Thursday, June 18, 2009

Zipcar... A Great Idea But...

A couple of years ago, I needed to rent cars with some regularity. I crunched the numbers. Auto insurance and maintenance made owning a car economically unfeasible. Then a friend told me about Zipcar.

Zipcar bills itself as a way for urban dwellers to pool usage of cars to the advantage of all. It is essentially a group that one joins. Upon acceptance, you get a card with a microchip. When I joined, if I needed a car, I could rent it by the hour. I logged on to the Zip Car web site and looked for cars that were available in the slot I needed them. There were times I needed three or four hours. Other times I needed a car for a day or two. Instead of going to a car rental place, Zipcar gave me directions to one of the many parking garages it rents space from in the city. I would go to the garage with the identifying data for my car. The attendant would bring me the car, and I would put my Zipcar card over the reader on the windshield. At that point, my rental would start. without the Zipcar card, my car would be inoperable. If another Zipcar customer came who did not have a card for that car, it would not work. I effectively paid in advance by having a pay in advance membership plan. The more expensive plans cost less per hour. The less expensive plans cost more.

It was a radical concept. Most of the time it worked. When it didn't customer service ironed things out. I used Zip Car a lot for a while. They had a 25 dollar per half hour late fee, so I was real careful. Additionally, I didn't want to inconvenience anyone who might have the car booked after me. The rules they had about cigarettes and pets in the car were no problem to me. I don't smoke, and unfortunately do not have a dog.

With such a rosy picture, why am I no longer a Zipcar customer?

My first difficulty with them was at the end of a summer rental. I cleared out the car and dropped it off at the local garage. Unfortunately I dropped my cell phone in the car. Within an hour of my dropping off the car, my cell phone account started getting calls placed to the Dominican Republic. There were lots of calls. I had to deactivate the phone. I did detective work that pointed to the garage. I complained to Zipcar. Suddenly the friendly mellow green power people in their corporate headquarters were all business. There was nothing they could do. They would not complain on my behalf. They were rude. They were unsympathetic. I still stuck with them. They did after all have the fine print on their side.

The second little whammy with Zipcar was when I returned the car with a small scrape on the bumper, which I reported to them. They told me that they would get an estimate and that their insurance had a $500.00 deductible. No I could not buy bumper to bumper insurance with better coverage. They didn't offer that. I waited about six weeks, hoping that they would have an in house specialist do a job that would not max out my deductible. About six weeks later, they came up with a bill for the small scrape that was a few dollars shy of $500.00. Again I had no complaint. The fine print was on their side. And I had signed off on it.

I asked the Zipcar man at corporate headquarters if I could stretch out the payment out over four months, since I was already paying them $250.00 a month for a steep discount plan. The man told me that the entire sum was due immediately, that they had no payment plans for such occurrences. I asked him what would happen if I tried paying in installments. He told me my account would be closed and the debt would go into collection. I said "Fine. That is how we will do it."

As promised, my debt went into collection. I paid it out on my schedule, not Zipcar's. It took a good while, but I paid it off. When I made the last payment, I told the collection agent as follows.

"Zipcar had a legitimate claim on me. But they were so harsh and inflexible in dealing with me that I had no choice to let things go into collection. You have been civil and decent. I hope you are getting a good percentage of the debt. Because I feel better about paying you than I do paying Zipcar."

I think Zipcar has a great concept. I hope someone else runs with it. Until then, I rent cars when I must from people with manners who work for a companies that care about the customer. I have gone to Enterprise and other car rental companies. Compared to Zipcar they were a breath of fresh air. I don't believe that Zipcar will be giving them any sleepless nights. What's the score? Enterprise 10. Zipcar? Zip.

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