Rent private cars for cheap with Turo

It's kind of like Uber, but you do all the driving. Here's what happened when I took Turo for a spin during a recent vacation.

As everyone knows, we're now living in a sharing economy. People share their homes (Airbnb), their culinary skills (EatWith), their manual labor (TaskRabbit) -- heck, even their money (LendingClub).

Oh, and of course their cars: Lyft and Uber drivers will gladly ferry you from point A to point B (or, let's be honest, bar A to bar B). But what if you need a car of your own? Maybe, say, a minivan your family can use during a week in Florida?

Typically, that kind of arrangement requires a trip to Budget, Hertz or a similarly traditional car-rental outfit. But thanks to the sharing economy, it's now possible to rent a private car instead. And often for significantly less money.

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Turo: like Uber, but you do the driving. Rent something fun for yourself, or rent something cheap while traveling.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

It was exactly that hope that (sorry) drove me to Turo, an Uber-like service that lets you rent cars from individuals (or, if you're looking to make some money, rent your own car to others).

Never heard of it? That's because up until last November, Turo was RelayRides. (You can be forgiven if you'd never heard of that, either; I hadn't until last year, when I read Joel Stein's awesome story about the sharing economy's explosive growth.) It's not the only peer-to-peer car-rental game in town -- GetAround and FlightCar have similar models -- but it seemed the best fit for my travel needs.

Which is to say, I found plenty of minivans I could rent during my family's week in Florida. Because it was a holiday, rental-car companies were going to hit me up for at least $400. On Turo, I found "Dmitry's 2009 Dodge Caravan" for $30 per day. Adding in the various taxes, fees and whatnot, I was looking at just over $200 for the week.

I should pause here to note that Turo and similar services can also be used for straight-up fun, allowing you to rent, say, a Corvette or Mini Cooper for a day -- great for a date night or personal indulgence. Indeed, I found a couple Minis in my own neck of the woods, both priced at $50 per day.

But back to the van. A 2009 seemed a little old, but in the photos it looked like new, and so what if it lacked a few bells and whistles? Plus, Dmitry had scored very positive reviews from past renters, so I decided to take the plunge.

Although I used the Turo Web site to book my rental, the Turo app gave me updates and put me in direct contact with Dmitry -- similar to how the Uber app works. Alas, he wasn't exactly forthcoming; he never asked for my flight number or arrival time, and I had to ask questions like, "Where do I meet you?" His responses were often of the "K" brand of terse.

That said, two minutes after we walked out of baggage claim into the Florida sun, Dmitry pulled up in the Caravan. He extended a hand, checked my driver's license, gave me the key, pointed to an existing dent near the front and then walked off. I think there may have been a grunt or two mixed in there, but that was the extent of our interaction.

Needless to say, quite a different experience than finding the rental-car shuttle bus, riding the rental-car shuttle bus, waiting in a long line to pick up the rental, completing endless forms, declining endless upgrades and so on. Turo: way better. Your mileage may vary, of course, but lenders attract more renters by providing just this kind of efficiency, and scoring positive reviews as a result.

The van itself was spotless and, save for the dent, like new. And I was pleased to note the SunPass sticker atop the windshield; it allowed me to zoom through Florida's many toll booths without stopping.

When it came time to leave, I, of course, had to ask Dmitry where to meet. "Departures," he texted back. Okay, smart guy, let's see if you can figure out what airline I'm on. But sure enough, when I pulled up to the Delta door, he was standing right there. Sorcerer!

I handed him the key and that was that. No forms to sign, no shuttle bus to take. I wasn't a big fan of Dmitry the man, but Dmitry's van? That I liked. And I liked Turo for hooking us up. I would definitely use the service again.

This despite the bill I received a few days later. Turns out I'm on the hook for the aforementioned tolls, which I suppose makes sense. This wasn't mentioned anywhere on Dmitry's listing, but a quick perusal of Turo's FAQ page revealed that, yep, tolls are the renter's responsibility. The tally: around $14; no biggie.

This serves as an important reminder: do your homework. Read Turo's traveler help pages so there are no surprises, especially when it comes to insurance coverage and roadside assistance. For example, with a traditional rental car, your credit-card provider usually offers some coverage. With Turo, it probably doesn't. To tweak the old saying: renter beware.

That's true of everything in this new economy. There may be new risks in exchange for lower costs and greater convenience. But based on my admittedly limited experience thus far, these are risks I'm willing to take. Your thoughts?

Oh, by the way, if you want to try Turo for yourself, you can get $25 off your first rental. (Full disclosure: that's a referral link. I didn't have one myself before signing up, and now I'm $25 poorer as a result. But of course you're under no obligation to use it. Hit up a Turo-using friend or relative if you'd rather keep the benefits "local.")

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