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Zipvan Chicago review: Zipcar cargo vans are great, but add a time buffer

Your mission

Move a massive solid maple Room & Board desk from your apartment in downtown Chicago to a storage facility in the burbs.

The challenge

You have no SUV and no friends with SUVs. You don’t want to rent a van from a traditional rental place because 1) they’re expensive 2) you don’t need it for the entire day 3) you don’t want to have to take the train out to O’Hare to pick it up 4) you’ve had issues in the past with truck rental reliability 5) standing in line at rental places is a time suck 6) their online booking experiences are circa 1996.

The solution

Zipcar. There’s a service in Chicago and other major cities called Zipcar (I know, you’ve already heard of it) that allows you to rent cars by the hour inexpensively. It’s a really interesting system: you get a membership to Zipcar, place a reservation online, walk down to the parking lot where the car is (there are Zipcar lots all over Chicago), use your Zipcar card to magnetically unlock the car, and you get in and drive away and return the car at the end of your reservation.

You don’t have to pay for gas or insurance, just a yearly membership fee of $60, a $25 application fee, and the hourly rate of the vehicle.

Zipcar recently added cargo vans to the fleet — and there’s typically one Zipvan per lot.

The execution

Signing up for Zipcar took only about 5 minutes online. They do a driving record check, and since I have a clean record (except for that time I clipped that 70-year-old woman crossing the street with my Beetle in the West Loop and just kept driving KIDDING, HA) I was approved immediately.

You can either have your Zipcard mailed to you, or you can pick it up at a Zipcar office location by presenting your driver’s license and credit card. I opted to pick up the card since there was a Zipcar office close to my office downtown. If you go the mail route, make sure you get your membership set up at least a couple weeks before you need your first reservation.

Reserving online was intuitive and easy. The van was priced at $17.75 per hour, and I booked a 4-hour window so we’d have plenty of time to get out to the burbs and back (you have to return the van to the same location from which you picked it up) and not be late. Zipcar charges $50 per hour if you go over your reservation time.

Yesterday (a Saturday) I had a reservation from 10am – 2pm.

My husband Jason and I walked down to the Zipcar lot, which was only a couple blocks from our apartment.

There was no cargo van there.

I get an indication on my iPhone that there’s a voicemail. I listen to it: it’s a Zipcar agent informing me that the party who rented the van before us is stuck in traffic and will be 30 – 45 minutes late.

OK, NBD I think, but I’m a little pissed. We walk back to the apartment, and I call Zipcar to figure out what that means for us. Do we get the van an extra hour? Do I get a refund for the hour they’re used up, etc.

I’m on hold for 5 minutes, and when I talk to an agent, it turns out that someone has booked the van directly after us, so we can’t just push our reservation back an hour. We have to shorten our reservation window to 3 hours, and we get a refund for that lost hour.

So I rebook the reservation for 11am. We walk down to the lot at 11am.

No van, still. We stand there waiting for 20 minutes. It’s starting to rain. No van.

I’m starting to get snippy, and Jason is starting to have regrets about marrying to me. Good thing there’s not an app for instant divorces (or is there? probably so).

Trying to fight back turning into She-Hulk, I can’t believe these jerks ahead of us are so bad at planning they’re almost two hours late. SHE-HULK IS AN EXCELLENT PLANNER AND THIS MUST BE RESPECTED.

They get charged for being late — $50 per hour — but it’s really throwing our plans out the window. And it’s funny: I thought about booking the van in the earlier slot in case something like this would happen, but I wanted to have a leisurely Saturday morning and not have to be out the door at 7am.

But, there’s a homeless guy sitting a few yards from us. Keep this shit in perspective, yuppie. This is not critical. No lives are lost.

So I call Zipcar again, tell the agent what’s going on, and she says that the next time available for the van is from 6pm onwards and they would give us driving credit for the inconvenience, so the van would be free pretty much be free, except for the membership fee and application fee.

So, this is what happens: we pick up the van at 7pm; move the desk; return van. End of story. In total it would have cost us $136.50 for 3 hours, including membership & application. We ended up being charged $84.98 after the inconvenience fees refunded $53.23.

Zipvan pros:

  • Clean, new, well-maintained Ford cargo van in your neighborhood that you just walk up to, unlock, & drive
  • Easy to book online or by app
  • Hourly rather than daily charges
  • Don’t have to pay for gas
  • iPod adaptor
  • Pretty friendly customer service by phone

Zipvan cons:

  • You’re at the mercy of other members’ time management skills
  • There’s only one Zipvan per location, so if it doesn’t show, you’re SOL or need to find another location or time
  • If YOU have poor time management skills, this could get expensive

Grade: B

If timing is critical, book a few hours of buffer around your reservation time. If you need to start moving by 10am, book the van for 9am to minimize the disruption if someone doesn’t return on time. If they don’t show, call Zipcar, and they’ll refund you the lost hour. If they do show, great. You can start early.

Moving shit always takes more time than you think it will. For the benefit of yourself and others, book more time than you’ll need, just in case you run into traffic or something unforeseen happens. You could save yourself late fees and getting punched in the face by the next reservation behind you. It’s just good karma.