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Originally published Saturday, June 1, 2013 at 7:01 PM

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Travel Wise / Renting cars (cheaply) from other travelers

FlightCar is a rental-car service with a twist — you rent from another traveler. Currently only at the San Francisco airport, its teenage founders hope it becomes the Airbnb of rental cars.

The Washington Post

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Nice to see a venture capitalist's press release turned into a "news" article. MORE

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On a recent trip to San Francisco, I rented a car for four days. But not just any car. Somebody else’s car. Somebody who was on a trip like me, except that while I was landing at SFO, this person was taking off — or more likely was already gone. I’d have the car back long before the person needed it, or so went the plan.

FlightCar.com, the California startup behind all this, aims to be the Airbnb of rental cars. It began when Kevin Petrovic, then 18, had a striking realization when he was returning from a trip: Long-term parking was full of cars sitting idle while their outbound owners traveled, and in the next lot over a fleet of rental cars sat idle waiting for inbound travelers to pick them up.

“We thought, ‘Couldn’t we make those two lots the same thing?’ ” said Petrovic, now 19, one of three teenagers behind FlightCar. He and the other two founders, Rujul Zaparde and Shri Ganeshram, put their college plans (MIT, Harvard and Princeton) on hold once they determined that the answer was yes.

The company, which is working to open its second location in Boston, depends on the idea that plenty of travelers would love to save on parking fees, even if it means that a stranger is driving their car while they’re gone.

On the renter’s side, the company banks on the idea that travelers who need a car want a cheaper way, even if it means that the ride isn’t brand new.

To ease the worries, FlightCar promises rigorous driving-record checks of renters and up to $1 million in insurance, plus that parking-fee savings and a nominal payment (in the form of a gas card) of up to $20 a day for new, luxury cars. Drivers are limited to 90 miles a day (a per-mile fee buys you more) and a 12-day rental.

The upshot: When I reserved a 2008 Corolla in San Francisco, the quoted price was $21 a day for a total of $84 — and by total, FlightCar means total. None of those extra taxes and fees tacked on. A check of comparable cars at conventional rental companies at the time showed prices including all those extras starting at about $130 through Payless and $160 through the larger companies.

Deciding to go with FlightCar was almost a no-brainer. By almost, I mean that the price was right, and the online application and reservation system was efficient, but I wouldn’t know how smoothly things would really go until I tried it.

FlightCar isn’t at the airport terminal but in a lot outside the airport, and I’d be picked up by a driver. I built a little extra time into my schedule just in case there were hiccups.

There weren’t. As instructed, I called upon landing, and a nice black Lincoln pulled up in just five minutes. The FlightCar lot was only a few minutes’ drive away, a small lot marked by a temporary sign and a little green storage shed. The walk-around, sign-here-and-initial-here process was no longer than typical, and perhaps a little quicker — but that could be because I was the only customer at the time.

The car itself was fine, no better or worse than the typical rental car; FlightCar thoroughly cleans vehicles inside and out before and after every rental, and there was no sign of any personal materials. (Yes, I checked the glove compartment: nothing but the requisite manual.) Checking in at the end of my trip was just as smooth. All in all, the biggest difference between FlightCar and other rental companies showed up in one place: the lower bill.

After Boston, FlightCar is planning to open in Los Angeles, followed by a handful of airports, each with its own complicated process of negotiating permits and regulations. But if calculations by Petrovic and his co-founders prove right, the complications will be worth it.

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