On a recent weekend, I rented a car and drove out of town to the beach. Not a very compelling story, it's true, except that this car was from Hertz On Demand, the under-the-radar vehicle-sharing service that's becoming a viable alternative to Zipcar.
In recent years, and mostly due to the commercial success Zipcar has had, the so-called sharing economy has become a buzz term on the lips of lifestyle journalists and trend watchers everywhere. And it makes sense in an era of $4-a-gallon gas and 8% unemployment: Why own a car when you can borrow one only during those times that you need it?
Still, I was a reluctant renter. Zipcar charges an annual fee for its service, even if you don't borrow a car, or locks you into a minimum number of rentals. Hertz On Demand notably doesn't; of course you still pay for the privilege of renting, $154 for nine hours and 11 minutes in my case.
I drove my car, a Nissan Sentra, east to Long Island's beaches. Because the season has closed, traffic was light, even though it was a brilliantly sunny day with a warm sea breeze. Had I thought ahead, I would've packed a picnic. As it happened, I only had a kite and a beach blanket, a pre-packed go-bag for oceanfront adventures I keep in my closet mostly to promote mental health. (If I have to spend the day at the office, at least I know I could skip out for the beach without any pre-planning.)
Without a set destination in mind, I meandered down the coast, past the Rockaways, a bizarrely idyllic planned community called Arverne, through Long Beach and to Point Lookout, where I paused for a quick lunch at Jo Jo Apples. Past Jones Beach State Park, I pulled off at Cedar Beach, where the sand stretched, it seemed, to the horizons. Dogs ran off the leash and a few souls brave enough to disregard the calendar combed the beach under the huge blue sky. I even stepped into the surf.
While I wasn't too impressed by the included Hertz NeverLost GPS system -- I have a smartphone, thanks -- everything else about the car worked flawlessly, including the RFID tag that I used in lieu of a key. Very cool that I was utilizing the technology that has enabled the creation of the car-sharing economy every time I "logged in" to my ride.
As I returned home, cursing the traffic jams in my neighborhood that even car-sharing hasn't been able to ameliorate, it dawned on me that this sort of on-the-fly trip wouldn't be possible with a typical car rental, which involves a trip to an office, more paperwork to fill out and an advance reservation that by its very definition precludes spontaneity.
It should improve our vacations, too. Hertz On Demand, which operates in nine cities, gives travelers another option for getting around whether it's a trip from Denver into the mountains, a drive out of Orlando to Kennedy Space Center or a circuit through Napa out of San Francisco.
After all, why rent a car for your whole trip -- and pay to park it -- when you only need it for a day?