Is Turo a Good Alternative to Regular Rental Cars?

 

The internet has fueled a growth in people renting their properties through Airbnb, and has enabled us all to become amateur taxi drivers as and when we wish through Uber and Lyft.  Not so well known is another internet company – Turo – that allows people to rent your car out to strangers, similar to how you’d book a property through Airbnb.

Maybe this makes sense for people with a spare car they seldom use.  But does it make sense for you, as a potential renter, to take advantage of such services?  Should you cut up your Hertz Number One Club card, and those of the other rental car companies, and now rely on Turo for your rental car needs?

Some people have written to us, extolling the virtues of Turo.  But others have had less positive experiences, and our own attempts to use Turo have also been disappointing.  Here are the issues you should consider before renting a car through Turo.

Turo Quick Overview

Turo – formerly known as Relay Rides – describes itself as a peer-to-peer car sharing company, and started in (where else) San Francisco, back in 2009.  It spread nationally in 2012, and renamed itself as Turo in 2015.  These days it claims to have participating car renters in over 4,500 cities (I think this is a world-wide count) and service for over 300 airports in the US.  It has obtained funding from deep-pocketed investors, including IAC and Google Ventures, and before the Covid challenge had planned an IPO in 2021.

Because of the enormous variety of vehicles which people offer for rent through Turo, Turo says they have over 800 different car models for potential renters to choose from.  Of course, not all are available everywhere.

I’ve seen various claims as to the total number of vehicles that are available through Turo, one source says 350,000, another says 450,000.  Adding to the imprecision, that count may be for all vehicles in all countries, instead of just within the US (the company operates in 56 countries).  But that’s not to say all vehicles are available every day, of course.  That contrasts with Hertz, claiming 430,000 cars in the US as of May 2021, and is the same as Avis-Budget (also 350,000 in May 2021).

Rental rates vary widely, and my guess is they “price to market”, with a policy of having prices lower than regular rental car companies.  On the other hand, Turo’s car owners have some fixed costs and hassle/inconvenience/risk associated with any time they rent, so there are some “floor” prices which sometimes might be higher than special deals from regular rental car companies.  It seems that car owners have a choice of setting their own rates or having Turo automatically set their rates based on what is happening with competitor rates from regular rental car companies.

Just like regular rentals, there are other fees to add to the published rental rate, although for sure, Turo is a lot less “creative” at adding fees than regular rental car companies.  There’s a “trip fee” which seems to be an extra 10%-25% of the quoted price, and optional insurance.

Drivers under 25 are charged a 20% fee.

Cars are booked and paid through the Turo app or website.  You meet the owner at a pre-arranged place and time, show him/her your driver’s license, get the keys, and the car is yours until you return it to a pre-arranged place at a pre-arranged time.  You can usually cancel a booking, without penalty, as long as you do so more than 24 hours prior to the rental day/time.

There may be a delivery (and pickup) fee, which each individual owner can set as they wish, and if the car is being picked up and returned to an airport where Turo has an official presence, an additional 10% fee is charged for that.  Probably most or all of that fee goes to pay the airport, rather than to enrich Turo and its car owners.

The usual approach to gas applies – rent with a full tank and return with a full tank, or (sometimes) pay extra and rent with a full tank and return with an empty tank.

Insurance

This can be a bit confusing.

Usually you can choose from no insurance, minimum, standard, or premier insurance.  Insurance is a percentage of the trip price, ranging from 15%-25% for basic insurance up to as much as 100% additional cost for premier coverage.  Surprisingly, premier cover is not available on more expensive vehicles – this seems a bit counter-intuitive.

Even if you choose no insurance, most states require all vehicles to have a certain minimum amount of insurance cover, so you get that “for free”.

But, as an alternate to the above, some car owners have their own commercial coverage (some small “no name” car rental companies also rent their cars through Turo) and sell their coverage options rather than Turo’s standard options.  They will have different terms and conditions and prices.

As is always the case, it pays to check with your regular car insurer and see how your policy will protect and cover you when renting not only commercial rental cars from a “name brand” agency, but also Turo type private cars.

The Challenges

Not everything is identically the same as with a regular rental car company, and it pays to be aware of the differences.

For a long time, we’ve been spoiled in the US, with rental car companies doing little or nothing to inspect their cars for minor damage when each person returns one.  Renting a Turo car is a lot more like renting a European car – you will need to fastidiously check the vehicle inside and out before you accept it, recording the car with “official” pictures that you save to the Turo app, and then duplicate the process upon returning it.  Whereas with a regular rental car, it is just a low-paid employee who basically doesn’t care all that much if you created some small damage or excessive wear and tear, with Turo, it is the car owner, personally, who most of the time is going to be going over their car in detail, searching out any type of wear or tear at all and trying to claim it from you.

You also need to immediately report any odor of smoke in the vehicle, before setting out.  If you don’t, it will be assumed you were the smoker, and you’ll be paid a fee to clear the vehicle of its smoke smell when you return it.

There’s a related twist, too.  While there are limits, with a regular rental car company, you can generally return a rental car in a less than perfect state of cleanliness, inside and out.  The rental car company will take out the trash, quickly vacuum the interior, and put the vehicle through their car wash before renting it to the next person.  But, with a Turo car, you’re expected to return the car clean, inside and out, in a sufficiently good condition so it can be immediately rented to another person with no cleaning on the part of the owner.

This will often mean you’ll need to detour via a car wash when returning the vehicle.  Okay, so that’s only a 5 – 10 minute item (if there’s a car wash nearby), and a $10 cost, but do you know where to find a car wash in a strange city?  And do you really want an unknown extra complication and variable when you’re faced with the imperative need to get to an airport in time for a flight?

Note that people returning dirty cars can be charged up to $250 for a cleaning fee.

Several people have had an experience similar to mine – collecting a Turo car at an airport that doesn’t officially allow Turo rental pickup/dropoff.  This involves secretive stealthy swaps and the potential for embarrassing interactions with airport police, and that’s a hassle most of us would prefer to avoid.  “Act like you know us” and “We’ll pretend we’re picking you up like you are family members and then get out of the car around the corner” or “If they ask you, when you leave the parking lot, why you were there for only a couple of minutes, just tell them that you dropped someone off” are games not all of us enjoy playing.

If you are relying on some type of “free” credit-card insurance coverage, it seems that type of cover protects you with commercial rental cars, but is less likely to protect you with a Turo type rental.  Why not?  I’ve no idea!

There is a wide variation in car quality.  Maybe you’re quite happy with getting a “rent a wreck” type vehicle at a bargain price, but if you want to be sure to have a late-model low-mileage well-cared for car, be sure to check the details of each car offered.  (Some people have made it a business to buy cars and rent them through Turo, and their mantra is to buy used inexpensive cars, so they don’t have to fastidiously maintain them and don’t experience so much depreciation – those cars are of uncertain quality for you as a renter.)

We hasten to add that, as long as it has been well maintained, there’s nothing wrong with an older higher-mileage car.  We often choose those types of vehicles ourselves – have you ever noticed how some people think nothing of owning a 10 year old car with 100k+ miles on the clock at home, but when they travel somewhere, insist on the newest car possible as a rental!  That makes little sense.

There is one thing to be aware of, though, when it comes to vehicle reliability.  If your regularly-rented car breaks down or develops problems, they’ll swap it for another one, and if you’re lucky/persuasive, you can do the swap at many different locations, not just at the location you rented from.  But if you have a problem with a Turo car, it is unlikely (though not impossible) the car owner will be able to swap it over for another one, and even if they can, you’ll likely need to return back to the owner’s location to do the swap.

A common theme in Turo complaints are challenges to do with car owners who don’t comply with their side of the bargain, or who don’t provide the car in the condition promised, or who add on extra fees and penalties, or in other ways don’t do business honestly and professionally.  That sort of comes with the territory; as far as we can tell, Turo don’t require anything other than compliance with the car age/condition type policy when choosing who can participate in their program.  We also note that although Turo makes the usual sort of claims about being very focused on vehicle and renter safety, there is no way they can check the condition of all their many hundreds of thousands of vehicles at the start and end of every rental, so in terms of corporate quality control, there’s next to none, whatsoever.

Renters can rate each owner at the end of each rental (and I gather that owners rate each renter, too – owners can decline rental requests they feel uncomfortable about) and while the usual nonsense of everyone giving everyone five star reviews, whether deserved or not, applies here as elsewhere, if you see an owner with a rating below that of others, or few ratings in total, perhaps avoid them and seek out an owner with lots of reviews and more positive ratings.

It isn’t just the varying experiences with car owners.  Turo’s customer service attracts complaints from both owners and renters of cars.  In both cases, people complain of arbitrary and unjustified decisions as to liability and fault with all manner of issues and disputes, such as cleaning charges, unpaid tolls, vehicle condition and safety, and so on.  We particularly noted a credible complaint from a lady who was charged an extra fee for not returning her Turo rental car as agreed.  The thing is – the car broke down.  Turo were notified, arranged for the disabled vehicle to be towed, but then turned around and charged her for not returning the vehicle.

We’ve also read a number of credible complaints of people who had their confirmed car bookings cancelled at the last minute, leaving them without rental car arrangements.  There’s a Catch-22 challenge – you can only rate a car owner if you successfully rent a car from them.  You can’t give negative feedback about a car owner who cancels your booking on you at the last minute!

There have been a lot of complaints from people who booked cars at reasonable rates, then when rental car rates went through the roof last year, their bookings were unilaterally cancelled so the car owners could re-rent at higher prices.  In one notable case, the car owner offered to re-rent the car to the original would-be hirer, but for $2,400 more than originally paid.

One of the key factors is that with a regular rental car company, they are willing to sometimes “give you the benefit of the doubt” in return for your overall value to them as a customer and the likelihood of getting future rental business from you.  But for a private owner renting to you through Turo, they accurately perceive there is little or no likelihood you’ll ever rent from them again, so if there are “grey areas” in the rental experience, they have no motivation to give you the benefit of the doubt at all.

The picking up and dropping off process can be a challenge.  One person was picking up a car at a Los Angeles area airport (I forget, either SNA or LGB) and returning to a different airport (LAX) and somehow, this didn’t register in the Turo reservation.  Only when they were collecting the car was this uncovered, and the person who owned the car demanded it be returned to a location close to SNA.  The extra cost and hassle of getting from there to LAX completely destroyed the potential savings in the rental.

Who Turo is Good and Not So Good For

If you have definite unchangeable dates for when you wish to collect and return a rental car, and if you’re picking up and returning to the same place, then maybe a Turo car is a good choice.  The chances are you’ll save money, and while there might be a little bit of hassle or waiting to connect with the owner when picking up and returning, maybe that won’t be any worse than traveling in a rental company’s shuttle bus to an off-airport location then standing in line at the counter for picking up and returning one of their cars.

If you’re planning on a lot of driving, make sure you’ll not exceed the mileage allowance that comes with the car (sometimes unlimited, sometimes 200 miles/day, sometimes less), and be aware of what the cost per extra mile will be.  There may also be limitations on driving out of state, although that can be an issue with regular car rentals too.

But if you’re traveling on business, or in some other way need flexibility so you can change your rental dates either before the rental or during the rental, Turo is not for you.  Because you’re essentially contracting with one private owner, it can be very hard to add another day of rental, because they might have the car re-rented out to someone else the next day.  The same if you want to arrive a day early – maybe their car is not available a day earlier, either.  Or if you decide you want to take the first flight out in the morning, and so want to return the car at 6am – that may or may not get an enthusiastic response from the owner.

Even if you keep to your scheduled times, what happens if the car was in an accident the day before, or needs unexpected maintenance, or for some unavoidable other reason, is not available for you?  The owner might not have another car to substitute, and you might find yourself stuck with no car, and no advance time to find an advance-reserved low rental.  This is not a very common or likely occurrence, but is not unheard of.

One more thing about times.  If your flight is delayed, or if you miss a connection, you can usually still have a car waiting for you (during rental office hours) with normal car rental companies.  But if you’ve arranged to meet a Turo car owner at, say, 2pm to collect a car, and you now won’t be arriving until 6pm, the owner may struggle to change their day’s schedule to still meet you at that new time.

If you’re a regular renter of cars, you’ve probably become accustomed to the priority lane type service, especially at airports with at-terminal cars, such that you simply walk out of the terminal, over to the parking, get in your car, and drive off, and the reverse when returning.  Plus, you likely get car category upgrades on a regular basis, and maybe other frequent renter benefits too.  Everything is easy and simple and automatic and efficient, and, best of all, your company is paying, not you.  If this is you, you’d probably not be willing to sacrifice this quality control and consistent experience for the semi-random experience with Turo.

Should You Rent Your (Spare) Car Through Turo?

Maybe you have a spare vehicle that is currently sitting, unloved, in your driveway, and quietly depreciating while doing nothing for you.  If you live close to an airport, perhaps you could make some money joining the Turo program.

The key requirements Turo impose on car owners is the car must be no more than 12 years old, and with fewer than 130,000 miles on the clock.  Additionally, the car can’t have a salvaged or otherwise impaired title, and the value of the car must be under $150,000.  Turo rents regular vehicles, not passenger or cargo vans, not motorcycles, and not off-road vehicles.

Something to consider are the mechanics of where and how you’d drop-off and pick-up your car.  Of course, if you drop your car somewhere, you’re going to need a convenient way to get back to your home or work, and vice versa when picking it up again.  You can charge a fee for that service, but you need to keep it in line with what other car owners are charging.

Turo can provide insurance protection, for you – the car owner – when you rent your car through them, but of course that will cost you (Turo charge a percentage of the rental fee for that).  Otherwise, you’ll probably need to upgrade your regular car insurance to commercial cover, which will cost considerably more, and might be impossible to obtain (many insurance companies refuse to provide that type of car sharing service cover).

Depending on the options and fees and insurance included in a rental, as a car owner you’ll get between 65% and 85% of the amount paid by the renter to Turo.

With most rental cars unusually expensive at present, you might be able to rent your car for $50 – 100 a day, and particularly if you’re getting multi-day rentals, that can be a nice amount to get from a car that is otherwise doing nothing.

It seems an average “amateur” renter makes about $550/month from renting their car through Turo, but amounts vary enormously depending on your car, the rate and terms you set, and your location.

Summary

For leisure travelers seeking the best value, people who are willing to spend a bit more time and effort in the rental process, and people with fixed unchanging itineraries with the same pickup and dropoff location, Turo offers possibly two benefits.

The first is the potential to save money.  The second is a chance to “treat yourself” to a better-than-normal or unusual car at often great values.

If this is you, you might find Turo a great deal and certainly worth trying.  But if you’re a different type of renter, you may find the unavoidable constraints within the Turo business model to be not worth the savings.

 

4 thoughts on “Is Turo a Good Alternative to Regular Rental Cars?”

  1. rjmccall1

    Last summer we used Turo in Wyoming when the cost of an SUV from the traditional guys was upward of $500 / day. For about $150 per day we got a 5 year old Ram Pickup crew cab that was meticulously maintained and came with folding chairs, a cooler, phone cords and binoculars! It was at the airport when we arrived and drop off was similarly easy. And when I accidentally left my phone in the car, the owner was happy to overnight it to me. We are Turo fans!

    1. David Rowell – Seattle, WA, USA – New Zealander now living in the United States.

      Hi, Roger

      Glad you had a positive experience. I’m sure most people reliably do. I didn’t mean to dump on Turo in my article, but I did want to advise of potential (albeit rare) issues and challenges.

  2. rjmccall1

    Thanks for your reply David. I agree, most of the items you listed are probably rare, but bear mentioning. In all fairness though, I can attest after 30 years of renting 50 cars a year from the majors agencies (mostly Avis, Hertz and National) there are plenty of rare but serious issues with them too. I’ve had guaranteed cars not available, interminable waits for shuttles, unscheduled closed express lines, “upgrades” from a full size sedan to a micro-suv, filthy cars, a car that was ant infested and left items stolen!

    1. David Rowell – Seattle, WA, USA – New Zealander now living in the United States.

      Oh yes, absolutely. You and me both (well, it is a long time since I last rented 50 cars in one year, thank goodness!). But all your challenges are very familiar – particularly the long wait for shuttles, while watching an endless stream of shuttles for the other companies going past!

      I suppose the thing about Turo is that the problems with them are different. Neither worse nor better, just different.

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