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Zipcar sharing isn't feasible for everyone

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 5:10 p.m.

NEW YORK — The ability to access a car quickly and give it back after a few hours is exploding in popularity among both college students and city dwellers.

Zipcar came up with the car-sharing concept in 2000. By the end of the decade car-sharing had caught the attention of the two largest car rental companies as Enterprise and Hertz started competing services. And this week, Avis, the nation's No. 3 car rental company, jumped into by offering nearly $500 million to buy Zipcar.

While car-sharing is a popular alternative for those who rely on public transit or live on walking-friendly college campuses, it's not feasible in less-populated areas. Traditional car rental companies still dominate at airports, catering to travelers that need a car while they're on business or visiting family away from home.

Here's a look at how Zipcar works, for whom it works best and what it can cost.

How it works

Zipcar says it caters to a younger, more tech-savvy customer who wants a simplified car-borrowing experience. Car-sharing is far quicker than a traditional rental, where you'll go to a counter and stand in line to wait for a car. And Zipcar has a fleet of small trucks that are also useful for local moves.

With Zipcar and its car-sharing brethren, customers leave a car in a city parking lot, garage or in an assigned parking space on a college campus. “Zipsters,” as Zipcar calls its customers, then find the car with the name tag that matches their reservation. Viewing the make and model on the company's smartphone app allows for easier spotting.

The car is locked and unlocked with a membership “Zipcard.” The keys are stashed under the dash.

Zipcars aren't often checked for cleanliness or gas in between renters (they ask that you keep a quarter-tank at all times.) That can be a downside compared with standard car rentals.

Zipcar customers fuel up using a gas card that's stored in each car. With a traditional rental, customers fill up as if it's their own car and are expected to return the car full or face a hefty per-gallon charge.

Car-sharers can extend their rental on the mobile app or by signing up for text alerts, as long as another member hasn't reserved the car already.

To return the car, bring it back to a marked parking space and swipe the Zipcard on the windshield. That stops your rental clock and tells the company that you returned the car on time.

What it costs

To join Zipcar, members pay a $25 application fee and $50 a year. Rates run from $7.50 an hour and include gas, insurance and any mileage racked up beyond 180 miles a day. By comparison, Hertz on Demand Standard car rental prices vary widely but generally range between $50 and $100 per day in big cities.

Pros and cons

• You're generally not charged for mileage if you're renting from Hertz or Avis. “Zipsters” have to pay for any trip longer than 180 miles. For a long weekend trip, a Zipcar might not be your best bet, especially if you're driving a great distance.

• You only have to be 21 to rent a Zipcar, or 18 if you're renting it from a university campus and have a clean driving record. Most renters have to be 25 to rent through a traditional rental car company. Sometimes, younger drivers can rent for an extra per-day fee.

• Once you go beyond 24 hours, car-sharing is generally more expensive than a standard rental.

• Zipcar is far larger than competitors Hertz and Enterprise, but you can link your rewards memberships through those companies and earn points for future rentals.

Where to find it

The car-sharing model makes the most sense in high-populated areas, which explains its popularity in major cities or on college campuses. But the number of Zipcar locations will grow once the Avis deal is complete. Zipcar now has more than 760,000 members, triple what it had in 2008. It has 10,000 vehicles across locations in the U.S., U.K., Spain and Austria.

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