Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, al3x.net has served as his online home.

My Zipcar Horror Story

Two years ago I went “car free”, which is a nice way of saying that I was sick of paying through the nose for gas, insurance, and all the other expenses of car ownership. I still wanted to drive occasionally, so I applied for a membership to Zipcar, the premier car-sharing service. Zipcar didn’t like the couple of speeding tickets on my record, so I went with their competitor, Flexcar.

Flexcar was one of my favorite companies ever one of those things you end up evangelizing, like Apple or your favorite local record store. Flexcar was always professional, available, friendly, and reliable. The one time I had trouble getting a car, they bent over backwards to make sure I could have an equivalent car that day and credited me twice-over for lost time. I loved Flexcar so much that I’d pay to refill the tank of the car I had out on my own dime, even though they pay for gas.

Then, on Halloween 2007, when any proper horror story should start, Flexcar and Zipcar merged.

Post-Merger

I noted the merger with trepidation, and forgot about it. Weeks passed. Then, one day in December, I went to book a car and couldn’t. The merger had finalized, and Flexcar had been subsumed into Zipcar. I called Flexcar and a disappointed-sounding representative told me to talk to Zipcar from now on for anything and everything.

So I called up Zipcar and asked them what a lil’ ol’ Flexcar customer like me had to do to book a car, post-merger. I was told with bepuzzlement that I should’ve long since received and activated a “Zipcard”. I was told that one would be in the mail. I was about to be told a lot of things by Zipcar, and this was the first.

A few days passed, and no card showed up. Another call and an email to Zipcar suggested that my best bet was going to the local San Francisco office to pick one up. When I arrived, another frustrated Flexcar customer was trying to get her account set up. Apparently there were “technical problems” with the merger. Zipcar apparently had one small IT team on the East Coast working on the merger, and they were overwhelmed. I was told I’d be contacted and sent on my way.

Card In Hand

Once again, nothing for days. I went back to the San Francisco office. This time I was handed a card, but told that I may or may not be able to access it. It was unclear as to whether I’d be able to use Zipcar at all, as I’d been previously rejected. This despite being a model customer and motorist while with Flexcar for nearly two years. Once again, I was told I’d be contacted.

Even more days passed. Emails were sent and calls made by me in attempt to get my Zipcar account wording. Nothing but confusion. The holidays came and went and I’ll but given up on getting the thing working. Then, after the new year, I got a call from the local office saying I should be all set.

The Zipcar site, however, said otherwise. It said that someone else already had my card. Two calls couldn’t resolve this; I actually had a customer service representative muttering “shit” and “what the hell am I doing?” under her breath when trying to figure out my situation. I actually got an email back from someone for a change, but it was in response to someone else’s complaint.

So I went back to the San Francisco office for the third time, now more than a bit cross. I managed to get assigned a new Zipcard and actually signed on to their registration system while in the office.

When I got back to my desk, I had an email saying that my account had been tied to the first card, which I had left at the local office. Totally unwilling to trudge back, I requested that they just goddamn fix it to work with the new card, and amazingly, this got done. Success! I had a working card, I could sign into the registration system, everything was hunky-dory.

Until I looked at my bank account balance a few days later.

The Great Bank Heist

Once I finally got my account set up, Zipcar’s billing system decided that charging me $50 at least once, sometimes twice a day every day was a great idea. Not only had I been charged account setup fees that I didn’t owe as a Flexcar merger customer, but over $300 of these $50 charges had piled up against my credit card.

Unsurprisingly, days of calling an emailing yielding nothing more than empty promises that I’d be contacted by their billing department. So today, to finally end this tedious tale of consumer woe, I had my bank reverse the above charges and block all future charges from Zipcar. Then I got on the horn with Zipcar, and failing the availability of an actual human in the billing department, spoke with a manager who closed out my account and supposedly (fingers crossed) removed my credit card from their system.

Horrorshow over. I think. I hope.

In Summary

$340 in erronious charges. 27 emails. Three trips in person to the San Francisco Zipcar offices. At least a dozen phone calls. All in all, the definition of consumer hell.

This has been an impossibly boring blog entry, I know. But I can’t help but feel that it’s important to give stories like this one an audience, even if just for the sake of search engine posterity. Dealing with Zipcar has been one of the worst consumer experiences I’ve ever had. While I know plenty of folks who’ve used the service without issue, I hope that if they’ll keep a close watch on Zipcar from here on out.

It’s my intention to sign up with City Car Share. They have fewer cars in the Bay Area and no presence in other cities, but far lower rates and a good reputation. They don’t have cars on my block here in the SOMA neighborhood, but close enough.

I may find a new car sharing service, but I’ll always be missing Flexcar. Tears in heaven.

Update, January 18th: I had an automatically-generated email in my inbox this morning from Zipcar saying that they couldn’t charge me $35.00 for some reason, and could I please sign in and update my credit card? This after closed my account. Holy hell.

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Obligatory MacWorld Keynote Reaction, 2008 Edition