Hiring a car can be full of financial pitfalls. Do it right and you should emerge from the experience unscathed. Get it wrong and the bill can run into thousands.
Don’t book direct
It is tempting to automatically log on to the Hertz or Europcar website to make your booking – but third-party or broker websites almost always offer a cheaper price.
This week Holidayautos.com quoted £217 for a busy week in May from Málaga airport using Delpaso. This is compared with the £335 Hertz wanted.
Guardian Money recommends the broker Zestcarrental.com – which scores highly with Which? users – while Rentalcars, and Ryanair’s car hire also offer access to deals from a range of companies and can be good value.
If two of you will be driving, or you aren’t aged 25-70, factor that into the price comparison, as most firms charge more for additional and younger or older drivers.
If your flight is late at night, check the hire firm will still be open when you land.
Get the options right
Unless you really are only going to do 100km over the whole week, go for unlimited mileage.
Opt for a full-to-full fuel deal – it’s much easier, and you won’t be landed with an unexpected refill charge at the end, assuming you return it with a full tank.
Always collect the car from the terminal rather than off-airport. The latter is usually cheaper but you could find yourself being driven miles, and it can take hours.
Avoid the cheapest two-door car; instead, go for four. It will only add a few pounds but you’ll get a better-value car.
If you need optional extras, such as booster seats, factor that it when comparing prices. Zest offers free boosters on some rentals.
Don’t just opt for cheap
Holidayautos and Zest score each supplier, and we’d always pay a little bit more to hire from a better-rated supplier.
Our £217 quote for Málaga from Delpaso comes with caveats. The company is not in-terminal, and is rated 5.2 by customers. For £251, you can hire from Firefly, which scores 7.2 and offers terminal pickup.
An added benefit comes when you arrive at the airport. Most people who choose the cheapest option often find themselves facing big queues at the desk.
Paying that extra £20 may result in a quicker getaway – invaluable if travelling with grumpy toddlers.
Buy ‘extra’ insurance
Over the years, Guardian Money has recommended readers that buy excess insurance, with a stand-alone provider.
When you hire a car, third-party insurance is automatically included along with some cover of the car itself. Hires typically come with a £1,200 excess: that is, you pay the first £1,200 of any damage you cause.
Car hire firms will offer you “super collision damage waiver” – in car hire jargon – which reduces that excess to zero but will charge hefty daily fees that soon add up. It is better to buy from a specialist insurer that sells independently.
Insurance4carhire.com was a longtime favourite – its annual European cover now costs £46.99 but its daily cover for short rentals is very expensive.
We prefer Reducemyexcess.co.uk, a cheaper alternative that is equally well regarded. Buy annual European cover for £40.55 for the year, or £18.50 for a week. You have to buy it before the hire commences. Daily cover starts at £2.31 a day.
Buying this way is always cheaper than buying it from the car hire firm, plus you get better insurance (for example, the tyres and windows will be included).
If you damage or mis-fuel the car, or it is stolen, you pay the car hire firm the agreed excess – typically the £1,200 – and then claim it back from this policy when you get home.
Don’t forget to check your licence is still valid, and whether the hire firm needs the digital code showing any endorsements.
Ignore sales patter
Arrive in the car hire office and the excess insurance – or that “super collision damage waiver” – hard sell will immediately begin. Just say no to everything.
You don’t even need to tell the hire firm you have already bought cover, just say you simply want the car on the terms of the original policy – and will pay for any damage you cause.
They will tell you that towing charges are extra and theft is not covered. Just smile and ignore it all. If you are offered a free upgrade to a bigger car, get it in writing that it is free or, better still, refuse.
The firm will authorise the car hire excess on your credit card, so you must have sufficient credit to do this – most card providers will allow you to raise your limit for a week or two, if needed. It has got to be a credit – not a debit or prepaid – card and usually in the name of the hirer.
Check the car
The biggest single mistake most people make is to drive off without checking the car first. Don’t believe the hire staff when they claim there is no damage because there almost always is.
Examine every panel, remembering to look under the bumpers. Put down every possible scratch and blemish on the vehicle condition report that is part of the agreement.
Check the windscreen for small cracks and the wheel hubs for scratches. Is the spare wheel there, has it been used, is it pumped up?
Closely examine the edges of the wing mirrors and doors. Take photos of the car from every angle, and of any existing damage. You may also want to take a video at the pickup location.
Crucially, get the form signed by the hire firm rep – even if it means a long walk back to the terminal. If it is too dark to properly inspect the car on pickup, note this on the form and inspect it the following morning, informing the car hire company of any damage.
Photograph the report and email it to the hire firm. If the car looks as if it has been on the Paris-Dakar rally, check the oil and fluids.
Don’t drop it and run
When your trip has ended, arrive at the drop-off location with a bit of time to spare, with a full fuel tank and a clean interior.
You might think a quick vacuum is all that’s necessary but you could be charged £45 or more if the car hire company has to do it. Sand from beaches should always be removed. Get the car inspected while you are there, if possible, and signed off as fine.
If returning it when the rental desk is closed, take photographs and videos of the vehicle to ensure that damage is not added later when it is inspected. If you did cause any damage, fill in the forms and keep copies as you will need these to claim it on the insurance.
Keep all the paperwork safe for several months after you get home, and keep a careful eye on your credit card statements to ensure no extra charges are taken.