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Five free things to see and do in Melbourne

July 2nd, 2010 by Tim Uden

City Circle tram

Trams are to Melbourne what red double-decker buses are to London and yellow taxis are to New York City. Most routes require a ticket, but the City Circle route (route 35) is free. It is a circular route with mostly vintage W class trams that run around the city centre, every 12 minutes or so during the day, connecting major points of interest including the Docklands and the main train stations. It’s a great deal and the only real drawback is that because it is geared to tourists you have to listen to a corny commentary.

State Library of Victoria

The free Wi-Fi connection attracts at lot of travellers to the State Library but few venture beyond the first couple of rooms. The library is worthy of deeper exploration and there are surprisingly good art exhibits in many hallways; but the highlight is the domed La Trobe Reading Room, which is best known for its massive dome that was the world’s largest when it was opened in 1913.

CC-by-SA David Iliff
CC-by-SA David Iliff

Federation Square

For years Melbourne never really had a central square. Sure the lawn in front of the State Library is inviting, but that’s not really a square, and Melbourne’s town planners have re-designed the City Square numerous times and each time failing to create a space that people want to hang out in. Melbourne finally got a space to enjoy when Federation Square opened in 2002. The main plaza has a big screen where major sporting events are shown so if you can’t get tickets to a big event, come to Fed Square and watch it for free on the big screen.

NGV Ian Potter Centre

While you’re at Federation Square pay a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre (not to be confused with NGV International across the Yarra River at 180 St Kilda Road, which displays the NGV’s international collection). This free art museum focuses on Australian art and includes some excellent exhibits among its collection of over 20,000 works of art. Sure when I last visited there was a gallery full of paintings of anuses, but once you get beyond the contemporary art section you’ll see some Australian classics such as Frederick McCubbin’s The Pioneer and Tom Roberts’ Shearing the Rams.

The view from the 35th floor

Sure you can pay $17.50 to go to the observation deck on the 88th floor of the Eureka Tower for a great view or you can save your money and take the lift to the 35th floor of the Sofitel Hotel at Collins Place (25 Collins Street, Melbourne) and use the public toilets, which offer the city’s best free view. Sure you’re only halfway up a building that’s dwarfed by the Eureka Tower and the view faces away from the city; oh, and you’re in a toilet; but it’s free and it is probably the best view you’ll get with your fly unzipped.

Tim Uden reporting from Melbourne, Australia

Keep in touch on the road with Skype

July 2nd, 2010 by Tim Uden

There’s a lot of talk about international SIM cards and discount calling cards to help you keep in touch on the road; and, although these things can save you money, sometimes Skype is your best option if you need to maintain a single number that people can contact you on regardless of which country you are travelling in.

Skype is similar to other VOIP telephone services in that it saves you money by routing your calls over the internet, but unlike other VOIP services it doesn’t use the industry-standard SIP protocol. I’ve been playing with VOIP phones for the past ten years and during that time the call quality has improved a lot, but SIP phones aren’t the easiest things to get working. Several years ago, lured by the promise of cheap calls, I spent several hundred pounds on a couple of Cisco VOIP phones for the BUG office but found the service so unreliable that I looked at other options and ended up trying Skype. After downloading the software and trying it out I was impressed, unlike the alternatives Skype just worked. It was certainly the easiest of the VOIP services I have tried and the call quality was an improvement over other VOIP services that I had previously tried.

In fact I now rely on Skype so much that I’ve disconnected the three landlines that used to go into my home and office and I now find a combination of Skype and mobile phone are all I need. Skype is a lot cheaper than a regular phone and it allows you to keep the same number even when you move to the other side of the world. My London office number rings straight through to my home in Australia and my Australian Skype number rings to my office when I’m in the UK. Skype lets me travel without losing contact with business colleagues, friends and family.

At the most basic level Skype gives you free phone calls between Skype users, and if you have a webcam those free Skype calls can include video. Many travellers don’t go any further than this and end up paying nothing to Skype. This is ideal if your friends and family are also on Skype and if you’re travelling with a netbook computer or an iPhone or iPod Touch with the Skype app installed. Even if you’re not travelling with a computer you can use Skype at most hostels that provide internet access (I’ve found that most hostel computers are now equipped with headphones and webcams for Skype).

A lot of hostels are on Skype so you can call them for free to check your reservation or ask about directions. Hostels’ Skype contacts are included in BUG’s hostel listings; if you want to call a hostel for free, just go to that hostel’s page on BUG and click the Skype link and you’ll be connected for free.

I think it is worth taking it a step further and either adding credit to your Skype account or paying for a subscription. This lets you call anyone and subscriptions generally include calls to landlines in a specified country. Subscription prices range from £3.99 per month for unlimited calls to landlines in a specific country to £4.99 per month for unlimited calls to landlines in 20 European countries and £7.99 per month for unlimited calls to landlines in 40 countries worldwide.

Another advantage with a subscription is that it gives you a big discount on a Skype number. This means that you can have a regular landline number (in your choice of over 25 countries) attached to your Skype account so anyone can call you. A cool feature is that Skype lets you choose your number (you get a choice of numbers and can keep refreshing the screen until you find one you like). I’ve used it to find a really easy to remember number to replace my Australian landline. A lot of travellers get a Skype number in their home country so friends and family can call them for the price of a local call – some even convince their family to pay for the subscription based on the money they will save compared with calling an international mobile number.

When you have credit in your Skype account you also get cheap international calls. In many cases calls to landlines in the most popular countries are around 1.4p per minute and you can call toll-free numbers in many countries for free (even when you’re on the other side of the world).

Although calls to standard landlines are generally very cheap, calls to mobile phones and non-geographic numbers like 1300 numbers in Australia (which are similar to 0845 numbers in the UK) can be expensive (at 15p per minute this is 10 times the cost of a call to a regular landline and even more expensive than a call to a mobile phone). This is a big issue for anyone who makes frequent calls within Australia as 1300 numbers (which most people assume are the same price as local calls) are those most likely to put you on hold for 20 minutes or longer. I’m lucky as I have enough unused minutes on my mobile plan that can be used for any 1300 calls, but even then I usually call and ask if there is an alternate number I can call back on. For me this is the only real downside to Skype, but for some people it can be a major issue.

Overall I love Skype, it gives me a number that lets me run this site from anywhere in the world, people overseas can phone me for the cost of a local call (or for free if they are also on Skype) and I can make cheap international calls from my computer or my mobile phone (with the Skype iPhone app).

See www.skype.com to learn more about Skype.

Tim Uden reporting from Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne’s got a bike share programme

June 29th, 2010 by Tim Uden

This past month saw the launch of the Melbourne Bike Share programme. It is Australia’s first municipal cycle hire service and is similar to programmes such as Barcelona’s Bicing, Montreal’s Bixi, Paris’ Vélib’ and City Bike programmes in Scandinavia.

Community bicycle programmes like Melbourne Bike Share are among the cheapest forms of public transport to implement and can be a great way for a visitor to explore a city, while offering a cheap alternative to often overpriced bicycle hire companies.

The pricing structure is comprised of a subscription fee ($2.50 per day, $8 per week or $50 per year) plus a fee for the time you use the bike (first 30 minutes free; 31–60 minutes $2; 61–90 minutes $5; every additional half hour $10). The idea is that you just use the service for short trips (free for trips shorter than half an hour), that way you should never need to pay more than the subscription fee. For longer trips you may need to stop at a pod midway through your journey to change bikes to avoid being charged for going over the half-hour limit.

There are currently 33 pods in the city centre with plans to extend the network to around 50 pods. However, it only operates within the City of Melbourne; which means that you can’t pick up or drop off a bike outside the city limits (which rules out trips to neighbourhoods like Richmond, South Yarra or St Kilda).

While it is a great concept, it is unlikely to ever really take off because it is illegal to ride a bicycle without a helmet in Australia and helmets are not supplied with the bikes. Australia’s tough bicycle helmet laws take the spontaneous nature away and mean that you need to carry a bicycle helmet around the city with you on the off chance that you may need to use a bike. During the first week of operation the service was only used 253 times, an abysmally poor turnout for a cheap and convenient transport option in a big city. Although it probably will become more popular as it is available in more locations, it is unlikely to take off in Melbourne like it has in some European cities.

The spur-of-the-moment appeal of hopping on a conveniently-located bike at a moment’s notice is the real draw of bike share programmes elsewhere in the world, but that just won’t work in Australia unless you just happen to be carrying a bulky bicycle helmet with you. Although it is a hassle to carry a helmet just to use occasionally, you can buy cheap helmets from Big W for $12, which could make it worth your while if you’re in town a week or longer.

Although the service is best suited to people who live or work in Melbourne’s city centre, it is worth considering if you’re planning on spending a few weeks in Melbourne (but it’s not worth buying a helmet to only use for a day or two).

Community bicycle share pod outside Melbourne's State Library

Tim Uden reporting from Melbourne, Australia

Photographers’ rights in public places

June 24th, 2010 by Tim Uden

If you’re like most travellers, you travel with a camera and take photos to document your trip. Nowadays, most people carry a camera with them at all times even when they’re not travelling. The fact is that photography is a popular activity and camera phones and compact digital cameras have made it a very cheap way to create memories and document your life. Unfortunately you may not always be allowed to take a quick snapshot.

Yesterday I was in the QV Centre in Melbourne taking a few photos in an open space and after a few minutes I went into Grill’d to order lunch and a security guard came in and started harassing me about taking photos on private property. Needless to say, after being harassed by QV staff I chose not to eat there and probably won’t buy anything from the centre for a very long time.

The QV Centre may be private property, but it is a public space. Anyone can enter and external areas are open all night. Streets within the centre (like Albert Coates Lane, Jane Bell Lane and Shilling Lane) are accessible 24 hours and even appear on city maps and have standard City of Melbourne street signs.

Sure it is private property and I probably would have asked permission if I were in an enclosed part of the centre (I was in an outdoor square) or if I was taking photos for commercial purposes, but I was shocked to be approached by a security guard for taking a photo in a public outdoor area.

Although the law is often unclear, in the USA there have been cases where amateur photographers have won the right to take photos inside shopping centres as the case of photographers’ rights in a public space outweighs the property owners’ rights. If I were in the United States I would have every right to take photos at the QV Centre; but unfortunately Australia does not have a Bill of Rights (after all, it is a country founded by criminals and you wouldn’t want to give them rights, would you?) and the centre managers can enforce all sorts of stupid rules on the public.

I can understand requiring permits for commercial photography or prohibiting tripods or other bulky equipment that may cause an obstruction, but I had an old five megapixel Canon IXUS and I wasn’t using a tripod or even a flash. I certainly didn’t fit the image of a professional photographer.

In fact I would estimate that the average person shopping or dining in the QV Centre would have at least one camera on them. It’s common to carry a camera and people expect the right to take photos when they are out on the town without being abused and harassed by some thuggish rent-a-cop.

When I was there I noticed several people with professional looking DSLRs, but I expect that they were just tourists that want to capture memories of their trip to Melbourne. Instead of photos of themselves enjoying a hot chocolate or cold beer in a sunny open square, their memories of Melbourne will involve being harassed and intimidated by security guards.

Although a shopping centre may have the right to restrict what you do on their property, this is simply not good business practice. Any shopping centre should want to encourage people to visit and ensure that they have a good time. It is simply not good customer relations to harass and intimidate people.

If I had a shop in the centre I would be furious that my customers were being harassed by centre management. If I had a shop in the centre selling cameras, I wouldn’t renew my lease unless these rules were changed (I had previously purchased three cameras from the Harvey Norman store in the QV Centre but won’t be buying a camera from Harvey Norman again until they close that store or change the rules).

Some shopping centres, because of their location or architectural design, become tourist attractions in their own right. These are places where people come to visit and take photos. It is just plain bad business to employ a team of henchmen to harass and intimidate these people.

Other restrictions in Australia

Regulations prohibit using cameras for commercial purposes in the area controlled by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. This includes many of Sydney’s most touristy areas such as Darling Harbour, the Rocks and Circular Quay; however this is aimed mostly at film and TV productions and it shouldn’t affect you if you are taking a quick snap to put on your blog.

In 2004 Waverley Council (which includes Bondi and Coogee beaches in Sydney) tried to ban unauthorised photography. They cannot enforce this rule as they have no legal right to prohibit what people do in a public area, however lifeguards and police regard anyone on the beach with a camera to be a pervert despite Bondi Beach being one of Sydney’s most popular tourist attractions.

Some Australian national parks, including Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, prohibit commercial photography; but you’re probably OK if you take a few pictures for your website or Facebook page.

Do restrictions on commercial photography affect photos I take for a blog or newspaper article?

In most cases they don’t. The law varies, but in most cases restrictions on commercial photography only apply when photos are used for advertising or promotional purposes. This also relates to photos used for book and magazine covers (as these photos promote the book or magazine), but photos used for editorial purposes in magazines, newspapers or the internet are not considered commercial.

In other words you shouldn’t be required to get a permit to take a few photos to put on your blog.

The law and photographers’ rights

The laws relating to your right to take photos varies from one country to another. The following links are a great place to find further information (although they should not be taken as a substitute for legal advice).

Brief overview of photographers’ rights in Australia

Brief overview of photographers’ rights in Canada

Brief overview of photographers’ rights in New Zealand

Brief overview of photographers’ rights in the UK

Brief overview of photographers’ rights in the USA

Tim Uden reporting from Melbourne, Australia

Renting a Segway

June 13th, 2010 by Tim Uden

When the Segway was launched in 2001, Segway Inc’s Dean Kamen predicted that the Segway “will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy”. Well, the Segway never really caught on as a practical transport option, but over the past five years or so it has become increasingly common as an option for tours and tourist rentals. It is a novelty and a lot of fun and most travellers can justify the relatively expensive cost for an experience that will live on as a great memory of their trip.

I probably wouldn’t rent a Segway everywhere. Firstly it can get expensive to rent in every city that you see a Segway rental place and some places are better suited to this form of transport. For instance a bicycle is the ideal way to get around Amsterdam, the top deck of a red doubledecker bus in London and a Vespa scooter is the best way to explore Italy (and Vietnam for that matter). However a Segway is ideal for beachside areas and when I was in LA last year I rented a Segway to scoot around Santa Monica and Venice Beach. It was the ideal way to explore this part of the city.

Segways are easy to ride and their self-balancing mechanism keeps them upright, although you need to be on flat ground for this to work properly (go over a gutter with one wheel and the Segway may not be able to help you). When I rented the Segway I was told that there are some places you can’t ride them. Obviously the freeway is off-limits, as are Santa Monica Pier and the Third Street Promenade; but this isn’t a big issue as there are plenty of perfect places to ride on the wide pathways that run alongside the beach.

The rental cost me $75 for two hours. That’s a lot of money, but the way I see it is that you need experiences to remember your trip by and the Segway was my LA experience. In two hours I was able to take a leisurely ride around Santa Monica, down to Venice Beach taking time out for a bite to eat and have time to get back to the rental depot in Santa Monica to return the Segway. An hour wouldn’t have been long enough, two hours was just about right.

The above video is my first attempt at video blogging. I’ve published hostel videos for a couple of years now but until now I haven’t put my own voice on video. I think in this case you have to see the Segway in action to get an idea of how much fun they are and putting my own voice to the video lets the video stand on its own. Besides I had the tape sitting on my desk and I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to edit it for the blog. I think I can show a lot more with video that wouldn’t be possible with just text and a few pictures, but I’m hardly a professional at this sort of thing and maybe it’s best to stick with what I am best at. What do you think? Should I do more videos like this? And should I narrate the hostel videos (rather than set them to a soundtrack)?

Places that rent Segways

Here’s a list of some places that rent Segways:

Austria
Vienna: City Segway Tours

Belize
Ambergris Caye: Segway of Belize

France
Paris:  City Segway Tours

Germany
Berlin: City Segway Tours

Hungary
Budapest:  City Segway Tours

Italy
Florence: Italy by Segway
Milan: Italy by Segway
Pisa: Italy by Segway
Rome: Italy by Segway

USA
Annapolis, MD: Segs in the City
Atlanta: City Segway Tours
Baltimore, MD:  Segs in the City
Chicago:  City Segway Tours
Gettysburg, PA:  Segs in the City
Jacksonville, OR:  Segway of Jacksonville
Los Angeles:  Segway LA
Minneapolis:  Human on a Stick/Magical History Tour
San Diego:  Segway Pacific Beach
San Francisco:  City Segway Tours
St Augustine, FL:  Segway St Augustine
Washington DC:  City Segway Tours and Segs in the City

If you want more information about Segways, then the Segway Chat Forum is a good place to start.

Tim Uden reporting from Kilcunda, Australia

BUG’s hostel reviews now feature photo slideshows

May 6th, 2010 by Tim Uden

BUG has added another feature to its hostel reviews.

Most hostel booking sites don’t give you any contact details because they want you to book with them and not directly with the hostel. BUG has always listed the address, telephone number and website address for each hostel and more recently we have continued to expand on this by showing you other contact methods like Skype, Facebook and Twitter. We’ve been doing this since 1997, when there were no other hostel booking sites, and we’re not going to drop our standards just because there are a bunch of new sites on the scene that refuse to give you the information you need.

In a quest to give you more information about each hostel; we have just added another new feature to BUG’s hostel reviews, which has already been implemented for selected hostels in Los Angeles, Melbourne, Phillip Island, San Diego and San Francisco. BUG now has slideshows with real photos taken by BUG’s own team of hostel inspectors (not some glossed up promotional shots supplied by the hostel).

A picture tells a thousand words so we figure that by showing you photos of the hostel, you get a better idea of what to expect when you stay there. So now you can see pictures of the hostel as well as read our review, reviews from other travellers, see independently assessed star ratings and watch videos produced by BUG. That’s more information to help you choose a great place to stay.

Our policy is to keep all the information independent without any bias from the hostel. That means that we have never published a hostel description written by a hostel. Virtually every other hostel site has a blurb written by the hostel, and this even includes other so-called independent guides like Lonely Planet, but BUG remains totally independent with a professional review written by a travel writer who has visited the hostel plus genuine reviews from real travellers. What you get from us is a real opinion telling you what the hostel is really like and not what the hostel would like you to think.

At the moment we have only added a few slideshows, but many more will be coming as BUG visits and reviews more hostels. Some of the first hostel reviews to feature slideshows include: Habitat HQ in Melbourne (Australia), Melbourne Central YHA in Melbourne (Australia), Gramercy Place in Los Angeles (USA), the Island Accommodation in Phillip Island (Australia), Banana Bungalow in San Diego (USA), Lucky Ds in San Diego (USA), Adelaide Hostel in San Francisco (USA), Elements Hostel in San Francisco (USA) and Pacific Tradewinds Hostel in San Francisco (USA).

Tim Uden reporting from Kilcunda, Australia

YHA considering mixed dormitories

April 22nd, 2010 by Tim Uden

A recent article in the Guardian says that the Youth Hostel Association in England and Wales is considering changing their out-dated policy of single-sex dorms.

Most YHA hostels in England and Wales have got rid of most of their old-fashioned rules such as curfews, chores and bans on alcohol, but they continue to stick to the idea of single-sex dormitories. However later this year some YHA hostels in London will start offering mixed-gender dorms as a response to competition from independent hostels.

While some more conservative elements of the YHA are probably not too happy with the idea, it has generally been well-received by most travellers.

There are a few good arguments for single-sex dorms and most hostels with mixed dorms also have single sex dorms for those that prefer them.

I would expect that the YHA would still stick with single-sex dorms for individual travellers and small groups of the same gender and reserve their mixed dorms for couples and mixed groups of people travelling together. A lot of independent hostels do this and it generally works very well.

I accept that it is nice to have some privacy when getting changed in a mixed dorm and being the only girl (or guy) in a room full of the opposite sex can be a little uncomfortable at first. But once you’ve met your roommates it usually isn’t a big issue. In many cases it is a bonus as you’re likely to meet a more interesting group of travellers in a mixed dorm.

There is the issue of guys snoring, but chicks snore too and when you travel long enough you’ll come to appreciate how relaxing the sound of snoring can be (a bit like the sound of the ocean). The issue with loud snorers could be a bigger problem at YHA hostels where the average guest is quite a bit older than at most independent backpackers’ hostels. If it bothers you, wear ear plugs.

The other issue with mixed dorms is the rudey-nudey hanky-panky that some think is rampant in independent hostels. Sure many long-term travellers will have experienced a couple going for it in a mixed dorm at some point in their travels, but again this isn’t a big deal and it very rarely happens.

Sensible hostel staff can sense what people mix well together and they generally won’t put you in a room full of inappropriate roommates and wherever possible they will try to put you in a room with similar travellers.

Not having any mixed dorms at all raises a different set of problems. It makes it difficult for a couple or a mixed group of friends travelling together as they would get split into separate rooms when staying at a YHA hostel. You shouldn’t be forced to pay extra for a private family room just so you can share a room with friends that you’re travelling with. Mixed dorms let you stay with your friends.

Furthermore it is quite common for a hostel to have vacant beds, but turn away travellers simply because they are the wrong gender.

More simply, segregating your guests according to their gender is sexual apartheid!

There are problems with hostels that only have mixed-dorms, but segregated dorms have their own set of issues. The ideal hostel has a mix of both. The YHA may be behind the times, but at least they are starting to slowly move in the right direction.

Tim Uden reporting from Kilcunda, Australia

Tiger Airways to fly from Melbourne’s Avalon Airport

April 20th, 2010 by Tim Uden

Low-cost carrier Tiger Airways Australia (the Australian branch of Singapore-based Tiger Airways) has announced that it will start flying from Melbourne’s smaller Avalon Airport in addition to Melbourne International Airport (Tullamarine).

Tiger Airways is the focus of the Australian TV show Air Ways, which is very similar to the UK television series Airline. It is the most budget orientated of Australia’s low-cost airlines. It is strict about late check ins and follows the budget airline model of cheap seats sold online with a yield-management pricing structure with additional charges for luggage, food and advance seat selection. But up till now it hadn’t been big on using secondary airports (although it did start flying into Newcastle and the Gold Coast before Sydney and Brisbane).

I’m surprised it took Tiger so long to start flying from Avalon. True budget airlines like to cut corners by choosing an out-of-the-way airport to save money, even though the cost for passengers to get to the airport may be considerably more.

One of the worst examples is Ryanair’s alternative to Frankfurt Airport. Instead of Frankfurt, Ryanair flies into Frankfurt-Hahn, which is 125km from Frankfurt and probably as you far as you can get from a train station in Germany. Ryanair’s alternatives to Barcelona are airports at Reus (near Tarragona) and Girona. Add on the additional cost of getting to one of these airports and it can often work out cheaper taking a more expensive airline directly into Barcelona.

Not all secondary airports are bad, though. London’s Luton Airport is less congested than Heathrow, and train connections mean that it’s only half an hour from central London. In the United States, Southwest has a hub at Chicago Midway and JetBlue flies to Long Beach: both less congested alternatives to Chicago O’Hare and LAX.

Avalon Airport is around a 45-minute drive southwest of Melbourne, just north of Geelong. That’s about twice as far from the city centre as Melbourne International Airport. The bus to the airport costs $4 more if you’re going to Avalon, so while it saves the airline money (hopefully resulting in lower fares) it will cost you a little extra to get there.

Avalon Airport is currently used by Jetstar (the low-cost airline owned by Qantas) and regional carrier Sharp Airlines.

Tiger will base two new Airbus A320 aircraft at Avalon, however their press release announcing the new base doesn’t say which destinations will be served from Avalon. Tiger will instead put a voting button on their website asking customers where they want to fly to from the airport.

Tiger will continue to operate from its base at Melbourne International Airport, although at Melbourne Airport it uses the frugal Terminal 4 (aka the Tiger Cage), which has a more low-cost image to Avalon’s relatively new terminal.

Although it’s not huge news, it is good to have more flights from Avalon and competition from a secondary airport means that Melbourne is generally a cheaper airport to fly from than Sydney.

Tim Uden reporting from Kilcunda, Australia

Free entry to US national parks

April 15th, 2010 by Tim Uden

The entry fee will be waived for all national parks in the United States during National Park Week, which runs from 17 to 25 April.

Although 246 of the National Park Service’s 392 national parks do not charge an entry fee, the other 146 do. Entry fees for these parks range from $3 to $25.

The following national park entry fees are an indication of what you can save if you visit during National Park Week:

US national parks are also free on Public Lands Day (25 September, 2010) and Veterans Day (11 November, 2010).

grandcanyon

Tim Uden reporting from Kilcunda, Australia

The problem with car sharing

April 7th, 2010 by Tim Uden

Last year I blogged about car sharing and said it was a viable alternative to car rental. When I visited the USA in September and October I had the chance to try it out and I discovered a major flaw in the car sharing concept.

I signed up for a Zipcar membership and used the service twice. First off I rented a Mini for four hours to visit and review the HI – Marin Headlands hostel near Sausalito. My second rental was in Palo Alto, where I intended to visit a hostel in the Los Altos Hills. I was planning on using Zipcar extensively on the east coast and also planning to make a video blog post demonstrating Zipcar’s new iPhone app. It was after the second rental that I learnt a very expensive lesson about a major issue with the car sharing concept and ended up renting from Hertz instead of getting a Zipcar on the east coast.

Around a week after my second rental I received an email from Zipcar accusing me of damaging the car and I was subsequently charged a USD $500 fee for the damage. I guess I’m lucky this didn’t happen in the UK where the damage fee is £500.

It is appalling customer service to be accused of doing something I clearly didn’t do, even though Zipcar may have every right to charge the damage fee. It could have been handled differently, without implying that a customer was wrong (I know I didn’t damage the car and don’t appreciate being told otherwise).

This whole experience soured my view of the car sharing concept by highlighting a serious flaw in the system. The car lives on the street or in a public car park and the person renting it is responsible for any damage that occurs to the vehicle until the next person takes the car. Unlike a traditional car rental company, there is no employee to check the car when you return it. The car just sits unattended in a public car park where anyone can damage it after it has been returned and the last person to use the car gets the blame (and a USD $500 damage fee).

To Zipcar’s credit they at least have acknowledged that this is an issue and several months after I used their service (several months too late in my opinion) they implemented a damage fee waiver. For USD $50 per year you can reduce the damage fee to USD $250 and for USD $75 per year you can reduce it to nothing. Anyone signing up for the service really should pay the additional fee because it is a lot cheaper than being charged USD $500 for damage that occurs after the car is returned.

Ideally occasional users should have the option of paying a smaller fee per month or per use (rather than per year), although Zipcar’s damage fee waiver is still a step in the right direction. In the UK, this is how City Car Club charge their damage fee waiver, which is a more cash-flow-friendly £5 per month to reduce the damage fee from £500 to £100.

Update

8 May 2010

Zipcar has since refunded my $500 damage fee (plus a free day credit).

Although it may seem that they speeded things up because I blogged about the problems I was having, it has become quite clear to me that they do have systems in place for dealing with issues like this. Basically I fill out a form (I remember filling out a form months ago, but can’t remember if I sent it in) explaining the situation, then they look into the case and possibly give a refund.

In my case, I knew I was right but couldn’t prove that I didn’t cause the damage. I returned the car early and neither myself nor Zipcar could tell whether the damage occured during my rental period. In this case it was a matter of my word against Zipcar’s, and they had every right to charge the damage fee (even though I may not have felt it was fair). Even though I wasn’t responsible for the damage, I couldn’t prove that to Zipcar. The car would have been off the road for a day or two while they repaired it meaning that they would have lost money on it, so it was nice that they refunded the entire fee.

I really didn’t expect this. I thought that if anything came from this, they may have come to some sort of compromise where part of the fee was refunded as driving credit, with Zipcar keeping enough to compensate them for the time the car was off the road. Anyway this refund has changed my opinion about Zipcar and I look forward to driving one of their cars again in the future (and using their iPhone app), although I’m currently living around a 16-hour flight from their nearest location so I won’t get a chance to do this until I’m either back in London or when I next visit the USA.

Despite Zipcar resolving this issue for me, the prospect of a renter being held responsible for damage caused after a car has been returned still exists – although that is the case with all car sharing services.

Tim Uden reporting from Kilcunda, Australia