No Car, No Problem

Megan and I used to live in a north Seattle neighborhood that saved us tons on rent but didn’t make much sense after we both got jobs downtown, an hour’s commute each way. So we moved to a high-rise apartment building within a 15-minute walk of our offices as well as great restaurants, theaters, and even the tourist sights. The biggest step was when I finally got permission from Megan to sell my car in January (the decision to sell her own car month earlier had been similarly agonizing).

This post covers some lessons on saving money, not just compared to owning your own car at home but also when you’re traveling and want to avoid a traditional rental car.

For background, our monthly cost of owning a car was over $300. This included:

  • $30 for street parking
  • $40 for gas
  • $100 for insurance
  • $50 in amortized deductibles and repair costs
  • $80 in amortized depreciation

When we moved downtown, we added $150 for garage parking and cut back on street parking and gas a bit, but it was still expensive. Megan wanted to keep at least one car for a¬†sense of freedom (or something like that), but I finally convinced her with the financial sense of paying for transportation only when we needed it. We even experimented with this before moving downtown, but the strategy varies a bit as I’ll explain.

ZipCar

Megan uses ZipCar regularly for work, while I have tried and failed to find much use for it. There are four ZipCars in our building’s garage that are rarely available. Dozens more are within walking distance. It definitely doesn’t work well in our old neighborhood where I had to walk several blocks down a steep hill to the ZipCar’s “home” and return it to its home when I was done.

ZipCar rates

We’ve experimented with the idea of using a ZipCar for multi-day trips, such as a weekend to Eastern Washington or when our parents are in town. For example, Megan’s family wanted a large car when they came for our wedding last summer, but the rental agency at the airport wanted over $120 a day for a minivan. ZipCar had an Audi Q5 SUV with navigation system for only $90 a day just blocks from their hotel so they wouldn’t need to pay for valet parking, either.

ZipCar works best for trips over 30 minutes, when you need extra space, or when you need to know that the car will be available. (Most of the time. Sometimes seem to have a habit of not returning them on-time.)

Car2Go

When we want to go shopping or visit a park, we’ll usually take Car2Go. It’s a free-floating carsharing service where, unlike ZipCar, you search for the nearest car available on your phone, drive it to your destination, and then leave. I think it’s a good compromise between a bus and ZipCar since finding the car (like a bus stop) is inconvenient, but I have the freedom to drive where and when I want. The only rule is that I have to end my trip within Seattle city limits and in a space that permits parking for two hours or longer (Seattle waives parking fees for Car2Go users).

It is rare that I can use the same Car2Go to get home as I used to arrive. But that can be a good thing. Maybe I had too much to drink and shouldn’t drive. Or maybe we don’t know how long we’ll be shopping. I don’t want to pay for a car I’m not using, which would be the case with ZipCar. It’s also easy to use Car2Go when traveling. There was a reserved Car2Go parking space just outside my hotel in Austin, which made me feel a bit silly that I’d gone to the effort of renting a car and paying for a valet.

Car2Go rates

Car2Go works great in the suburbs, and it’s usually what I use when I want to visit my friends who still live in the old neighborhood. There are so many cars scattered about, and it’s common for people to drive them home after work. It is cheaper than ZipCar for many trips under 30 minutes.

But it can also be inconvenient. I’ve found that downtown I have more competition and sometimes need to reserve a car, so my meter starts running immediately while I’m still trying to track down the vehicle using the app on my phone. The meter continues to run while I’m stuck in a traffic jam or can’t find a parking space. Finally, the cars have an awful transmission, which makes it challenging to accelerate (even in slow-poke Seattle) and park on steep hills.

Uber

By far our favorite form of transportation these days (besides walking) is Uber. It’s also the most expensive and one reason why I resisted using it for so long. My first Uber ride was only three months ago, but living in the suburbs made hiring a driver much more expensive. A taxi to the airport was $80, and the closest Uber might be two miles away.

Where we live now, it’s a great choice for getting to/from bars and restaurants. Parking a Car2Go in busy neighborhoods is a pain, and I can’t drive one home if I’m not sober.¬†Downtown, the Uber cars swarm like ants. For about $15 I can go almost anywhere I want, and tax and tip are included. I can hail the driver from my phone before I step in the elevator.

Uber rates

I’m still reluctant to use it for the airport all the time because even though we live in a flat-rate zone, it’s steep at $50 each way. So Megan and I have a rule that we take the light-rail (45 minutes, and just four blocks away) for $5 when it’s daylight and use Uber (30 minutes) when it’s dark. It’s more than the average $30 per stay we paid for airport parking, but we are saving a ton compared to the cost of owning our own car. (I’ve had some scheduling issues with my posts this morning, but learn how you can get up to $60 credit as a new Uber user.)

Many people use Uber at their destinations, too, and it’s available in 33 countries at last count. But we aren’t often traveling to cities where this is an option. Both our families live in Uber-free areas. We tend to avoid major metropolitan areas. But having used it on the road a few times it is definitely convenient when you’re not familiar with the area or if you don’t want to call for a taxi. It’s so much easier to just request Uber from an app. Besides, most taxis take credit cards reluctantly, if at all.

Summary

ZipCar, Car2Go, and Uber all have their uses. We prefer ZipCar for the flexibility of renting a car by the hour instead of by the day — but it can still beat traditional rental companies for longer rentals in some circumstances. Car2Go is great for longer excursions where we don’t need a car all day but still want to move faster than a bus. And Uber is for those times when we don’t want any of the hassles of driving our own vehicle. It comes at a premium to hiring a taxi but with premium service, as well.

These same scenarios apply equally well to travel as to life at home. Our downtown apartment is not much different from a downtown hotel. Now that I’ve sold our car at home I’m also realizing that I probably don’t need to rent a car at my destination, either. Are there still cases where it make sense to rent? Absolutely. And I can rent a car at home, too, when it make sense. But I’m going to be making an effort in future trips to avoid car rentals and see how successful I am with some of these alternatives.

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • http://www.pointssummary.com/ Jamison @ Points Summary

    don’t forget you saved on inevitable parking tickets, speeding tickets, and endless headches.. I wish i could go carless in LA….

    • Scottrick

      I’m pretty good about avoiding tickets. One speeding ticket ever for driving 30 mph in a 20 mph school zone because the flashing lights were obscured by an overgrown tree. To add to the pain, I only took that route because I was on my way to get a cracked sideview mirror replaced.

  • http://travelwithgrant.com/ Grant

    What would you recommend for getting to & from SEA Airport to Bothell, WA? Should I get a one day rental car?

    • Scottrick

      Probably. There is regular bus service, depending on where you need to be in Bothell. If you’re going to be in Seattle for a couple of days in addition to Bothell, then maybe rent a ZipCar or Car2Go for the day. If you’re going to be down by the airport, get an off-site rental car.

      Car2Go’s “home area” doesn’t extend as far as Bothell, so you’ll be paying for the vehicle even when parked.

      • http://travelwithgrant.com/ Grant

        It’s the Friday of FTU. Visiting friends in Bothell Friday morning before coming back to Hilton SEA.

        • Scottrick

          In a situation like that, I’d recommend renting a car at the airport. Hotwire has some options for about $30. There’s an annoying bus ride to the central car rental facility, but once you return the car and take the bus back to the terminal, just walk through the main parking garage to the LINK light rail station, cross the street, and you’ll be at the Hilton.

  • FlyingDoctorWu

    Do you find yourself using public transport much in Seattle? When I lived there the light rail hadn’t opened yet but on my last visit we took it straight downtown from the airport… also since we lived in Eastlake, we found the SLUT to be a reasonable option to get downtown…

    • Scottrick

      I might take the SLUT if I lived in Eastlake, too, but I usually walk. My primary use of public transit is the light rail to the airport.

  • choi

    Scott, you need permission to sell your own car from your wife ? guess we know who wears the paints in this family.

    • Scottrick

      If I did everything without my wife’s blessing, you can bet there would be some marital struggles.

  • choi

    pants

  • Carl

    the light rail is perfectly fine after dark

    • Scottrick

      Oh, it is. Definitely. It’s more of a guideline. If it’s dark then it’s likely an early departure or late arrival, we’ll be tired, and we don’t want to give up 30 minutes of sleep so we can save money on the light rail.

  • noah

    Don’t forget Lyft!

  • 98101UA1K

    Excellent post on the virtues of living in downtown Seattle. We moved here over a year ago from the East Coast and a suburb to boot. Your analysis is spot on and I will share with others I know may be thinking of moving here. With the boom in construction of high-rise apartments and condos, this area will continue to benefit from folks going car free. We did sell one of our two cars, but kept the other one due to ‘freedom’ so congrats on making the full move. Compared to other metro downtown areas, I think Seattle has the best one and lots of transport options too.

    • Scottrick

      It can still be a PITA, but I’ve found that even taking the bus to Tacoma or Bellevue is not too bad.

  • http://seanoliver.brandyourself.com/ Sean Oliver

    Man, if only there was an app that would crunch those number for me!