At first I loved it -- two quick rentals for $50 saved me a lot of hauling music equipment around and were cheaper and more convenient than a cab ride. But then, the gotcha hit. And it is a big gotcha: $750 to be exact.
Zipcar's friendly site explains its "six simple rules" breezily, and they sound obvious. One of them is, walk around the car before your reservation and report any damage. So far so good. I picked up my car on a Thursday night, looked it over, and drove off. I returned it three hours later and went home happy.
But sometime after I dropped it off, the car was damaged, most likely by the parking garage attendants. And according to Zipcar and their terms of service, I was responsible for that damage even though I had not caused it. Their contract says very simply, "If Zipcar is not notified of a problem at the start of a reservation, you will be held responsible for unreported damage to the vehicle after your reservation, and Zipcar may charge you damage fees, suspend, or may even terminate your membership."
In other words, if the car is not damaged at the start of your reservation, and is damaged at the start of the next member's reservation, you are responsible. Period.
In my lengthy and largely one-sided exchanges with Zipcar (see details below; most of my emails and questions went unanswered), I kept asking the same question over and over: If I could prove that the car was not damaged when I dropped it off -- let's say I made sure to photograph the car at the end of my reservation -- am I still responsible for the damage?
They never clearly answered this question, but based on others' experiences as well as my own (Yelp review, New York Times article) the answer is yes. They will not only hold you responsible, they will charge you the $750 fee immediately, before any appeal, before the car is repaired, and before your insurance adjuster or lawyer can inspect the vehicle. And based on what happened to me, they will do it all with vague and breezy emails, and ignore your questions.
I don't know if this is a callous policy or a way of encouraging members to pay an extra $75 year for the damage waiver -- even those of us, like me, who are already covered by our auto insurance plans or credit cards -- but either way, it's outrageous. And they're being deliberately vague about it on their site and in conversations or emails with their customer service staff. So if you're interested in Zipcar or you know people who are, make sure they understand this. And make sure they use a real credit card on their account, not a debit card; they took $750 directly out of mary_wroth's bank account. If they'd charged a normal credit card, she could have put the amount in dispute rather than waiting for them to give the money back (which they did, four days after saying the damage wasn't my fault).
The following Wednesday -- yes, almost a week later -- I got an email from Zipcar:
We are contacting you about a damage report that we received after your reservation on May 6th in Mcclary. As you know, we depend on our members to be our extra set of eyes and since the damage was reported following your reservation, we hope that you can work with us to resolve this issue.
Please understand that we are not looking to assign blame, nor have we confirmed that there is indeed damage to the car.
Following up with members after a damage report is our standard practice. The next step will be thoroughly looking into the damages reported. We will update you within three business days with any news.
I wrote back immediately, on my phone, saying, "What are you talking about? There was no damage to the car. And I rented it a week ago. Why is this coming now?"
The next day a different rep wrote back:
Thank you for your response. According to the Zipcar Member Contract, any damage that is not reported by you at the start of your reservation is considered your responsibility. This is why we stress in our Six Simple Rules that you perform a pre-reservation walk-around and call 1-866-4ZIPCAR (1-866-494-7227) to report any existing damage.
It's certainly not our intention to charge you for damage that didn't happen during your reservation. To make this process as fair as possible, we will contact the member who reserved the vehicle before you. If that member confirms that the damage existed before your reservation, you will not be responsible for the damage fee. We will be in touch within the next five business days with an update.
There were attachments to this message that showed up as broken links on my phone; when I finally got to a computer to read it, the links took me to blurry and unlabeled photos of what looked like scratches on the front bumper of the car. I wrote back again, immediately, asking for more details.
I received no response from them until the following Monday, May 16:
Thank you for your message and apologies for the inconvenience. We confirmed that the damage to 3 Mcclary did not exist prior to the evening of your reservation on Friday, May 6 and you were contacted within three business days afterward (excluding the weekend). Because this damage was reported directly after your reservation, and was not reported by you on your pre-reservation walk-around, you are responsible for the damage fee.
The cost to repair the damage is $801.92, but you are only responsible for our standard damage fee of $750, which has been charged to your account. The rest of the cost is being taken care of by Zipcar.
This message again included a broken-link attachment that turned out to be a PDF of the damage estimate for the car. I again wrote back immediately, and again received no response. Meanwhile, Zipcar charged our account for the $750.00 and it was taken from Catherine's account immediately (yet another reminder to never ever ever use those debit cards that pretend to be credit cards).
On Thursday, May 19, having heard nothing, I called my insurance company to file a claim since they cover rental car damage. I then called Zipcar to give them the claim number and see if there was any followup to my email. They had nothing meaningful to say.
Later that same day I received another email from Zipcar:
Good news. As you know, we've been looking into damages to 3 Mcclary that were reported after your reservation. After a further review with management, you will not be held responsible.
No explanation of why. No information about when they'd refund the $750 (it took four days). Nothing.