Keys to success: how to drive a better bargain in car rental

Some simple pre-holiday preparation and attention to contract details can ensure you are using – rather than caught in – the hire firm’s clutches

The European Consumer Centre says car rental leads to frequent complaints as people struggle to find redress using traditional channels. Photograph: Getty Images

The European Consumer Centre says car rental leads to frequent complaints as people struggle to find redress using traditional channels. Photograph: Getty Images


Hiring a car can take the hassle out of a holiday and open up a world that would otherwise be closed, but there are a lot of downsides, and many holidaymakers find themselves badly burned.

A poll published by the AA found that 40 per cent of Irish people had a bad experience with a car-hire company. An absence of transparency over fees, fuel payment policies and confusion over excesses were identified as the big problems.

The European Consumer Centre has also said car rental leads to frequent complaints as people struggle to find redress using traditional channels.

So what can you do to make sure you’re not one of the 40 per cent?

1 Do you really need a car while on your holliers? And if the answer to that is yes, do you really need it for the whole duration? If you rent a fairly small family car for two weeks it adds about €600 to the cost of a holiday. That money will be yours to spend more wisely if you pick destinations where car hire is unnecessary and you use public transport. If you need to go on day trips, hire a car just for a couple of days.

2 Be careful of car-rental brokers advertising rock-bottom prices. Sometimes what seems too good to be true is too good to be true. A broker may promise the Earth for buttons, but your contract is with the car-rental company. And these companies are not shy when it comes to adding on extras.

3 A recent survey by Skyscanner found that 56 per cent of drivers end up handing over more money than they expected to.

4 You might pay more if you book through a big-name brand at home, but at least you know where to go to complain if things turn out not to be as they seem.

5 One of the big add-ons is the collision-damage waiver – someone is bound to try to sell you such a thing. And because they are on big commission, the sell will be hard and they may scare you witless. You will be told that if you don’t have it, you will be liable for thousands of euro in costs for the slightest damage to the car. It can cost as much as €30 a day for this peace of mind – or the same price as hiring many mid-sized cars.

6 If you do get it, bear in mind that a collision-damage waiver is not the same as comprehensive car insurance. Some policies exclude breakdown, towing charges and damage when yours is the only car involved. Almost all exclude clutch damage – which is a big omission when you consider how many miles rental cars do each year.

7 You can buy cover independently for about €50 for a whole year.

8 Book as far ahead as possible for the best deal. And make sure you get a copy of the terms and conditions. And, again, don’t just look at the bottom line. Check the excesses, and, if they are high, go in search of zero-excess cover – which can be bought independently.

9 Always check the cost of extras you might need during rental. There can be huge discrepancies in the cost of a booster seat, additional driver cover, and so on.

10 Picking up a car at an airport will also come at a cost. Even if the companies wanted to cut a deal, it would be difficult as airports impose a surcharge on them. Circumvent the premiums airport-based companies charge by taking a cab (or public transport) to wherever you’re staying and collect the car there.

11 Don’t pay for an upgrade if the company can’t provide you with the model you’ve booked – no matter how much they try to twist your arm. We have heard of some firms trying to sneak upgrade charges on to the paperwork. This means you have to read whatever is put in front of you carefully before signing it. This can be hard if you have screaming children hanging out of you or you are standing in the sweltering heat.

12 If you don’t read every word, at least look at the numbers. If the total shown is more than that printed on your voucher, you may have been signed up for optional insurances.

13 Familiarise yourself with the rules of the road in the countries you intend to drive in and the vagaries of the car before you go. Don’t do what we did once after renting a car in France. Rather than having time to learn how the car worked in the airport, we were spat on to a motorway immediately after we got the keys and ended up driving at 60km for 10 very stressful kilometres as we worked out how the car worked. Confusing the fast with the slow lane did not help.

14 When picking up the car, ask about the rental firm’s procedures in the event of a breakdown and make sure you put the emergency number in to your phone. It is much easier to get all these details when you are in the airport than at a roadside in a Malaga suburb.

15 Don’t forget to check the clutch. How do you do this? Just put the car in fourth gear, depress the clutch and slowly let it out while stepping on the accelerator. If it releases fully without stalling, there is likely to be a problem. Make sure it’s not your problem by asking for a different car.

16 Check the fuel type. Putting petrol in a diesel car or vice versa will do untold damage to an engine and no amount of insurance is likely to cover you for that.

17 Speaking of fuel, avoid companies with a full-to-empty fuel policy if at all possible. They make you pay for a full tank of petrol and return the car empty. They will charge you twice the price of petrol at garages nearby and you will rarely get to use all the fuel you pay for. The best hire companies give a full-to-full option.

18 Make sure you have enough capacity on your credit card to stand a hefty deposit. Companies will either freeze €1,000 or take it before refunding it when you give the car back. If your card can’t manage it, you are stuck. And remember: the card has to have the name of the person making the booking.

19 Return the car when the rental company is open and have it inspected by an employee who looks competent. Make sure to get the fact that the car is being returned in good working order in writing and signed by a rep from the company.

20 If you have to return the car outside working hours, take pictures of the car when it has been parked in the designated area. Mail the pictures to yourself. And remember to keep an eye on your credit-card company to ensure that no sneaky charges are added in the days and weeks after you get home.

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