Can't find a rental car? What it's like to rent from a car-sharing service
Sky-high rental rates are rewriting the rules on how we get our cars — like the reports of vacationers driving U-Hauls in Hawaii — or whether we rent at all.
(Tribune News Service) -- Inside the black Acura, I caught a distinct whiff of marijuana, not quite obscured by cleaning products. I thought this was interesting, because the car-sharing app I was using charges a $300 fee for smoking.
"Pot smell in car," I reported in the app, "and no it wasn't me."
As you've probably heard, it's the summer of the carpocalypse. Rental cars are in short supply, because of the pandemic, while also being in high demand, also because of the waning pandemic. Sky-high rental rates are rewriting the rules on how we get our cars — like the reports of vacationers driving U-Hauls in Hawaii — or whether we rent at all.
Earlier this summer, I flew to Chicago to attend a wedding in South Bend, Indiana. Our plan was to spend Friday and Sunday nights in the Windy City, staying with friends, and rent a car Saturday and Sunday to get to Indiana. When I searched 47 days in advance, the going rate for a midsize sedan was a whopping $225 for two days. I initially made a reservation at a Hertz neighborhood location, which would be a long Uber or transit ride from where I was staying near Wrigley Field.
Fortunately, Chicago is a hot spot for peer-to-peer car-sharing services like Turo, which basically applies the Airbnb home-sharing model to cars in more than 5,500 cities. I decided to experiment with car-sharing for this story, but I kept my Hertz reservation in case anything went wrong.
Three weeks in advance, I found cars for rent all over the North Side of Chicago on Turo's website. There's everything from econoboxes to luxury cars, and a ton of Teslas that start at around $150 a day — because, if you bought a Tesla, you might want help paying for it.
I settled on a seemingly good match — a 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee about a 15-minute walk from where I was staying. It had modern features and a perfect five-star rating for the host, "Jordan." It would cost $198 for two days, with 400 miles included. I reserved the Jeep, and was prompted by Turo to write a personal note about my plans. "Sounds great! Thanks for reaching out!" Jordan replied.
Four days before the wedding, Jordan canceled my reservation, explaining that the Jeep was damaged in a recent storm and needed repairs. At least conventional rental companies generally won't leave you high and dry. I notice that the Jeep is now going for $125 a day on Turo, plus fees.
By now, last-minute rentals in Chicago were in the $300s and up. I scanned Turo and found a sporty 2015 Honda Civic Si with a stick shift for $189 — and it was parked right on the block where I was staying. But wait: The listing had zero reviews, the only photo was a generic shot of the model in a showroom, and the owner, "Chase," wrote things like "You can really feel the torque!"
Get outta here. I needed to get to a wedding in a car I could count on.
So I looked at Getaround, which is a lesser-known version of Turo in 27 cities. Semi-affordable cars popped up all over Chicago. I landed on a black 2013 Acura ILX, which was a 12-minute walk from my crash pad and cost $196 for 38 ½ hours. It had a 4 ½-star rating (a somewhat middling score in the sharing economy) and 127 reviews, though I couldn't actually click on the reviews and read them. Getaround didn't have me write a personal note to the owner.
At 8:30 a.m. on the wedding day, I walked to the Wrigleyville parking lot where the Acura was waiting. Guided by the Getaround app, I did a walk-around photo inspection of the sedan, which had the typical minor scuffs of an eight-year-old car with 80,000 miles. There was tape where a rear spoiler had been removed.
Then the app magically unlocked the car, and I obtained the hidden key. Getaround's process felt like a well-oiled machine — as long as the Acura was, as well. Once inside, I reported the weed smell in the app.
If you take away one thing from this story, it's don't try to drive to a 1 p.m. wedding in South Bend from Chicago. Two Saturday-morning accidents plus toll slowdowns had us striding into the church moments before "Here Comes the Bride."
The Acura was fun to drive, though it scraped the road on bumps and vibrated above 70 mph, suggesting an alignment issue. On Sunday we checked out of the Irish-themed Innisfree B&B in South Bend, toured the Notre Dame campus and enjoyed the Lake Michigan waves at Indiana Dunes National Park. At 10:30 p.m. I refilled the gas tank, vacuumed out any sand and returned the car to its lot.
Getaround immediately hit me with a $14.20 charge for three tolls that I had already paid. Getaround had stated that tolls would be billed automatically along with a $2.50 fee per toll. In reality, the Indiana Toll Road wouldn't let me pass without paying. Via the app and Twitter, I contacted Getaround's "Happiness Team" — what their customer service department is called — and the company refused to refund me. And that, folks, is the story of how I deleted the Getaround app from my phone.
My biggest issue with car-sharing is insurance. My personal auto policy covers me, but the basic, free level of coverage offered on Getaround included an onerous $3,000 fee for a damage incident. Many credit cards offer rental-car collision insurance, but double-check if your card covers car-sharing. My Chase Sapphire Reserve, which has saved my bacon in the past, won't cover Turo or Getaround.
Ultimately, it all depends upon your personal appetite for risk. You can find more, uh, interesting cars at lower rates, but the potential for something to go wrong is greater. My Chicago-South Bend trip went well overall, but amid a carpocalypse, I probably should have just driven my own car.
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