When I turned 25 back in January, I joked with my friends that I received the last age-related benefit until I get social security: fee free car rentals.  As someone who finds driving the least convenient (or at least, productive or desirable) mode of transportation, car rental might seem like an unneeded perk.  But occasionally, the need for a car arrises – somewhere  transit doesn’t go, or the need to move to big to haul with a bike or carry on a bus.

Of course, there’s Carshare Vermont – an organization of which I am a loyal and emphatic supporter (and recently appointed board member).  I regularly use CSVT around town and prior to being 25, they were my go-to choice for longer trips, too.  But now that underage fees were a thing of the past, I was interested in doing a trial run – comparing the cost of renting a car versus Carshare.  It’s been occasionally suggested to me (almost exclusively by non-CSVT members) that car renting is significantly cheaper than borrowing a car via CSVT.  It was time to do the math myself.

The trip: An overnight trip from Burlington with a series of stops: Berlin, for work, Stowe and Waterbury to see my girlfriend and have dinner, and back to Burlington for the next day.  With all the driving, I logged 125 miles in a bit under 24 hours.

The car: I decided to keep my business local and rent from Majestic Car Rental, which has

My rental car

an office on Shelburne Rd in Burlington.  They were actually the only logical choice, as I needed to rent from a place that was convenient to my office and allowed me to easily get back to my house when I was done with the car.  Having to make a trip out to the airport would have been a deal breaker.  I reserved a compact car on Majestic’s site, for $33.99 for a day.  The total came to around $37 with tax.  I ended up with a Chevy Aveo (which Majestic lists on their site as a subcompact, but I wasn’t particularly picky).

The experience: The beauty of carsharing is two fold: a fleet of cars all over the city and a automated, easy way to reserve them on demand.  Such is not the case with car rental.  I arrived at Majestic’s Shelburne Rd location and found that there was only one employee on duty.  She was incredibly nice, but there were two customers already in line ahead of me and there was little she could do to expedite the process.  The couple in front of me was seemingly in no rush to hit the road, generally taking their time with everything and at one point causing a five minute delay when they didn’t know their own cell phone number and couldn’t figure out how to determine it (eventually, the Majestic clerk had them call the office landline and read the caller ID).  I stood in line for 35 minutes until I was helped.  The clerk was very apologetic, but it was a big difference from CSVT, where I swipe my fob and jump in.  Rental paperwork, credit card processing and a walk around inspection ate up at least another 10 minutes.

Once I was in the car, I was reminded of one other benefit of CSVT: I’m familiar with the cars.  I know a Toyota Prius inside and out and know how a Subaru Impreza handles in a snowstorm – I get in them and have the same familiarity I’d have with a car I owned.  With CSVT, you reserve a specific car.  With a car rental agency, you can specify a model preference, but ultimately you’re only reserving a particular class.  It took a few minutes to get comfortable with the layout and quirks of the Aveo.

My travel went well and I filled up the car the following afternoon before returning it to Majestic.  The return process was easy – it was under five minutes and then I jumped on a bus downtown.  It’s worth noting, though, that the office is not always open (for instance, they close at 3 PM on Saturdays).  After hours returns are permitted, but I would need to call and leave a message with the time I returned the car and was liable for the car until the following morning.

Cost: Here’s real meat of the discussion.  I’ve summarized the costs in the chart below:

Carshare VermontMajestic Car Rental
Total Cost$74.88$51.32
Car Cost (24 hours)$49.95 (Share a lot plan)$33.95 (compact)
Mileage Cost (125 Miles)$18.75 @ .15/mile$14.31 in gas
Insurance CostIncludedNone (from $12.95-$31.99 as an option)
VT 9% Rental Tax$6.18$3.06

Now, I’ll be honest, the above chart isn’t really an apples to apples comparison.  I rented Majestic’s cheapest car, not one that was compatible with CSVT’s vehicles.  But the major difference is insurance coverage.  CSVT includes very solid insurance coverage in the usage fees for the vehicle, whereas a rental company does not.  My credit card (an American Express) provides CDW (collision damage waiver) coverage and also appears to cover me if the car is stolen.  But it doesn’t cover my liability in the event of an accident (and remember, since I don’t own a car, I don’t have a car insurance policy I can fall back on).  Taking into account these differences, a fair comparison looks like this:

Carshare VermontMajestic Car Rental
Total Cost$74.88$75.51
Toyota Prius$49.95 (Share a lot plan)$43.95 (approx, no Priuses currently available, used full size price)
Mileage Cost (125 Miles)$18.75 @ .15/mile$8 (approx given Prius mileage)
Insurance CostIncluded$17.99 (liability only)
VT 9% Rental Tax$6.18$5.57

Here, Carshare and Majestic are neck and neck (I actually think a Prius costs $44.95 from my memory of Majestic’s site, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt since I couldn’t find a date when they weren’t listed as “sold out”).  For insurance, I used the fee for supplemental liability insurance.  It’s unclear whether I also need to add in a loss damage waiver of $31.99 to provide a truly equal comparison.   AmEx’s site states that their coverage means I can decline a CDW, but it doesn’t mention anything about an LDW, and specifically does not include liability insurance.   Also, not having the information available, I’m not sure of the quality of the insurance Majestic is providing.  I know Carshare’s policy has a $500 deductible and very good coverage, (though I can’t remember the specifics off the top of my head).

The takeaway: If you skimp on insurance and choose a cheap car, you can save money on renting for an overnight trip.  Is it worth it?  In my opinion, no way.  Even assuming I’m willing to go without liability insurance for lengthy trip, there’s a huge convenience factor.  Carshare has cars near where I live, where I work and where I spend most of my time.  A car rental company has a single fixed location, which may or may not be convenient for any given trip.  There’s no paperwork, and a quick walk around and fob in is all it takes to head out on the road.  Even for the ~$20 difference, I’d take Carshare any day.  It’s also worth noting that while Majestic is a local business, Carshare Vermont is a mission driven non-profit devoted to reducing providing alternatives to car ownership.

For a longer trip, the numbers may crunch a little bit differently, but the reality is that the only way you can really get ahead is by skimping on insurance, or bringing your own (but if you have car insurance, you probably have a car you can use for a lengthy trip).

I also didn’t include the $15 a month I pay for CSVT’s Share a lot plan.  But that’s a sunk cost for me – I’m going to pay it whether or not I take a car out for an overnight trip, since I depend on CSVT when I need a car around town.  If one is not on the Share a lot plan, the numbers would also look different (but Share-a-lot makes sense financially if you’re going to use a Carshare cost more than 5 hours a month in any scenario).

I do want to emphasize the dealing with Majestic was very pleasant and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them as my car rental of choice to anyone.  But I really came away from this experience realizing that renting a car for a day, or even a few days, doesn’t provide value relative to Carshare Vermont’s offerings for the non-car owner.

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