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Comparing the cost of car-share programs

Car-sharing is a convenient way for occasional drivers to save money. Some programs are national and some local. Here's the scoop.

By Cheapism.com Apr 11, 2014 12:10PM
This post comes from Louis DeNicola at partner site Cheapism.com.

Cheapism.com on MSN MoneyCar-share programs offer the convenience of hopping into a car or truck, for a few hours or a few days, without owning whatever you're driving. Plus, you avoid the insurance and maintenance costs associated with ownership and you don't even pay for fuel.

A woman demonstrates a Zipcar in New York City
© Spencer Platt/Getty Images
But these are not carefree deals -- there is plenty of fine print. Here's what you need to know.

The benefits
For all their differences, car-share programs have much in common. Fleets of vehicles are parked in designated spots around a city or near a college campus. You reserve a vehicle online or with a mobile app and use a card or fob (handed over when you join the program) to unlock it; keys are stashed inside. You drive off for a designated amount of time and return the vehicle to the same spot. (One-way options are limited to a few programs.)

Before getting near the driver's seat, you must first sign up for a membership plan and pay an application fee. There are usually several plans on offer, some with annual fees and some without, that differ in cost and in benefits. For example, Zipcar has a pay-as-you go plan with an annual fee or an upfront monthly retainer in return for a discount on hourly rentals. Similarly, City CarShare, a Bay Area (California) program, offers three membership options with varying monthly fees and borrowing rates.

The big advantage with all car-share programs is the potential for savings. Because you don't own the vehicle you don't pay for repairs or tune-ups or even think about time-consuming tasks like keeping it clean. Fuel and insurance costs are included in the membership and you're generally allowed 150-200 miles a day. Be prepared to pay a $500-$750 deductible if you're in an accident, however.

Which car-share program is best?
There are three national car-share programs, all affiliated with major rental companies, that maintain a stable of cars, trucks, SUVs, and vans. Many smaller car-share programs are also popping up. Car2Go currently operates in 10 cities and has carved out a niche with a per-minute charge instead of per hour or day, and for its fleet of gasoline- and electric-powered Smart cars that can squeeze into small parking spaces. Although the per-minute rate ends up being much more expensive than an hourly rate, Car2Go members don't need to return the vehicle to its original parking space, which makes it an ideal program for quick one-way trips.

Our analysis of one local and three major programs indicates that Hertz and Enterprise are the least costly. Hertz 24/7 doesn't charge a membership fee and allows one-way rentals at select locations. However, our search for available vehicles found the hourly price was somewhat higher than that charged by the competition and there is no daily rate on on some vehicles at some locations. Enterprise CarShare stands out with its low deductible and low hourly rates; the high end daily rate applies to the luxury cars. Similarly, the priciest Zipcar rental is associated with trucks or cargo vans. City-specific programs, such as the City CarShare, may offer more flexibility and better service than a national option.

Watch out for penalties
Regardless which program you choose, read and follow the rules -- scofflaws will be fined. You may be required to leave the gas tank at least one-quarter full upon return, for example, and if the next driver finds less, you'll pay up. (There's no excuse, really, as membership privileges include a payment card for fuel.) Extra fees are commonly charged for late returns, as well, but they sometimes can be avoided by extending your borrowing time while you still have the vehicle. Actions that inconvenience other members, such as leaving the lights on when returning the car, losing the keys, or forgetting to plug in an electric vehicle, also incur penalties.

Fees mount quickly and can hit the triple-digit range, so treat car-share rentals with care. Don't smoke or bring along pets unless crated; call in noticeable damage before starting out; and immediately report any problems. 

Case study: Moving day in Austin
We priced out a real-life scenario that involved renting a pickup truck to assist in moving. We figured it would be an all-day affair, with lots of back and forth, and chose Austin, Texas as the location. We ignored membership fees associated with the car-share programs to keep the playing field level among all the companies in our sample, including traditional rental agencies. The results:
  • Zipcar: $77
  • Enterprise CarShare, Hertz 24/7, Car2Go: No trucks available
  • U-Haul: $20.95 plus 59 cents/mile, fuel, and taxes
  • Longhorn Truck Rentals (a local option): $61.32 plus 25 cents/mile and fuel
  • Enterprise Rental: $90 plus fuel
The winner of our truck-rental match-up was U-Haul, which posts a low daily rate but charges for each mile. Even though you must fill the tank out of pocket with U-Haul, you would have to drive 75 miles to pull up even with the next cheapest option -- that would be Zipcar -- and it's unlikely that an in-town move would require that much driving. We were surprised to find that car-sharing programs can't be counted on for in-town moves because some don't offer pickup trucks in every location.

    National Car-Share Programs
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