Test driving the Zipcar iPhone app

My brother got married last weekend in Los Angeles, which meant that I had to fly out Thursday night and back to New York City on Sunday. Rather than deal with getting off a long flight and renting a car from the airport — I didn’t think navigating an unfamiliar city at midnight when your body thinks it’s 3 a.m. was the best idea — I cabbed it to my hotel and retrieved a Zipcar the next morning.

I’d also been meaning to test out the Zipcar iPhone app, which lets you unlock your rental straight from the phone. This seemed like the perfect time to give it a whirl.

Here’s what I learned:

Make sure you still bring your Zipcar membership card. Once you activate the app, you need to unlock the car first with your membership card by waving it over the designated area on the windshield. Next, you have to enter your membership number into your phone. Don’t know your number? It’s on your membership card. Though these preliminary steps seem to defeat the purpose of ditching the membership card, your iPhone is now all set to start unlocking and locking your car.

Using the iPhone app to unlock the car isn’t always the most efficient. There were a few times when it took longer to unlock the car with the iPhone — as in, it was much faster for me to open my bag, dig out my wallet, and wave the key over the windshield. Once the novelty wore off, I ended up using the keycard about half the time and the iPhone app for the other half.

Zipcar isn’t necessarily the cheapest option, but it can be more convenient.
My two-day rental cost about $180, including gas and insurance. And unlike major car rental agencies where you reserve a certain vehicle class, Zipcar lets you call dibs on a specific make and model, so I knew exactly what I was getting. The last time I was in L.A., I used Zipcar to rent a Mini Cooper. Unfortunately no Minis were available on this trip, so I settled for the Toyota Prius.

Zipcar requires a $50 membership, which I auto-renew each year. Unfortunately, I’ve only used my membership once so far this year, so I haven’t yet maximized the value. If I factor in the membership cost, the two-day $180 rental increases to $230 — pricey. Tack in the $50 cab ride to and from the airport, and you’re looking at $330. But I’ve long believed that traveling on a budget isn’t always about finding the cheapest price — it’s also picking the smartest option to reduce your stress level. And since I was traveling to my brother’s wedding, I figured it was worth paying a little extra money to preserve my sanity.

The Bottom Line: Consider the Zipcar app as an alternative to your keycard, not a total replacement. I will say the app is good for at least one thing — making sure that I didn’t leave my cell phone in the car (or lose it).

[Photo by Amy Chen]