Chances are, if you're heading to a major city—in the U.S. or elsewhere—renting a car is the last thing on your mind. In most places, public transportation isn't just efficient, it's a way to tap into a local way of life, and the hassle of learning the roads and dealing with parking are nothing to sneeze at. Plus, there are the mounting costs associated with rentals: the car itself, insurance, the inevitable camera cop ticket or two, and those expensive, elusive parking lots.
But there are plenty of reasons to give in to driving: it allows you to explore the more authentic fringes of a city; it opens the door to day trips; and lets you sightsee as you head from place to place. For travelers in this camp, there's never been a better time to get behind the wheel, thanks to two new apps that deliver all the benefits of renting a car and zap the associated stress factors—all without breaking the bank.
First there's Silvercar, which offers a totally new approach to car rentals—a year after launching, it's finally becoming mainstream, with availability in nine major U.S. cities. The basic premise: all renters get the exact same make and model, a silver Audi A4, so that there's no surprise (or disappointment) upon pickup. The so-called standard features are anything but, including state of the art infotainment systems with excellent GPS navigation, and, on a recent test drive, satellite radio. Amazingly the cost is comparable to most standard cars booked through competing agencies (our Chicago rental ran $59 a day) and getting your tank refilled by the agency costs a mere $5. What's more, service is consistent with that at a luxury hotel: rather than have wait in line at a rental counter, we were picked up curbside and driven straight to our vehicle (payment and paperwork happen seamlessly via app), though a representative for the company told us that curbside service isn't allowed at all the airports they serve. Our return was just as easy: we simply drove to a lot outside the airport, and the company will gave us a courtesy ride to our terminal.
Luxe, meanwhile, takes the Uber model and applies it to valet parking. Like Silvercar, it's been around for a year, but the addition of six cities in the last six months has made it a real force for travelers. Set up your account and synch a credit card, and the app lets you hail valets to meet you at your desired location—they'll park your car in a nearby lot and charge you a set fee, which was capped at $15 (a small $10 fee is added for overnight requests) on our recent trip to Chicago. Every valet we met was professional and punctual, and each one was easily identifiable by their Luxe-branded jacket or backpack.
The caveat with both services is availability: Silvercar is still stocking up on enough Audis to meet consumer demand in its existing cities, and Luxe only covers select neighborhoods in each hub (often only until 10 or 11:00 at night). If the companies' rapid growth is any indication though, these shouldn't be caveats for long.
Nikki Ekstein is an Associate Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @nikkiekstein.