Hiring a holiday car has become a complicated process. Well, actually, the hiring part is easy – getting what you feel to be a transparent and reasonable price is far harder. Bear in mind that counter staff aren’t in the customer service business. They’re salespeople. You’ve booked a vehicle at a temptingly low rate; it’s their job to encourage (or scare) you into buying add-ons, some of which you might need, others that are unnecessary or can be bought more cheaply elsewhere.
1 Establish what’s not included in the headline price. Do you really need a satnav? I’ve used the voice navigation option that comes free with Google Maps in places as diverse as Morocco, Moldova and Melbourne and barely missed a turning. Make sure you clarify whether the vehicle has unlimited mileage or a 150-mile-per-day limit after which charges apply. The daily rate for a child seat adds up over the course of a holiday; some travellers buy them instead. If you’re offered an upgrade, establish that it won’t be added to your invoice and keep an eye out for additional driver surcharges. Don’t return the car excessively dirty (whatever that means), or you’ll incur a hefty cleaning fee. Lastly, watch out for insurance supplements if you plan to drive into a neighbouring country. I bet you’re starting to wish you’d booked the train instead.
2 Fuel policies This one often confuses the jet-lagged traveller. Staff will recommend their “full to empty” fuel option but you could end up paying more for petrol provided by the hire company than at a filling station. Nor is it easy to return a car with an almost empty tank, especially if you only hire it for a day or two. “Full to full” is usually a better deal but make sure you know where the nearest garage to the rental desk is. I’ve spent hours driving around busy airport perimeter roads trying to find somewhere to top up before returning a car. And, of course, there’s a charge if the tank is not full to the brim.
3 One way rentals and premium pick up locations Hiring a car at one destination and dropping it off at another is going to cost you. Make sure that this fee is made clear at the time of booking rather than a nasty surprise when you collect the vehicle. Also, be aware that airports and ferry terminals are often categorised as “premium locations” with higher rates to match. To keep expenses down, some companies have moved operations off-site but this can entail a 20-minute courtesy bus ride to the car hire village. Not what you need after a long-haul flight.
4 Compare rates with an online car-hire broker I receive lots of promotional emails from firms with subject headings such as: “It’s now or never: 20% off!” or: “Sports fans, take advantage of our 15% discount during the Rio Olympics.” Tempting though the offers may appear, they all work out more expensive than using a third-party broker such as Rentalcars.com or Holidayautos.com. Neither of these companies own any vehicles, in much the same way that Booking.com doesn’t own any hotels. The downside is that counter staff can occasionally be sniffy when they discover you didn’t book with them, although most grudgingly accept that customers can’t be blamed for seeking the best deal. (Curiously, hotel receptionists don’t get annoyed when guests use Booking.com rather than reserving rooms directly.) Ask staff to explain the benefits of booking directly and they’ll make vague references to priority membership schemes and the possibility of upgrades. Their eyes soon light up when they realise you haven’t taken out any top-up insurance, though.
5 Arrange your own insurance excess protection policy. How often have you hired a car and congratulated yourself on a getting an excellent deal, only for the cost to double when you reach the counter? A collision damage waiver (CDW), which limits the driver’s liability should the vehicle be damaged, is included in the rental cost but an excess is payable. Charges vary but it’s not unusual to discover you’re responsible for the first US$1,500 of a claim. While you’re absorbing this new information, staff go to work selling the firm’s reassuringly expensive policy.
This practice has created a market for low-cost excess protection insurers. Online services such as icarhireinsurance.com provide peace of mind for a fraction of hire-company rates. Taking out an annual policy will pay for itself within a matter of days and, speaking from experience, claims are dealt with promptly and efficiently.
6 Don’t get charged for someone else’s scrapes and dents. You’ve booked your car through a third party broker, taken out insurance excess protection and the rental desk clerk has kissed goodbye to making any commission. Before you leave the forecourt, inspect the vehicle thoroughly to ensure that every bump, scratch or paintwork blemish is noted on the contract. Next, use your phone to photograph both the exterior and interior. Internet travel forums are full of people complaining about being billed for dents, stains and marks they didn’t cause.
Last but not least, try to return the car during working hours. Leaving the keys in a designated airport letter box might seem safe enough but remember, you are responsible for the vehicle until it is checked and signed back in by the company. You’ll be liable for any damage that occurs in the meantime.
Perhaps taking a train might be less stressful after all.