunting, I extended my rental by an hour in order to fill out a rental application. It is very easy to extend a reservation with a cell phone, as long as no one else has the car reserved already. If I had not been able to extend the reservation, I would have had to return the car, and then return to the apartment later that day or the following day – possibly missing my spot in line for the apartment.

A rational analysis of my past ZipCar rentals would say that it is better to just reserve the car for the expected time and to occasionally deal with late penalties. Despite having a Ph. D. in Applied math, I readily admit I sometimes do not make rational decisions.

Would you reserve the extra time with a ZipCar? Are there other situations where you’ve faced a similar decision?

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