Wednesday, April 08, 2015

My first Zipcar Experience

Ok, so I've been putting off trying Zipcar for roughly 14 years. Back in the early 2000's, I lived in the greater Boston area and my roommate Andy did some of the early coding for them. I had my own car at the time, so it didn't really seem like something I'd use. Flash forward to 2015, and I'm back in the US for a week of training and I need wheels to get me to the stores not serviced by the Metro.
At first, I'd considered renting a car for the week. But in DC, the parking fees alone would run something like $200 just to sit around for the few hours I might be able to actually use it. I'd also have to go in to the Reagan airport to pick it up and return it, not really all that convenient. So, even though the area is serviced by quite a number of public transportation options, it would require several transfers and lots of waiting to get everything done. And I just don't have that kind of time.

Now, getting everything set up did require some administrative prep work, so in hindsight I probably should have signed up before I left the country. They will only mail the keycard to your billing address or you can pick it up from the office. Since I decided to sign up so close to my flight's departure date, there was no way I'd have the card in hand before I left Saudi Arabia. So, my only option was to ride the Metro into the DC office on my conference's lunch break to get the card. The Zipcar office reminded me of a computer lab at MIT crossed with the same dispatcher vibe I got from working at the Gentle Giant Moving Company. More importantly, now that I was in possession of the physical card, I could make reservations and unlock the cars.

One of the truisms about life in the Foreign Service is that every trip back to the US is a chance to stock up on the stuff that either doesn't exist at post or is ridiculously expensive on the local market. And we're talking a random assortment of things: Children's sunblock. White whole wheat flour. Barbeque sauce without corn syrup. Peanut butter. Lara bars. French press ground decaf coffee, make-up, etc.

A Foreign Service Easter Basket
(Glad I brought an empty duffle bag)
Anyways, back to the Zipcar story. We had identified several stores I needed to visit while I was back in the US, and three of them were around Bailey's Crossroads. So I went on Google and plotted my course to see how much driving time was required (~25min), then left myself about 30 minutes in each store. I reserved a VW Golf from Zipcar for two hours (7 to 9pm), knowing that I could check out the car 14 minutes before my reservation for no additional cost. Which is cool, since turning the car in late would cost me $50. I set my alarm for 8:30 so that I would know to stop whatever I was doing and take the car back to its spot.

I found the car pretty quickly and checked the time, 6:47 pm. So I was within the limit for early check out for my 7pm reservation. After swiping the card on the windshield to unlock the car, I adjusted the mirrors and was on my way. I actually reached my first destination (Dick's Sporting Goods) slightly before 7pm. I was here to find a rash guard shirt to wear in the pool so I don't end up getting all sunburned this summer, and I also found a pair of shoes to replace a pair that had worn out.


My next stop was Trader Joe's, where I hunted down various items for Kacey that are only available in the States and aren't shipped (glass jars, etc). My plan is to use the shoebox to pack the fragile stuff in by bag for a little more protection on the plane. I had everything I needed from the market by 7:45, so I was keeping my schedule pretty well, maybe even a little ahead of schedule.

I pulled into my third and final destination, Target, a few minutes later. They have ticket controlled parking, but the first 2 hours are free. I wandered the store collecting the last things on my list, and was getting checked out when my watch alarm went off. Perfect timing. I walked out to the car and drove around the parking lot trying to find the exit. When I got to the gate, my ticket wasn't scanning and the gate didn't open. So I couldn't go forward. Then a car pulled up behind me, and I was just barely able to back the car into a side street within the parking lot and go around to the back of the line.

By the time I got to the back of the line, it had grown to a length of about 8 cars. And none of them could get the gate open. I looked at my watch, and I could feel myself starting to stress about not making it back on time. That's probably my only complaint about the Zipcar fee structure, is that it monetizes anxiety. Because the last thing you want is for someone (ok, I'm referring to myself here) to get flustered and start curb-checking because they are trying to take the tightest line back to the return location and it seems rational to shave even a few fractions of a second off even if said person is simultaneously stuck behind the slowest driver on the road. One plus of having rented the same model car I was used to driving is that I knew how to handle it. Even so, the automatic gas version of the VW Golf is not nearly as much fun to drive as the manual TDI version.


And this story has a happy ending, as I did manage to get back to the return location in time. Maybe even a little faster than I expected, since I don't drive in the area and have no real basis for estimating the actual travel time required when there may or may not be increased traffic.

Now, if you remember, I'm living over in Saudi Arabia and Zipcar hasn't really made any in-roads into the Kingdom yet. So I contacted Zipcar about putting my account into a plan that didn't require me to pay a monthly fee while I'm overseas. It's called the "Access Rate Plan". While on this plan, my account will stay open but there is no monthly or annual membership fee. On this plan you cannot reserve luxury zipcars or reserve on weekends but while out of the country this will keep my account open. And if I want full access, all I have to do is send them an email to reactivate it.

So, yeah, I have to admit that I finally see the utility of having a Zipcar membership (even if it took me 14 years).

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