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Holiday car rental: How to keep it cheap and avoid being stung

Planning to go abroad and hire a car? Here is what you can do to have more chance of cheap car rental and avoid the expensive traps.

Car hire can be a stressful experience at the best of times. For starters, it can be difficult to know what car you need and how much you should pay for it and then there are the hidden fees that bite you after your holiday.

A recent consumer investigation found that some car rental firms are charging as much as £8,400 for damage caused to a family saloon, while some holidaymakers are being billed for repairs that never actually take place.

There have also been complaints of sat nav and child booster seat hire being so expensive that it would be cheaper to buy the actual item back home. Hardly the sort of thing that will put you in the vacation mood, hey?

So what can be done to avoid the hassle and expense of a car hire agreement gone wrong and what should you look out for before departing with your hard-earned? Here are some pointers.

Do some research

Regardless of the company, you will find negative reviews online and in some ways this is unavoidable because of the sheer number of employees worldwide. The trick is to pick the one with the least negative reviews.

Going for a known entity such as Europcar, Budget or Avis seems like a sensible move because who knows how long will be running for. Then consider using a car hire comparison website such as Gocompare or Skyscanner to get a price.

When should you book car rental?

The further ahead, the typically the cheaper it will be and anyone who has hired a car at the airport will know it can be painfully expensive.

Booking early means you can probably pay the pricier insurance coverage, which waivers or reduces your excess, and still come in cheaper than if you do it at the airport upon your arrival. Or you can consider your own third-party insurance…

Consider third-party car rental insurance

You can use a third-party to provide insurance coverage. Some will insure you for the year, which is handy if you are going away multiple times, while others will do specific trips at a much cheaper price than a car hire company (and with a better policy).

Options include and can provide cover for around £3 per day and £40 for the year, but this may vary depending on circumstances. Even so, it should be cheaper than your car hire company.

Are car rental deposits common?

As annoying as it is for you to have £750 locked for the duration of your holiday, this is a common requirement of car rental. Ring up or go online to check the exact amount before you commit to any car rental agreement so there are no surprises and check it is returned after your trip within the agreed time.

Do I need a credit card for car rental?

Every time we have hired a car a credit card was required for the deposit, which is blocked off during your car rental. And every time we have managed to get away without having one, but you may not be so lucky.

Some countries will allow you to rent a car without a credit card, as will some rental companies (Sixt seems unfussy) but you should check for details before you get to the airport as you could be refused your car and, even worse, charged as if you were a no-show.

Can I use a debit card for car rental?

You may be able to get away with it, but it’s a bad idea to try if a credit card is required. Plus using a debit card means the security deposit is actually debited from your account, instead of being electronically blocked in the case of a credit card.

Is manual car rental better?

If you can drive a manual and prefer it, go for it. Automatics cost more to hire (as do diesels because they are typically better on fuel economy) so if you can cope with a stick, it will save you some cash.

Should I return a rental car with a full tank of fuel?

If your car hire company asks you to fill up the car when you return it, known as the ‘return full’ policy, do just that. Because you will be billed for the fuel missing and this will be charged at a substantially higher rate than what you would have paid at the pumps.

What about something like Europcar’s ‘refuelling service’?

We were quoted just under £80 if we returned our hire car without a full tank. This refuelling service can seem like a good idea (especially if in a rush, see below), but it would still cost more than doing it ourselves even if we had left a millilitre of fuel. This is because of the service charge, which is added to the cost of fuel per litre.

Leave with plenty of time

On a related note to the full tank advice, make sure you leave enough time before your flight if you intend on dropping your car off at the airport. The check over the car can take time, there may be a queue, filling up can slow you down and so on.

All of these things will cause you to rush and potentially miss your flight, which could be expensive. Or it may force you to deliver your car back with very little fuel, which will also be expensive.

Bring your own sat nav

Rather than pay as much as £204 (the price Hertz charges for a two-week TomTom loan), buy a cheap sat nav with map support for where you are going. Or download an app and download maps for the country or countries you are visiting because these work without data.

Here Maps is a solid option for smartphones as it supports a lot of countries. It can struggle with some addresses offline, but you can get round this by searching for the route while on WiFi before you leave.

If in Europe, new rules let you use your UK data allowance so you could actually stick to Google Maps or other online mapping services without incurring a huge bill. Or use a good-old paper map.

Also bring a booster or car seat

You can buy a booster seat for under £40 in the UK, a third of what Hertz is said to charge for a two-week hire period. Admittedly it will take up space, but it will save you money. Or you could see how much one costs at your holiday destination.

Car seats can also be expensive so consider bringing one of those, too, especially as you should be able to check it in for free. Alternatively, research ahead the cost because some countries will be substantially cheaper for these types of item than others.

Ensure you have car rental with ‘unlimited mileage’

Without unlimited mileage, you may be charged for going over a certain number of miles. As you have probably guessed, these charges will be quite expensive. Read the smallprint and email companies to check so you have something to fall back on if you are billed unfairly.

Should I take photos and video of my rental car?

Got a decent smartphone or camera? Go round your car and film where the existing damage is and ensure the car hire firm is aware of it (you should get a form that lists the pre-existing damage).

Also film the rest of the car and snap the mileage before you drive off in it and when you return so you have more chance of proving whether something was your fault or not. Some phones let you overlay the image with the time and date, which could help you argue your case.

Should I return a car during working hours?

This may not always be an option, but dropping your rental car back during working hours is a good thing. Why? Because you will be liable for any damage (be that vandalism or whatever) caused in the period before a company representative has a chance to check the car.

Got any specific questions about car hire? Drop us a comment and we will update the article with the answer. Assuming we know the answer…


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