Why I like my little Zipcar (London car clubs explained)

My annual £59 Zipcar membership fee hit my credit card last week, which made me realise that I have never mentioned it on here before.  And yet, in terms of travel ‘value’, it is one of the best deals around if it suits your circumstances.

Having a car is inconvenient in Central London.  Having off-street parking is rare, and even being able to park outside your own house is not something you should take for granted.  Even if your street is free of yellow lines, the chance of grabbing a spot is not great.  You then have all of the usual bills of car ownership.

For the last six years or so, we have been using Zipcar (nee Streetcar), which is now part of the Avis empire.  It is a huge business, with 860,000 members globally.  They are in Bristol, Cambridge, Maidstone and Oxford apart from London.

If you live in London and have never given Zipcar a try, it is worth logging on to their website and doing a search for cars in your area.  Frankly, for many people, you will be overrun by them.

Zipcar

There is a perception with car clubs that you will not be able to get a car when you want one.  I can honestly say that it has NEVER been an issue.  Within 0.75 miles of my house, there are 18 Zipcars.  Within 1 mile, there are 35.  Within 10 minutes walk there are at least 10.

The running joke, because these cars have permanent parking spots allocated on the street, is that our nearest Zipcar is actually nearer our house than we could realistically expect to find a parking spot for our own car if we got one!  Our 2-year old even thinks it is our car.

Booking a car is simple – you use their website or app and can search by time required or by specific car.  The price is usually £6.95 per hour for a Volkswagen Golf – they have a few Corsa’s at £5.95 as well as well as Transporter minivans for £10.  The cost is charged to your stored credit card when you book, although you can cancel for a refund up to 3 hours before pick up.

You get into the car using an Oyster-style and Oyster-sized card.  Hold it against a reader on the windscreen and the doors open.  The key is in a secure locking device in the glovebox.  The car should have at least a quarter tank of petrol – if it drops below 25%, you are asked to fill it up using the Fuelcard provided (you can get some Clubcard or Shell Drivers Club points for yourself at the same time!).

What are the downsides?

Well, for a start, you obviously cannot permanently install car seats if you have kids.  We need to install them and remove them each time.

There is a cap on the mileage you can drive for free, which is 60 miles per rental.  This means that they are not practical for, say, a day trip to Brighton – although the daily rate of £64 means that they are also uneconomical.  The scheme is not designed for that sort of trip.  We use ours primarily for trips to Ikea and friends in the home counties.

If you are late returning the car (and with London traffic, that can happen), you are fined £50 if someone else has booked it.  This is shared with the affected driver.  Zipcar has a good system, though – you get a text about an hour before the car is due back with the time of the next booked user in it.  If the car is not needed immediately, you can extend your rental by simply replying to the text and including the number of extra minutes you want.  Very, very straightforward.  The car is usually available because people rarely book a car immediately after another user, just in case the car is returned late.

(Here is a little Zipcar tip.  The rules state that you can actually access the car 15 minutes early, for no extra charge.  As long as no one has booked the car immediately before you, you can therefore get 15 minutes added on for free.)

I also once had a Zipcar develop a flat tyre on us.  They are fine about it, though, and were happy to send a pick-up truck to the middle of Surrey to pick it up whilst we took a train back home.  It was dealt with very efficiently.

Joining up

The standard Zipcar membership is £59.50 per year, although they also offer a £6 per month plan for anyone who may only want to join for a short period.

A quick Google search brought up a number of deals.  Voucherbox UK has a promotion for £20 of driving credit when you join.  It also had two deals for Zipcar’s smaller rival City Car Club – either 50% off the joining fee or 100 miles of free driving credit.  (Voucherbox also has a couple of Tesco grocery codes if you have never had a Tesco grocery order before.)

Alternatively, TopCashback has a £20 cashback deal – although you might as well take the £20 driving credit instead via voucherbox as you won’t be taking any risk of cashback not posting.  TCB has a similar deal for City Car Club.

All in all, we are happy with our little Zipcar, and it works well for us.  Including the membership fee, we probably spend around £400 per year with them – a fraction of what we would pay if we owned a car.  Obviously we also have additional taxi and rail costs as well due to not owning a car, but even then it is still a substantial saving, both in money and (in terms of maintenance etc) time.

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Comments

  1. Straightup says:

    Raffles, why didn’t you just change the tyre?

  2. Raffles, when you wrote about renting a Porsche at Frankfurt’s LH First Class Terminal last year, one of your readers summarised the assumption of many that “as a City type I thought you’d have a couple [of Porsches] in the garage anyway.” Weren’t we all wrong!!

    I have to admit that I am really impressed.

  3. Johnny5a says:

    Nice article, I have a zipcar account (for free + £25 credit thrown in) though I’ve only used it once, I mainly cycle around London.

    I like the concept and it’s a fantastic service.

    One thing you might add to the article is that they also have a smartphone app that allows you to unlock the car and (gimmick) you can sound the horn of any cars in the vicinity of you.

    • Can it do that?! I downloaded the app when I got my iPhone recently but haven’t actually used it yet.

      • yes! it’s good fun – though I think you can only honk the horn of the vehicle you’ve got a current reservation on. It’s not instantaneous – there’s enough of a delay to make you think it’s not worked, and then.. *beep beep*

  4. The other plus point is that they are not just available in the UK. There is pretty good coverage in some North American cities as well. They are even starting to have car pick up points at airports.

    Zip car will never be price competitive with more conventional rental companies – but if you are staying in a big city you can factor in the saving from not having to pay hotel parking charges, and the time saved by not having to find and then get to the downtown car rental place, having to queue up to sign car hire agreement etc etc.

    Downside in the UK is that the number of Zipcar locations outside of London has shrunk since the take over by Avis.

  5. squills says:

    http://parkers.car-costs.co.uk/

    This is a great site to calculate the true cost of motoring. (There are others, eg http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/cars/article-1633412/Calculator-True-cost-running-car.html .)

    Great if you can afford a new car every 3 years (even better if somebody else is paying) – but the main reason I drive an 18YO 4WD ain’t the fuel economy ;-)

  6. I remember that posting also-but were we all wrong Volker?

    I suspect that Zipcar is used for journeys with the kids and that the Porsche comes out for a spin with Mrs R whilst Nanny carries on with childcare duties :)

    • No no, Worzel, I do believe Raffles. And now I understand how he can easily afford a post-Christmas break at the Four Seasons in Hampshire and all these other spontaneous family trips… If he, like me, had to feed a very hungry silver cat on the bonnet of an Indian car, we would probably not be able to enjoy all those mouth-watering travel reports on HFP…

      There’s no Zipcar in the desert I live in, so I will stick with my cat for the foreseeable future :-D

  7. Does your membership let you use them abroad too?

    I’m Edinburgh there’s CityCarClub, which offers a similar setup – I think they’re in a few other UK cities.

  8. I had streetcar(zipcar bougth it) account few years ago
    and they had promotion if you rent a car for week or month you had 200 miles per day to use
    so I could drive to Berlin 4 times a month paying 600pounds for Polo or 1000 pounds for Thouran (30pounds extra for Insurance)

    what was all good time generally I spend more for petrol but hey refunded it always no question asked……

    but people start using streetcars to fill up 3-4 car’s for free and petrol prices went UP
    and I think streetcar lost all cash flow

  9. Waribai says:

    Being an original streetcar member from its outset, I actually get free zipcar membership. Haven’t used it for over 5 years though as around 2008 demand seemed to increase and supply didn’t catch up immediately so it was often difficult to find a car when you wanted it or to extend your time. It seems from your account though that availability is much better now.
    You are right about Central London parking though. We have to pay for a residents parking permit now. But very often can’t find a space to park.
    I have noticed though that in the Qpark under the Jumeirah Knightsbridge they have quite a few parking spots for local residents but I’m guessing they come at a hefty price!

  10. My experience wasn’t as good. Once you get outside of Zone 2 the cars end up drying up and become few and far between. I’d thought I get a membership anyway for emergencies. It was a special offer and came with some free credit.

    One big downside (which I think they haven’t got around to offering yet but others offer) is that you have to return the car to the same location. This misses out a good market segment: those who actually want to use the car for a commute or as an alternative to the tube.

    The real problem occurred for me when I picked up a driving fine in Central London (for doing an illegal left-turn). I explained to them that I was appealing this (and indeed, I won at the Traffic Appeals Service) but they kept on billing my account, once for the receiving a ticket, and every month for not paying the said fee.

  11. I’m a big Zipcar fan too.
    If you work for a big company, it’s worth seeing if they have a corporate deal – BBC staff get free membership and only have to pay the hourly rate, for example.

    Also, if you’ve found you’ve booked a little more time than you needed, then it can be worthwhile sticking the car through the nearest carwash: not only do they cover the cost, you’ll get some driving credit for it too.

    Your membership works worldwide too – I booked a Mini in Toronto to go to Niagara Falls. The price ended up being on a par with a day’s rental, but we had the convenience of not having to trek to the nearest rental depot.

  12. My problem was all ‘local’ cars were standard transmission. The automatics were two bus journeys away. Maybe I
    Need driving lessons to better use Zipcar?

    • Well if you want an auto with a coventional rental company youll need to pay more too, except outsdie Europe.

  13. I have a membership with City Car Club (I got 3 cars around my house – 5 mins walk) as i bought it 50% off with Amazon last year but hardly used it.
    I also have a very nice Zipcar Golf (with no logos on it!) very near my house (the nearest!) but I don’t think i could justify the membership cost at the moment. the sweet spot, I read, is that you can pay Zipcar by credit card…as far as I know I can pay City Car Club by direct debit only…which is not that nice!

    • You have a 1-week window to pay CCC by CC (they take Amex) if you phone up after they send you the monthly bill. But it’s not good value at all because of the 0 free miles. I joined because I paid £1 for my membership after quitting zipcar.

  14. I had streetcar accounts for me and Mrs after an offer from groupon that gave 1/2 price membership and £x free rental credit. I also found after awhile supply in my area didn’t meet demand (despite the office being up the road!), and found it rather inconvenient with kids and car seats, meaning a trip home was always required before and after a rental which resulted in booking an extra 1/2hr or hr per rental – and then their prices went up, so cancelled when my year was up. Rejoined Zipcar again Feb 13, but again didn’t pay full price, and now have no zipcars in my area, so when it came to cancelling on my anniversary, they offered me free membership to stay a member, called pay as you go (or, pay nothing annually). the restriction is that you cannot use the cars on weekends, but then I don’t need to anyway.

    Another perk to having zipcar (or any other car club membership) is that if you can prove your membership via booking email or statement, you can join citycarclub for £1 which I have taken advantage of.

    I do think they are a good idea, but it is certainly situation dependant as to whether they work for you or not. Ideally, you don’t have small children and do have a large number in your area – by Ldn zone 4 they dry up. And while great for the odd couple of hours, it’s far cheaper to hire a car by the day elsewhere if you need a car for more than 5 hours.

  15. zipcar offered to waive the membership fee by giving it back in driving credit when I quit

  16. Lot of similarities with me Raffles – never owned a car in the UK – and use a car club, guess you’re also London based!!

    However – I use City Car Club as more cars in my Camden locale. But – do note that I looked at both, and both seem to offer a free membership if you are a member of the other – so worth joining the other to maximise your available cars (and like Raffles, I never have a problem getting a car).

    Also – Raffles – why havn’t you posted a ‘recommendation link’? That way both you and anyone who joins gets £20 free driving (that’s the City Car amount – believe Zip Car is the same?).

    Just a good a benefit as you can get elsewhere. Would post my City Car Referral Link but that’s definitely not cricket ;)

    • Feel free to post your link!

      Did not post my Zipcar link because it would have made the post seem like an ad when it was really an opinion piece.

      • Fair enough, but it does benefit you all! I used my City Car Club over the weekend – 9 cars within a mile, on Easter Monday, only one of them wasn’t available all day. Does worry me a bit, suspect we may see Zipcar launching a bid for them one day soon – they seem to be better backed, but some London councils seem to favour City Car Club.

        City Car Club doesn’t do referal links, I have to enter your e-mail. So if anyone IS going to join, and wants £20 free credit (which you don’t get by joining normally, and I get £20 credit as well), then feel free to e-mail me at samdavidcollins [at] gmail.com and i’ll do the rest, ta :)

  17. Just a heads up that if you are a Barclays Premier account holder, you can get a year’s subscription for free, under Barclays Premier Rewards!

    • Coincidentally, I got an email from Barclays this morning saying that exact same thing!