Should NYU Students Join Zipcar?

When you turn twenty-one, retiring your fake ID isn’t the only privilege you gain. It’s also the age when you can join Zipcar, the car-sharing program recently acquired by Avis for $500 million. They have hundreds of cars to rent in NYC, with almost 70 available between Houston and 14th Streets alone. And while public transit is great, sometimes you need to hit the open road. All of which led us to ask: Is joining Zipcar worth it?

Let’s take a look at the financials. The company charges a one-time application fee of $25, plus a $60 per year membership fee. So from the get-go, you’re in the hole $85 and you haven’t driven a mile. Rental prices, though, are super cheap: $9 / hour for a sedan according to their website. But that doesn’t account for the 18.875% in taxes, which end up pushing the cost closer to $11 / hour.

That you can rent Zipcars by the hour makes the program great for shorter trips, like IKEA shopping sprees, lugging your band’s gear to a gig or a day at Six Flags. Traditional rental companies make you pay for a whole day, usually at least $75. Paying only $30 to drive your IKEA haul home yourself rather than paying delivery fees can save you both cash and time waiting for delivery men. Short-term rentals are also convenient for making trips where public transit doesn’t reach or has an erratic schedule — like hiking up the Hudson, or heading to the Jersey Shore.

How about longer trips? While it’s smooth sailing with Zipcars in the city, things get trickier when you venture too far out. Gas is free — they give you a gas card to use in case the tank runs out — but mileage is costly. You receive 180 free miles per day, after which each mile costs $0.45. 45 cents may not sound like a lot, but if you’re doing 60 mph on the highway, that’s almost $30 for every extra hour of driving. So while your initial reservation may be cheap, if you go further than the 90-mile radius around NYC (180 miles there and back) — think two hours of driving, or as far as Philadelphia — those fees can add up fast.

Zipcar also has astronomical late fees, which begin at $50 and increase by $50 for every hour the car is late, up to three hours (One woman even sued the company in Boston for the excessive fees). Combined with the extra mileage costs, this makes Zipcar a pretty poor choice for a long trip. If, for example, you travel a little further than expected or get a little lost coming back and are 30 minutes late, you may find your bill to be double what they’d initially said.

So is joining Zipcar worth it? If you dream of overnight jaunts to the Berkshires or road trips up to Montreal, Zip Car’s probably not your best bet. Traditional rental companies like Avis or Hertz are probably the better way to go (Hertz also runs an hourly car rental service similar to Zipcar, so joining their member’s program can be the best of both worlds). If, however, you only need an occasional set of wheels to pick up a new futon, spend a day at the Jersey Shore or just want to drive around and don’t mind shelling out $60 / year, Zipcar is the way to go.

Have any memorable experiences renting a car in the city? Share them in the comments below!

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