Car hire can be very handy when you are on your holidays. It can also be very stressful and very costly if you get it wrong. For decades car-hire companies have been accused of ripping off customers and the cross-border nature of the business makes it hard for people to seek redress.
Last summer the main companies that do business across Europe – Hertz, Avis, Budget, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Europcar and Sixt – all agreed to introduce improvements, including more transparent pricing information, an end to high-pressure sales tactics, better fuel policies and clarity on damage inspections. It remains to be seen if all the improvements will make a difference. This summer will be telling. In the meantime there are some things you can do to protect yourself.
Car-hire companies are like low-fare airlines: their top-line prices look good but they enhance their bottom line by selling add-ons to gullible people and those who are stressed-out, confused and tired after long flights. Don’t let them take you in. If you are disciplined and determined to drive the hardest bargain, you will save yourself a packet. So only ever pay for the basic package and view everything else that is offered with deep suspicion. Remember, hundreds of euro can easily be wiped off the total car hire bill if you are canny about it.
Think long and hard about taking advantage of any deals to be found away from airports you fly in to. They might look like great value – and you do pay a premium for airport pick-ups and drop offs – but picking up a car in an town near where you are flying in to can be a real hassle, and resolving problems can be more difficult.
Small brokers can cost less, but do still check out the big players, as they frequently have deals that can’t be topped – and it is handy to have an agreement with a big player should something go wrong.
Shop around more
You could just google "car rental Spain", but you would probably be better off visiting the sites that make it their business to look for the best deals. First of all you have skyscanner.ie. It searches dozens of car -hire companies as well as brokers and travel agents. It also allows you to filter the search results based on fuel policy, air conditioning, transmission, pick-up, car size and a lot more.
Change of direction
If you rent an Opel Corsa for two weeks in July from Hertz with Barcelona's main airport as your pick-up and drop-off point, a satnav will cost you the considerable price of €203. A booster seat for a child, meanwhile, will set you back €84, and if you need two of them, you will have to shell out €170. But you can buy a cheap satnav on amazon.co.uk for no more than €40. Alternatively you could take advantage of the massive drop in roaming charges and use your phone's mapping service to guide you to where you need to be. You can also buy two booster seats for €20 each. They are not particularly big and are quite light. By equipping yourself with seats and a satnav before you fly, you could save €293. Bear in mind that some airlines (we are looking at you, Ryanair) might charge you extra to bring a booster seat, but even if it costs you €20 per child seat, you are still saving.
Say no to SCDW
The cost of car rental includes insurance cover for major incidents but you will still have to pick up the tab for minors ones. Depending on the car-hire company and the deal you do, you could be liable to pay the first €500 of damage done to a car or as much as €2,000. Luckily, companies have a way for you to avoid these charges. They will sell you super collision damage waiver insurance – confusingly it might also be called “non-waiver” or “deductible” or a car hire excess insurance*. Staff will try to sell you this insurance in a very aggressive fashion because they are on commission. A good rule of thumb is to just say no because it is almost always spectacularly bad value for money. In fact, a collision damage waiver policy could easily set you back as much as £300 for a two-week rental.
Instead of buying collision damage waiver insurance in an airport, you can take out an annual policy that offers full cover with an Irish insurance company at a fraction of the cost. AIG, for instance, sells an annual car-hire excess insurance policy for as little as 14 cent a day, or not much more than €50 a year. Take it out before you leave. And be warned that when you are filling out the rental agreement at the airport, the car-hire agent might try to convince you that your policy won't work. It will work. And also be warned that if you decline to pay for the extra cover, the rental firm will almost certainly "pre-authorise" a sum to cover the excess on your credit card, so you will need enough available credit to handle it.
Always know the car-hire company’s fuel policy before you book. Many have a full-to-empty policy. This seems simple enough – you pay for a full tank and bring it back empty. But car-hire companies did not get rich by implementing policies that are consumer-friendly, and the full-to-empty rule is probably going to cost you money, particularly if you don’t plan on using the car that much. If you can fit 60l of diesel into a car (and you should always rent a diesel car) you might get as much as 900km on a single tank. So if you only plan to drive to a campsite an hour from the airport and then to and from a supermarket a few times, you are effectively going to give the car-hire company half a tank of fuel for nothing. What you want is a company that offers a full-to-full policy: that way you only pay for what you use. Do remember, however, to fill the car before you get close to the airport, as you will pay well over the odds on forecourts close to the departure gates and you will be absolutely gouged by the companies if you forget to fill it up.
Check and check again
Once you have found yourself a good car and sorted out the paperwork, the next thing you need to do is check the car inside and out for any damage. And then check it again. Make sure to mark everything on the rental agreement, and you will have to get a staff member to sign it. It is a hassle but if you spot some damage and choose to ignore it, then there is little you will be able to do to stop the car-hire company blaming you for the damage after the fact and taking the money from your credit card.
Phone’s a friend
There was a time when only the most terrified of renters took photos of the car before they rented it. But technology has made everything so much easier. So take some shots of the car before you leave the airport and take 60 seconds to video it inside and out. It’s no bad thing to have irrefutable proof of what it looked like before you took possession.
Do your best to return the car during the company’s office hours and be present for the inspection. If your car gets the green light, make sure to get paperwork that confirms that fact. And make sure to hang on to it. Some car-hire companies have been known to come after people for supposed damages months after the car has been returned. Even if you are leaving it with an attendant, take pictures of the car: the panels, the windscreen, the hubcaps and the interior and spend 90 seconds shooting a video. This evidence could be your friend in the event of a dispute.
Credit where it’s due
When you get home, keep an eye on your credit card and make sure fuel payments and excess charges and the like are returned. It is also worth looking at statements in the months after you return to make sure that no charges are retrospectively imposed.
Are you sure you need it?
Oh, and have you asked yourself if you really need to rent a car? The best way to make sure you are not ripped off is to not rent a car. You could pick a destination where car hire is superfluous and use public transport instead. That way you will save money – if not always stress.
CAR HIRE COMPLAINTS: HOW TO SEEK REDRESS
"The car-rental sector continues to be one of the top five areas of complaints lodged with our office every year," says Martina Nee of the European Consumer Centre. Last year there were more than 160 contacts from the public in relation to car rental, with half coming from Irish consumers concerned about car-hire firms elsewhere in the EU and the remainder from people complaining about car-hire companies here.
“Usually charges imposed after the return of the car for alleged damages represent the majority of consumer complaints,” Nee says.
“We also receive complaints relating to the terms and conditions of the car-rental providers (such as administration fees imposed by companies to process damage claims, traffic fines, refuelling or additional cleaning), but insurance product-related complaints was the area, I believe, that attracted a lot complaints last year.”
She says consumers complain about being pressurised at the rental location to buy expensive insurance products in addition to compulsory cover, or they claim those products are added to their rental without their knowledge.
“Obtaining redress in relation to those cases proves difficult as car rental companies can usually produce a copy of the car rental agreement with the consumers’ signature.”
She said consumers struggling to get redress from a hire company can go to the European Consumer Centre Ireland, which is part of the European Consumer Centres Network. The network covers 30 countries (all EU member states plus Norway and Iceland). Its main remit is to give free advice and assistance to Irish consumers who have cross-border consumer issues with traders in another EU country.
Nee gave us an example of a case it dealt with. An Irish woman hired a car for her holiday in France using an online broker. The total cost came to €377.43. She paid €111.43 to the broker and was due to pay the balance of €266 at the rental location.
At the rental desk, she was instead charged the full amount and the car-hire company failed to take into account the funds she had already paid to the broker. Neither the broker nor the car-hire company were willing to assist her and she was unable to determine who was at fault.
“ECC Ireland requested that our French office make contact with the car-rental provider, which recognised the error and refunded the consumer in full.”
* This article was edited on Monday, May 16th, 2016.