The best way to rent a car in the San Francisco Bay Area

Having heard one stress-inducing story after the next about the dearth of rental cars this summer travel season and the trouble it’s causing people with long-awaited vacation plans, I’ve been curious exactly how bad it is and whether there are any approaches to finding a decent deal. So when my colleague Madeline mentioned that she was planning a day trip to Santa Cruz County this upcoming weekend and would need to rent a car (she, like many urbanites, doesn’t own one), I offered to line up her transportation as a sort of test case. 

Her trip, to Watsonville’s beloved Strawberry Festival, was less than a week away, a fairly last-minute reservation during summer’s busy season, from one of the most expensive rental car markets in the country. My hopes were pretty low for finding a true bargain, but I hoped to at least gain some insight into how travelers can suffer from somewhat less extreme cases of sticker shock when shopping for a rental car. 

Conventional rental car booking sites

I started with, which has in the past been a fairly reliable place for me to find a decent deal on a no-frills rental. Searching for a one-day rental in the East Bay, the cheapest options were, unsurprisingly, based at the Oakland International Airport. There, Madeline could get an economy car (“Toyota Yaris or similar”) at the poorly rated Fox Rent A Car for a total of $67 ($44 plus an additional $23 in taxes and fees) for the tiny two-door car. On the plus side, the reservation is cancelable, which is always reassuring during these pandemic times. 

The second most affordable option was an “Express Deal” from one of five rental car companies — Alamo, Budget, Dollar, Sixt, Thrifty — though the exact rental company is obscured until after you book. This similarly budget car (a “Ford Fiesta or similar”) would cost $68.74 including taxes and fees with the only significant difference being that it isn’t refundable like the Fox rental. On the other hand, the mainstream brands tend to have a better reputation for cleanliness and reliability.

Conventional rental car companies have a shortage of cars and prices are sky high during the 2021 summer travel season. 

SOPA Images/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

From there, prices go up, with Fox consistently offering the cheapest standard rate and “Express Deals” competing with Fox but not offering the flexibility or transparency of renting directly from a company. To rent that same “Yaris or similar” from a company that isn’t Fox or “Express Deals,” your options are Europecar for $73 total or a “Mitsubishi Mirage or similar” for $77 from the highly rated Alamo. Ultimately, it might be worth $10 to rent from a more reputable outfit, but either way, the prices for the absolute cheapest cars aren’t, well, very cheap at all. 

Of course, there are other rental car booking sites. But a scan of Kayak, Hotwire, Expedia, Orbitz and others showed virtually identical offers, as did booking directly through Fox. Booking Europecar directly, however, was $13 more ($86 for a one-day Yaris rental). 

Peer-to-peer car ‘sharing’: Turo vs. Getaround 

I’d heard good things about Turo, which is an Airbnb-style peer-to-peer (tech speak for regular people renting to each other) car rental — no, it’s not “sharing” if you’re paying for it — site with the option to deliver the car directly to you. I’d also heard from some friends and family that the idea of renting a stranger’s car makes them uneasy, much like the early days of Airbnb, when the entire premise of sleeping in some random person’s spare room felt to many like a wildly terrible idea. 

Because they don’t involve sharing a physical space in quite the same way, Turo and Getaround may feel less daunting. But ultimately they have similar potential downsides. Unlike conventional car rentals where you can generally have some degree of confidence in what you’re going to get, the cost of these newfangled platforms is uncertainty. 

But while it’s harder to know what you’re going to get, Turo and Getaround have many fans. A quick perusal of what’s available for this upcoming weekend on Turo, however, wasn’t particularly encouraging, if only because options at this late date were few and many were far from affordable for a one-day rental. 

There were two possibilities, however, that would have been a good match. The first was a 2016 Ford Fiesta for $54 including all taxes and fees, which is a good $15 less than the same car from Fox, but the car’s location in an out-of-the-way residential neighborhood without convenient public transit would have made picking up the car inconvenient. A second option that seemed promising was a 2014 Volkswagon Jetta for $51 that was reachable by a free BART shuttle from Lake Merritt, which would have been pretty doable for a nicer car at a good price, especially if Madeline’s trip was more than one day. 

Getaround had a lot more options with about a dozen cars within a few miles of Madeline’s Oakland home for less than $85, including a few that were within walking distance. There was a 2020 Toyota Corolla Hatchback just blocks away, for example, that had 85 five-star reviews and cost $75. Considering the quality of the car and the convenience of its location (no need to BART to Oakland International and stand in line at a car rental desk!), it would be a much better deal than that Ford Fiesta at Fox. 

Unfortunately, Getaround’s first impression proved too good to be true. Unlike Turo, Getaround’s taxes and fees aren’t included in the quoted price, so the $16 license fee (a one-time charge for a first Getaround rental) and $9 “booking fee” (the kind of nontransparent fee travelers loathe) come as a surprise. With those fees included, the total would have been $101 and a much less noteworthy bargain. But even at that price, it would be a competitive option, especially if you were to use Getaround more than once and absorb that initial license verification sign-up charge. 

And because of the number of cars listed on Getaround in the Bay Area — like a teeny tiny 2015 Smart Fortwo, which would have come to $75 including fees and has great gas mileage — it seems to beat both Turo and conventional car rental sites for price and convenience.

Even with this last-minute car hunt, the options and prices on these peer-to-peer apps were appealing enough that I would be tempted to give Getaround, in particular, a try on my next trip — though I’d do so with some trepidation in a place like Hawaii, where demand is sky-high and I’d worry about a car owner canceling on me and leaving me without a backup option. 

One note: Because Turo and Getaway are essentially just giving car owners a platform to rent out their own vehicles, each owner sets the terms of their rental, from maximum distance the renter can drive to whether pets are allowed in the car. You’ll want to pay close attention to those terms. 

And the winner is: Gig Car Share

As it turns out, the best option for our intrepid daytripping Madeline was the one I was least familiar with and most skeptical of (if only because it reminded me of Zipcar, which I’d used for a spell when I lived in New York City — another major metro where a lot of people are happily carless — and found overpriced and frustrating). Unlike Zipcar, Gig is “powered by AAA,” meaning it is operated by a division of the ever-reputable American Automobile Association. 

Gig’s fleet of cute little electric and hybrid cars are widely available, with more than a dozen within walking distance of Madeline’s Oakland home. They’re also app-operated, which means once you sign up — it takes less than five minutes and entails entering your driver’s license and credit card information — you can use your cellphone to unlock and drive (no key necessary) the nearest Gig car to you. 

Gig prices are straightforward and, while hardly cheap, not completely unreasonable considering how convenient these little black cars are. There’s a $1 “access charge” that’s applied anytime you unlock a car. From there, prices are $0.49 per minute (up to $16.99), $16.99 per hour (up to $69.99 for eight hours) and $99.99 per day. From there, there are discounts for AAA members, rentals shorter than one hour, and pre-paid multi-day rentals. Gig is only available in a few markets, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Seattle, and prices vary a bit between the three. 

For a day or weekend trip, in particular, the ease of being able to simply grab a Gig and go is difficult to beat. One-way rentals are fine! They have bike racks! Gas is included! (Up to a point, all of these options have some limitations and fine print that are worth a very close look. In Gig’s case the limit for daily mileage is 250 miles before you pay $0.45 per mile.) 

One of my least favorite things is feeling like a shill, but at a time when rental car prices are painfully inflated, Gig seems like a hard-to-beat — green and gas-included — alternative to conventional rental companies and a less complicated option than the peer-to-peer car “sharing” (it’s not sharing, to be absolutely clear) platforms. And it’s what Madeline will be taking to Watsonville’s Strawberry Festival this weekend. 

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