The rental car market is ripe for disruption. Turo brings an AirBnB-style model to the ossified industry.
When I was a (nerdy) kid, disruptor was a term I tended to associate with those green energy weapons mounted on Klingon and Romulan spaceships — the alien equivalent of the phasers on the starship Enterprise, with which said cultures would occasionally exchange blasts in some sort of interstellar kerfuffle before Captain Kirk or Picard found a way to smooth things over. Here in 2022, however — where, fun fact, we’re actually closer to Kirk’s five-year mission than the start of the Revolutionary War — disruptor tends to refer to a company that’s seeking to upturn a long-established, often-stagnant business model.
By that definition, the rental car industry is ripe for disruption. As if the dot-matrix printers scree-scree-ing out contracts with tear-off sides in their offices wasn’t metaphor and proof enough, the last couple years have revealed the traditional car-rental model as more flawed than a junk diamond. When the pandemic hit, rental car agencies across America closed their doors and sold their fleets, assuming an end to travel as we know it — only to be caught with their pants down when people began traveling en masse a few months later, forcing them to buy up as many cars as possible, thus in part leading to the car shortages and used-car price inflation that dog us to this day. On top of that, some Hertz customers have found themselves with a particularly severe case of buyer’s remorse after being arrested and even imprisoned for allegedly stealing cars they both paid for and returned correctly. (It’s grown to be enough an issue that some U.S. senators are demanding an investigation into it.)
Enter Turo. Founded in 2010 as a pseudo ZipCar competitor before pivoting to its current business model, Turo is often referred to as “the AirBnB of cars,” and that’s a pretty accurate way to describe it. Private car owners — I suppose you could call them “hosts” — post their vehicles on the service, offering others the chance to rent them for a short-term period. Turo simply acts as intermediary (for which, of course, they take a small fee); you’re booking with an individual, not a faceless corporation that might forget you returned your car and send law enforcement after you.
The selection of vehicles also can be much more varied — which can be a boon both for enthusiasts and those who like to plan extensively. While traditional rental car companies only offer broad categories when booking, Turo lets you know the exact car you’ll be driving — year, make, model and options.
At least, that’s the idea. To find out just how well it works in practice, I tested Turo out during a trip to Montana to test out Ski-Doo’s 2023 snowmobiles. Here’s what I found.
As with AirBnB, you can use Turo on your browser, although it’s still worth downloading the app to your smartphone; once you’re onto step 2, you’ll need it (for reasons that will become clear shortly). I found using the website on my desktop easier for browsing purposes, as it’s a bit easier to compare different vehicles in different tabs
For my trip to Montana, I knew I needed something with both snow tires and four- or all-wheel-drive, what with the fact that my route involved navigating tight mountain passes in Arctic conditions. As it turns out, both are checkable options found under the “more filters” section of the Turo website, along with a bevy of other choices — everything from wheelchair accessibility to Apple CarPlay / Android Auto compatibility to ski racks. There are also options to filter by seating capacity, type of car, transmission, year, even for “green vehicles” (EVs or hybrids) and “deluxe” and “super deluxe” cars reserved for older, presumably more mature guests. Or, if you want to go real granular, you can even look for specific makes and models.
For my purposes, I found a match in the form of a 2019 Subaru Impreza 5-door listed by a fellow named Ben. After filing a request to book, we corresponded using the Turo app’s built-in message feature; Ben, who turned out to be a very kind fellow, not only walked me through the pick-up procedure in careful detail, but also provided some local restaurant recommendations, which wound up coming in handy.
Once you reach your destination, it’s time to whip out the phone to inform the host of your arrival. In my case, owner Ben was able to remotely unlock the Subaru using the MySubaru app on his phone, even though he was several miles away. Other “hosts” may do things differently, however; many will pick you up in person with the car, for example.
Before climbing aboard, however, I had to document the car’s current status — which, in the case of a Turo loan, means taking pictures of it from all angles. This turned into the sole pain point of the trip; not because taking the pictures itself was a hardship, but rather, because the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport parking lot is very much open to the elements, which, upon my arrival, meant “windy and -6º Fahrenheit.” Suffice it to say, doffing my gloves and snapping a dozen-plus pictures of a car was not my fingers’ favorite activity.
Once aboard with the heater cranked and the heated seats blazing, though, life was good. Ben was not only kind enough to leave a few dollars aboard to let me pay my way out of the parking garage, but also left some snacks and water in the car for me, as well. The car itself proved an excellent fit for the Montana winter, starting quickly and easily even in sub-zero temperatures and providing steady, measured grip even when driving over the nightmare surfaces of wind-blown snow and ice along 9,000-foot mountain passes. Also, as a side benefit, I got 35 miles per gallon.
Returning the car was effectively like the pick-up in reverse, with the slight addition of having to stop for gasoline a few miles from the drop-off point to make sure the car had as much fuel as when I picked it up. Following Ben’s instructions, drop-off was easy: after taking another onslaught of pictures to prove the car was still in the shape I found it, I locked the keys in the car at the airport parking lot and messaged him with the location for his later retrieval.
I’m admittedly basing this on a sole experience, but I’d have to say: hell yes. The other journalist on my snowmobile trip wound up booking a generic SUV through a traditional rental car agency, presumably expecting he’d get something capable — but wound up with a front-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Outlander Sport on cheap all-season tires.
Of course, as with sites like AirBnB, the pricing can vary based on all sorts of factors, some of which are rather opaque. The sum total of my two-day reservation came to $350.49; most of that came in the form of the $95/day rate for the car, but there was also the $38/day insurance (I went for the “standard protection” plan, one of three options), a “trip fee” of $16.32/ day (which appears to be Turo’s cut, and is variable based on the other costs of the loan) and an “airport fee” of $31.86, which apparently goes to the airport where the drop-off is conducted. All told, that was a bit more than the other journalist paid for his traditional rental — but your experience may vary, as I’ve also heard tales of Turo options being cheaper than regular rental cars.
Still, given rental car issues both acute and chronic, even paying a little more for the peace of mind of knowing exactly what car you’ll have — and having a direct line to an actual human being in case of issues — seems worth it. I, for one, will certainly be checking out the Turo options for my next trip. And hey, why would you pass up a chance to drive an Aston Martin on your next trip to L.A.?