The Ride Guide to Zipcar

  • Brian Leon is a freelance automotive journalist and former Associate Editor of the New York Daily News Autos. He is currently a master student at Uppsala University in Sweden studying marketing and completing a thesis in the area of trust in autonomous vehicles.

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Before Uber and Lyft were a twinkle in their creators’ eyes, there was Zipcar. The original car-sharing service has been around since 2000 and has since expanded to over 500 cities around the world from Boston to Taiwan, with fleets in 41 states and D.C. Users can rent cars, trucks, and even cargo vans by the hour or day, and the company offers different plans for different needs, even for students at universities in some states.

But despite its far-reaching services, there’s a chance you’ve never used Zipcar, and are interested to see what car-sharing options are available near you, either to supplement your transportation needs or to replace a personal vehicle entirely. This guide aims to make it easier to join, use, and figure out the cost of Zipcar’s service to meet your needs, so let’s dive into it.

How do you join Zipcar and how much does it cost?

Woman loads trunk of Zipcar at airport
To join Zipcar, just sign up for the service, pay a monthly or yearly membership fee, wait for your Zipcard in the mail, and start reserving vehicles for an hourly rate. (Zipcar)

Unlike some mobility services, there’s a bit of a buffer period when joining Zipcar. First, head to their sign-in website to select your location and choose a payment plan. In the past, Zipcar offered tiered membership at different prices, but now it’s down to two options: monthly or yearly.

For those unsure if it’s right for them, the monthly plan is $7 every 30 days and gives you the option to cancel for any reason. Those who wish to make a longer commitment should go for the yearly plan, which is $70 up front and essentially includes two free months.

All new memberships also incur a $25 one-time activation fee, but if you receive a referral link from a friend who already uses Zipcar, you get a $25 credit towards your first ride, essentially eliminating the fee. In case you get cold feet and have already signed on the dotted line, however, Zipcar offers a 30-day money-back guarantee for whatever you paid.

Signing up is simple: just enter your email address, choose a password, type in your mobile phone number, and follow the steps to set up your account. Zipcar will ask for your driver’s license information, an address to ship your Zipcard (more on that later), and payment. On top of the $7 monthly or $70 annual fee, different Zipcars cost different amounts per hour, as low as $7.75 in some cities for economy cars and as high as $20-25 for luxury vehicles.

There are a few different Zipcar membership options for students, commuters, and even businesses. Students at many U.S. universities may have access to a Zipcar fleet on campus and can rent cars at merely 18 years of age, something most rental agencies don’t allow. So if you’re a student, check to see if the service is available at your university. The company also offers a service for businesses meant to replace a fleet of company cars, which could end up saving your company a bit of money.

More recently, Zipcar started a full-fledged service for commuters looking to replace a personal vehicle. Users in eligible cities get access to an exclusive vehicle from 5 a.m. Monday to 7 p.m. Friday, a dedicated parking spot in a city near their home, unlimited fuel, insurance, and weekly cleaning and maintenance of the vehicle on the weekends. The plan costs $199 a month and an additional $0.45 per mile, so if your commute is 20 miles round trip per day, you’d be paying around $379 per month, which may be less than your current total costs including car payment, insurance, and fuel.

How do you use Zipcar?

Person Unlocks Zipcar with Zipcard
To unlock or lock your reserved Zipcar, just use the card sent to you in the mail on the windshield-mounted card reader. The key, gas card, and anything else you may need will be in the vehicle. (Zipcar)

Once you receive your Zipcard in the mail, booking and using a Zipcar is simple. Download the mobile app or visit the Zipcar website, search for available vehicles near your location, select one to reserve it for a specific period of time, and show up to the parking lot or garage where it is located. Then, follow any specific instructions on the reservation to get in or out of the lot, and use your Zipcard on the windshield-mounted card reader to unlock the vehicle.

You can rent a Zipcar for as little as 30 minutes or as long as 7 days. There’s a limit of 180 miles per day, with an additional 45-cent charge for each mile you go over the limit. Most Zipcars nationwide are “round trip” vehicles, meaning you return them to the same parking spot you picked them up from, but some cities offer one-way rentals for a bit of an extra cost, which is helpful if you need to move some things to a new apartment or drive to the airport.

After unlocking the car with your Zipcard, use the vehicle’s key to operate the car, and always return the car with at least a quarter tank of gas. Fuel is covered, however, so make sure to use the gas card in the glove compartment rather than your own money to fill the car up.

Also, take special care to return the car on time, or try to extend your reservation if you need a bit longer. Zipcar charges a $50 late fee if the vehicle is returned after the reservation period, so make sure to account for traffic or other variances to avoid the charge.

The Bottom Line

People load a Zipcar with moving boxes
Whether you just need a vehicle occasionally or are looking for a more affordable alternative to urban car ownership, Zipcar offers more options than ever in many U.S. cities. (Zipcar)

Zipcar is an excellent option for super short-term rentals, as it can serve your transportation needs for a few hours in a relatively affordable fashion, and with less hassle than a traditional rental car. If you’re considering renting for multiple days, however, be aware that costs can run $80 per day at the lowest, so a traditional rental might be more cost-effective in that scenario.

With options for commuters, businesses, and students, however, there are more reasons than ever to look into joining Zipcar.

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About the Author

  • Brian Leon is a freelance automotive journalist and former Associate Editor of the New York Daily News Autos. He is currently a master student at Uppsala University in Sweden studying marketing and completing a thesis in the area of trust in autonomous vehicles.

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