Call it the one-way car rental problem.
If you rent a vehicle and return it to the same location, you can usually find a competitive rate. But rent the car in one place and return it somewhere else — a one-way rental — and you’ll pay a hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars more.
Why? Car rental companies charge hefty dropoff fees to give drivers an incentive to return the vehicle to their original location.
But what if there was a way around that?
There is, and Victoria Pritchard discovered it when she needed a one-way rental from Edmonton to Vancouver. A friend recommended she try renting through a new site called MirrorTrip.
MirrorTrip pairs a driver with another who is going the opposite direction. It’s an elegant solution to a problem that’s as old as the modern car rental industry. The systems are currently available in western Canada but are being rolled out in North America soon. When broadly implemented, they could effectively eliminate pricey one-way car rentals.
MirrorTrip matched Pritchard to another driver who wanted to return the car from Vancouver back to Edmonton. It charged $54 a day and guaranteed a full-size vehicle. That’s considerably less than car rental companies, which were charging anywhere from $178 to $899 as a drop fee. Pritchard, a human resources manager who works in Edmonton, became a fan.
“I usually rent a few times with MirrorTrip during peak season, so I’m saving thousands of dollars,” she says.
Why are one-way car rentals so expensive?
Why do car rental companies charge outrageous dropoff fees? Historically, rental firms approach one-way rentals as something to avoid — and if they can’t be avoided, then monetized. It’s costly and inconvenient to return a car back to its original location.
Fleet management systems aren’t designed to find another driver who is willing to return the car. So car rental companies charge extra for a one-way rental, effectively discouraging the practice. (It’s just one of many car rental problems I deal with as a consumer advocate.)
What is MirrorTrip?
MirrorTrip, the brainchild of serial tech entrepreneur Reece Griffin, represents a new kind of car-sharing he calls “ride switching.”
“We created it to solve a long-lived problem that my co-founders and I had run into many times before — the one-way dropoff fee that rental companies normally charge you if you want to pick a car up in one city and drop it off in another,” he told me.
Griffin said the solution was to match renters with other people driving in the opposite direction.
“The second driver returns the car to where it started from after the first driver has finished with it,” he says.
MirrorTrip is available as an app (iOS and Android). You can book a MirrorTrip reservation with Hertz in western Canada, but there are plans to expand its technology nationally throughout the U.S. soon.
“It’s a new concept, and for them a potential edge in order to make car rentals price competitive with other intercity travel options such as bus, train, carpooling, and short-haul flights,” says Griffin.
“A great solution”
Colin Filkow, a retired music industry executive from Calgary, was in the market for a one-way rental from Vancouver to Calgary when he found MirrorTrip.
“The reservation process was simple and straightforward,” he says.
But the best part of the experience was the savings. Filkow estimated that by matching his itinerary to another driver heading in the other direction, he cut $1,000 from a typical one-way rental cost.
“I think a one-way car rental is a great concept and have recommended MirrorTrip to family and friends,” he says.
Chris Brown, editor of Auto Rental News, an industry publication, says MirrorTrip could eventually solve the car rental drop-off problem.
“The business model seems to benefit both the rental company and the renter,” he says. “It alleviates the steep drop fee while relieving the company’s labor to transfer the car. In the fleet world, we’re seeing how sophisticated algorithms are being used to make back-end processes more efficient.”
How MirrorTrip started
The idea for MirrorTrip came to Griffin on his summer vacation to Europe in 2016. He and his wife were about to rent a car for a one-way road trip through France and Spain.
“From previous experience, I knew a one-way rental from France to Spain would be pricey,” he says. But it cost even more than he expected — the going rate was 1,500 euros for the drop-off fee alone. To avoid the fee, the couple decided to drive several inconvenient loops around southern Europe.
“On the home stretch, the penny dropped for the MirrorTrip idea,” he says. “After Googling it to confirm that it was a problem that others were experiencing, I was excited to see a blog post with hundreds of commiserators commenting on some of the most popular blog articles.”
Back home, the idea for MirrorTrip solidified. Griffin and his co-founder developed a system that paired a one-way driver with a returning driver.
How MirrorTrip differs from a regular rental
After the initial matching process with MirrorTrip, the experience feels a lot like renting a two-way rental. MirrorTrip creates a separate contract for each driver, so there’s no chance of shared liability.
“MirrorTrip acts as a financial escrow on behalf of both drivers,” explains Griffin. “Once the booking is confirmed, it makes a unified payment on behalf of both of them to the rental company. All you have to do at the rental location is sign your own contract, show your license, get in the car — and drive.”
There are some differences, though. MirrorTrip’s rentals are prepaid and non-refundable. That’s mostly to ensure both drivers show up and honor their contracts.
“On the other side of the coin though, once you’ve paid with MirrorTrip, your trip is guaranteed,” says Griffin. “If for some reason the other driver is unable to fulfill their obligations, MirrorTrip will still make sure a car is available, and you still won’t incur any one-way drop-off penalties.”
What you get when you rent with MirrorTrip
The site prompts you to enter your travel dates and then tries to match you with another driver. If you’re outside western Canada, MirrorTrip can still be useful. A “price lab” feature shows you one-way rates in the United States, along with a helpful price history chart.
One of the drawbacks of the system is that if it can’t find a return-trip renter, you have to wait to be paired with a driver before receiving a confirmation. For business travelers who need instant confirmation, that might be asking too much.
Why don’t car rental companies already do this?
Here’s an obvious question: Why don’t car rental companies do something like this? Turns out that managing a car rental fleet across multiple locations is difficult. Some locations may be franchises, while others are corporate-owned. Their systems see one-way rentals as a nuisance.
MirrorTrip offers car rental companies another option: by matching drivers, it adds new customers while at the same time keeping costs low.
Griffin hopes those lower costs will also make car rental companies more competitive with other forms of transportation.
“Potentially, it makes car rentals price-competitive with other intercity travel options such as bus, train, carpooling, and short-haul flights,” he says.
Should car rental companies charge dropoff fees?
Drives have long complained that dropoff fees are ridiculously high. Should there be a law that prohibits these types of charges?