Car Rental Secrets: How To Book The Cheapest Deal
Discover how to book a hire car for less. We reveal which optional extras are worth forking out for, how to make sure you are properly insured, the best fuel policy to pick, the best rental firms to hire from, and much more. We even show you how you can snap up a rental vehicle for as little as £1!
Hiring a car while on holiday not only gives you the freedom to explore your destination at your own pace and go off-the-beaten-track, but could potentially save you lots of time and money too.
However, with competition between companies driving down car hire rates, more and more providers are using high-pressure sales tactics to sell optional extras to customers, in a bid to boost profits. If you are not careful, you could very easily end up paying over the odds for your rental, selecting pointless extras, or worse hiring a car that provides inadequate insurance cover in the event of an accident, crash or damage.
In this comprehensive guide we tell you which options make sense and which don’t, the major pitfalls to watch out for, and the best ways to save money on your car hire reservation.
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We strongly recommend that you also read our article on how to protect yourself properly when collecting or returning a hired vehicle:
Why rent a car on holiday
The are numerous reasons to hire a car, but here is a rundown of the main benefits and drawbacks of renting one while on vacation:
Pros of vehicle rental
- Freedom to explore at your own pace and schedule
- You save money on taxis or public transportation
- Enables more people to travel together in comfort
- Can be cost-effective, especially if you get a great deal
- Freedom to go off the beaten track or reach remote places
- An opportunity to drive/test a different/better car than your own
- Gives you the freedom to complete classic road trips or explore scenic routes
- Enables you to stay in accommodation on the edge of towns/cities, which often costs less
- No sharing a ride with strangers on a train or bus (unless you want to pick up a hitch-hiker!)
- You can reach destinations quicker, which gives you more time to actually enjoy your break
Cons of vehicle rental
- Car hire can be expensive and complicated to arrange
- You may not be allowed to cross borders in a rental vehicle
- Public transport or taxis may cover your needs perfectly well
- You will need to get used to driving an unfamiliar car quickly
- It may be cheaper to take your own car abroad, rather than hire one
- Picking up and dropping off a rental vehicle can be time consuming
- Driving on the opposite side of the road in unfamiliar territory can be daunting
- You will have to familiarise yourself with local road laws and driving regulations
- There is potentially more risk of an accident when driving abroad on unfamiliar roads
- If you can’t prove otherwise, you may be billed for damage that you didn’t actually cause
- Car hire may not be cost effective once fuel, insurance and optional extras are factored-in
- You need to remember to take documents with you, e.g. driving license, IDP, DVLA code, voucher, etc.
Understanding Car Rental Insurance
Rental car insurance is one of the most bewildering aspects of the whole car hire process, and the one that trips up consumers the most.
To illustrate what we mean, here is a list of just some of the insurance terms you will see littering the websites of various rental firms:
ALI – Additional Liability Insurance
ERI – Excess Reimbursement Insurance
LIS – Liability Insurance Supplement
LDW – Loss Damage Waiver
CDW – Collision Damage Waiver
PAI – Personal Accident Insurance
PEP – Personal Effects Protection
PEC – Personal Effects Coverage
PERSPRO/CCP – Carefree Personal Protection
SCDW – Super Collision Damage Waiver
TPI – Theft Protection Insurance
TDEW – Total Damage Excess Waiver
UMP – Uninsured Motorist Protection
Complicating matters further is the fact that some of these insurance products are essential to have, while others are entirely optional, and in some cases possibly even a waste of money.
Fear not, though, because in this section we are going to take a closer look at car rental insurance, to help you understand the choices better and to ensure that you are adequately covered, should something go wrong.
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The basic insurance cover provided by rental firms normally consists of three key components:
- Collision Damage Waiver
- Theft Waiver
- Third-Party Liability
This minimal level of protection is usually included as standard with every rental, but there are exceptions. For instance, not all firms include a theft waiver for free. It is therefore vitally important that you check and confirm exactly what is included, and what you are covered for and to what extent, before you go ahead and make a booking.
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Collision Damage Waiver
Contrary to popular belief, Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) as it is known in America, is not actually insurance of any description but an agreement between you and the rental firm that it waives its right to bill you for any damage to the hire car, even if it is your fault.
However, you are not off the hook entirely if something happens to the vehicle and you have CDW, because an ‘excess’, sometimes called a ‘deductible’, normally applies. This is a set amount that you have to pay out of your own pocket in the event of a crash before the waiver is activated.
While some rental deals are available with zero excess, especially in America, which means you don’t have to fork out a single penny in the event of an accident, you’ll find that the vast majority of rental agreements do actually specify some level of excess as standard, typically between £500 and £2,000.
It is important to note that CDW is primarily designed to cover damage caused by a collision with another vehicle, and not to cover single-vehicle damage. Moreover, CDW does not normally include cover for the following items on a vehicle:
- Flat battery
- Lost keys
- Theft of kit
Nor does CDW cover any issues resulting from negligence, misfuelling or breach of contract.
Always read the small print to fully understand exactly what exclusions apply to your CDW, and keep in mind that excess rates in some countries, such as Australia or Italy, are considerably higher than in others.
CDW represents the most basic type of cover and it is provided as standard with every rental.
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Much like the collision damage waiver, the theft waiver ensures that you are not liable for the replacement cost of the hire car, should it be stolen while it is in your possession.
The theft waiver is also commonly referred to as ‘theft protection’.
There are two important caveats related to the theft waiver that you need to be aware of.
Firstly, it includes a clause that states that protection is invalidated if the vehicle is stolen due to your negligence. So, if you leave the keys in the ignition and somebody drives off with your car, or if it is stolen while you are in a country you were not authorised to drive it in, then you will have to pay the full cost of replacement.
Secondly, theft protection only covers the car and not any items inside it, especially personal possessions or loaned equipment. For example, if you rent a sat-nav from the provider and it gets stolen from the hire car, the loss will not be covered under the policy.
The theft waiver is normally included as standard when you hire a car, but not always, so check. And, as with CDW, there is usually an excess to pay before the waiver kicks in.
Third-party liability cover protects you in case you injure someone or damage their property, and covers any related legal costs. It works in much the same way that third-party cover on a standard car insurance policy does.
Third part insurance is normally subject to a maximum payout, so make sure you are adequately covered. It typically forms part of the basic cover provided with every rental.
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Super Collision Damage Waiver
Super Collision Damage Waiver (SCDW), also referred to as ‘excess cover’ or an ‘excess waiver’, is an optional top-up marketed by the hire companies themselves. It has three key benefits:
Reduces your excess substantially, or even to gets rid of it entirely if you buy a so-called zero excess policy.
Covers many items not included in standard CDW policies, such as damage to windows, tyres, roof, underbody, etc., although some important exclusions may still apply.
Eliminates the need to pay a hefty security deposit, freeing-up funds on your credit card.
Some firms only allow you to buy SCDW at the rental desk, not in advance. If this is the case with your provider, then confirm the cost beforehand, so you don’t get overcharged when you reach the desk.
By far the biggest drawback of SCDW, though, is its cost; the waiver is normally sold at a fat profit by rental firms and can easily add £150 or more to a week’s rental.
In fact, optional SCDW is so lucrative for companies that some even pay their staff commission on each sale, which encourages agents to use high-pressure tactics and even underhand tricks, such as claiming your credit card has been declined when they take the the security deposit, in order to get you to buy the extra cover.
Little wonder, then, that mis-selling of excess cover is one of consumers’ biggest complaints against hire companies.
But don’t be taken in and don’t crack under the pressure. Super Collision Damage Waiver is entirely optional and, as the next section details, there is a much a better and cheaper option available called Excess Reimbursement Insurance.
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Excess Reimbursement Insurance
Excess Reimbursement Insurance (ERI), also known as ‘stand-alone excess insurance’, offers the same benefits as SCDW, but is sold by independent insurance specialists, and not by car hire firms.
As the name suggests, ERI works on a reimbursement basis, so you pay the excess amount for any damage or theft to the rental company direct and then claim a refund from the ERI provider afterwards.
The cover is always arranged before your trip and can be purchased on a per-day basis or as an annual policy. If you are going to hire a car more than once a year, the annual option is best, because it is more cost effective.
Savings can be huge. For instance, short-term cover can be bought from an independent provider for as little as £2 a day, as opposed to as much as £20 a day through rental firms, and an annual policy can be snapped up for £40 for European hire and £110 for North American rentals from certain insurers.
What is more, stand-alone excess insurance often provides much better levels of protection than the SCDW sold by hire companies, and certainly a lot more than standard CDW does, in many cases covering things like misfuelling, lost keys and towing costs, as well as damage to tyres, roof, undercarriage, etc.
To view our list of recommended stand-alone ERI providers, please click this link:
We also recommend you check out the following comparison website from Moneymaxim, which offers quotes on excess cover from multiple providers in one hit:
There are a couple of drawbacks to ERI that you should be aware of, though.
Firstly, if you have to make a claim, the insurer may ask you to supply an estimate of the cost of repair and this can sometimes be tricky to obtain from rental firms.
Secondly, you will still have to pay a substantial security deposit to the car hire company when you rent the vehicle.
However, given the potential savings, we think these inconveniences are worth it, and we strongly recommend that you consider buying ERI instead of SCDW.
Some rental agents will try to claim that they do not accept independent excess cover or that it’s not valid. Ignore them, because this is not true. ERI is a totally legitimate product and, as long as the policy is in the name of the lead driver on the rental booking, the insurer will pay out in the event of a legitimate claim.
If you fall for the hard sell and buy SCDW or top-up insurance from the car hire company when you already have ERI, you will not be entitled to a refund just because you have paid twice.
As with CDW, the insurer provider may not pay out if the loss or damage is as a result of your negligence or a breach of contract, and certain exclusions may still apply, so read the fine print of your ERI policy carefully.
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Top-up insurance is another optional extra sold by hire firms. It usually covers many of the CDW’s exclusions, such as damage to the roof, underbody and windows, or loss due to misfuelling or lock outs, and sometimes even extends to cover curtailment, car-jacking and road-rage incidents.
If you’ve been savvy enough to buy suitable excess reimbursement insurance from an independent broker, you shouldn’t need to bother with top-up cover.
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Personal Liability Insurance
Personal Liability Insurance (PLI), or Personal Accident Insurance (PAI) as it is sometimes called, compensates you if you or your passengers are injured or killed while in the hire car.
This optional upgrade is normally unnecessary, because the likelihood is that your travel insurance already covers you for this eventuality.
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Personal Effects Coverage
Personal Effects Coverage (PEC), also referred to as Personal Effects Protection (PEP), pays out if any personal possessions are stolen from your vehicle.
Again, if you have a good travel insurance policy, then this extra cover is rarely worth the money.
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The Security Deposit Explained
Unless you buy an optional extra known as Super Collision Damage Waiver direct from the hire company (see the section above for an explanation of SCDW), then you will be obliged to pay a substantial security deposit. This retainer is designed to ensure that there are enough funds available to cover any damage or penalties, such as speeding tickets or parking fines, that may be incurred by the customer during the rental.
The security deposit is normally taken in one of two ways by providers:
Pre-authorise the amount on your credit card. In other words, the rental firm will block-off or ring-fence the said amount on your card and then release the money when the car is returned without any issues. You shouldn’t normally have to pay any card interest on this amount.
Deduct the amount from your card in full, then refund it when you return the vehicle without incident. If the money is deducted in the local currency, then you are at the mercy of fluctuating exchange rates and could end up losing out when the money is refunded.
Either way, the hire firm will take a serious chunk out of your funds for the duration of the rental and you will not be able to spend this money during your trip.
Debit and prepaid cards are not normally accepted for reasons explained in the next section.
Given that the amount ring-fenced by agencies can be as high as £4,000 in some instances, it is a good idea to ensure in advance that your credit limit is generous enough to pay the security deposit.
It is also advisable to take more than one credit card with you, that way you have a backup in case there are any problems. Plus, if the other card is one you don’t normally use often, you can spend freely on it during your travels without worrying about the pre-authorised amount.
Once you return home, always check your card statement, to ensure that your security deposit was actually returned to you. You should be entitled to a full refund, as long as there were no issues the supplier can deduct money for.
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Why Paying By Credit Card Is Best
Debit cards and pre-paid cards are not normally accepted by rental firms, because they cannot be pre-authorised. Only a credit card will do in most cases.
One of the major benefits of using a credit card to pay for your car hire is that, if the rental firm takes an unauthorised payment from you or even worse goes bust, you can ask the card issuer for a refund under section 75 regulations. Debit cards don’t offer consumers the same level of protection.
However, if you only possess a debit card but still want to book a vehicle, there are a couple of options open to you:
Clarify Car Hire – their site lets you filter results to find rental firms that accept payment by debit card
Debit Car Hire – a specialist car rental service that caters to customers who do not own a credit card
Beware, though, that rental firms that accept debit cards may ask for a much higher security deposit than they do from credit card customers.
Regardless of whether you pay by credit card or debit card, always try to pay in Pounds and up-front, rather than in the local currency at the time of pick up, because it normally works out cheaper that way.
And whatever you do, always make sure you pay with the card belonging to the named driver on the rental voucher, otherwise you may be forced to pay twice!
Understanding Car Hire Categories
Car hire sizes
All rental vehicles are sorted into specific classes or categories by the rental industry. Prices always reflect the category the car falls under and not its make or model.
These categories often vary between countries, so what is classed as a sub-compact in the USA may be considered a good sized car by European standards.
Another thing to watch out for is that brokers and the rental companies they deal with often classify the same vehicle differently, causing a mismatch. To avoid confusion or disappointment when using a broker, always double-check with the provider direct to confirm that you are getting the right class of car.
Here is a rundown of the most common categories used by rental firms:
Mini – agile; easy to park; frugal; normally a 2 door or hatchback; perfect for 2 passengers with light luggage; takes 1 suitcase or 2 pieces of hand luggage; example: Fiat 500.
Economy – 2/4 door or hatchback model; small engine; seats 4; accommodates 2 bags; example: VW Polo.
Compact – 4 door or hatchback; small or mid-sized engine; good for town/motorway driving; easily swallows 2 bags; example: Vauxhaul Astra.
Standard – sometimes referred to as intermediate class; family-sized saloon/estate; seats 5 comfortably; features generous luggage space that can swallow 2-3 bags, especially if it’s an estate; large engine makes it ideal for motorway cruising; example: Skoda Superb.
Full Size – this category includes SUVs and people carriers; can seat up to 7, depending on the model; can swallow 3-4 bags, but sometimes only 1 piece if passengers use all the seats; ideal for groups, large families, long journeys or road trips; example: Peugeot 5008.
Premium/Luxury/Exotic – vehicles can range in size from mini to full size, but are always upmarket brands with luxurious interiors; many convertibles fall into this category too; examples: Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Volvo XC60.
Minibus – perfect for parties or very large families; seat up to 9; room for 4 bags; example: Ford Transit Custom Tourneo.
When choosing a suitable car to book, keep the following points in mind:
Take luggage information with a pinch of salt, because some firms are overly conservative when estimating how many bags a car will swallow, while others are overly generous in their calculations.
Don’t assume that the smallest models are the cheapest, prices depend more on supply and demand than on size. If cars in a particular category aren’t shifting fast enough, then prices may be reduced to stimulate demand. By being flexible about your choice of vehicle, you can often bag a bigger car at a bargain price.
Don’t be tempted to book a vehicle that is too small for your needs simply because it has a low price.
The majority of cars in N. America are automatics, so a car with a manual gearbox will cost you more; the reverse holds true in Europe.
You are unlikely to be guaranteed the exact model of your choice, unless you are prepared to pay a premium, and even then there may be caveats; firms are only ever obliged to provide you with a vehicle of similar spec and of the same class to the one you reserved.
It is sometimes cheaper to book two small cars, rather than a 7, 8 or 9 seater, so check and compare prices when reserving, and don’t assume that a large car is the only way to go.
Hiring 4×4 vehicles
You would think that rental companies would be fine with you hiring a rugged four-wheel drive or all-terrain vehicles to go off the beaten track in. That is what these types of vehicles are made for, after all. But that’s not the case.
Many car hire companies, including a number of the well known brands, do not allow you to take their vehicles off-road, or even on unpaved roads, because they say the collision damage waiver or third-party insurance does not cover you for such activity.
Furthermore, some countries don’t allow off-roading outside designated areas as a matter of policy. Iceland is a prime example of this. Off-road driving is banned all over the country, unless clearly marked otherwise, because authorities there say it damages local plants and flowers, and poses a safety risk to tourists in some areas.
If in doubt, double-check before hiring a 4×4, and before venturing off the tarmac!
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Picking the Right Fuel Policy
Filling up a tank isn’t as cheap as it used to be, so it is vital that you select the right fuel policy when booking a hire car, if you want to maximise your savings.
Some firms don’t include the price of fuel when you do an initial search on comparison sites. This is so they can lure you in by appearing to be cheaper than competitors. But once you factor in the fuel, they are anything but low-cost. Always take fuel costs into account when shopping for a rental.
Additionally, when you arrive at the rental facility, always confirm exactly which fuel type your vehicle uses, because providers class misfuelling as negligence and rarely cover it under their collision damage waiver.
Now lets examine each of the three main fuel policies marketed by rental firms to see how they stack up against each other.
You drive the car away with a full tank and return it empty. In Spain, it is the most common fuel type marketed by car hire companies.
Full-to-empty sounds like an easy, hassle-free option. Unfortunately, it normally works out to be the most costly fuel policy of all for consumers for the following reasons:
- Rental firms charge much higher rates for fuel than local petrol stations do
- It’s hard to empty a full tank if you are not driving far/often or are confined to a small island
- The cost of any fuel left in the tank when you return the car will not normally be refunded
The popularity of full-to-empty has started to fall in recent years, as travellers have become wise to its drawbacks. In response, some hire companies have introduced a hybrid policy that promises to reimburse you for any unspent fuel, but a processing fee is normally added on top, which means that the deal still works in the supplier’s favour and not yours.
If you do opt for a full-to-empty policy, try to pick a small car, because it will have a correspondingly small fuel tank and so cost less less to fill up.
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The full-to-full policy, also known as ‘return as you found it’ or ‘out full/back full’, obliges you to return the car with a full tank, just as it was at pick up. Reputable firms always give customers the choice of a full-to-full policy.
Full-to-full usually appears to be the priciest option when searching for rental quotes, but in reality it is often the most economical in the long run, because you only pay for the fuel you use, plus you are free to fill up at the cheapest garage you can find.
There are some disadvantages to this fuel policy type, however, but they are relatively minor in nature and easily manageable:
Brimming – some firms insist the tank is full to the brim when the car is returned. If it isn’t, they will charge you a pricey refuelling fee for topping it up. To avoid this risk, always confirm the size of the fuel tank on your rental car when collecting it, so you know how much to put in.
Fuel receipt – many firms insist that you show them your last receipt from a filling station, to prove that you topped-up the tank before returning the vehicle.
Last-minute stop-off – you will need to stop and refuel the car near the drop off point, which means you’ll need to find a petrol station nearby that is open.
Similar to full-to-full, except the tank will only be part-full when you leave the rental facility. This policy type is another one worth considering, if you want to avoid the inflated fuel prices charged by suppliers on full-to-empty deals.
However, it can be tricky to estimate how much to put in and where the needle was when you collected the vehicle. To get around this problem, make sure you take a picture of the fuel gauge when you pick up the car, to help you remember.
Regardless of which fuel policy you choose, beware that some firms charge extra for diesel cars.
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How To Save Money On Optional Extras
Optional extras of all kinds are a critical and very profitable source of revenue for hire firms. But with a little savvy and some forward planning you can often avoid the cost of add-ons entirely. We show you how.
Add any additional drivers to your booking and the price will instantly zoom up. So, try not to do it.
If you really must add someone else, then make sure you do so at the time of booking, and not on arrival at the rental desk, where you will almost certainly pay the much higher walk-up rate.
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Booster and child car seats
The cost of hiring a child car seat or a booster seat from a car hire company can be eye-watering. You are far better off taking your own child seats. Not only will you save money, but you can also be certain about their quality and fit.
Airline charges for car seats are a fraction of the cost of hiring them from rental firms and some carriers even let you take them for free, which is another reason to skip the rental option in favour of taking your own.
These links provide more information on carriers’ policies:
And you don’t necessarily have to lug a hefty seat with you on your travels either. A firm called BubbleBum sells an inflatable, backless booster seat that takes up very little space when not in use:
Another option is to hire child seats from an independent specialist at your destination. Such firms sometimes even have a presence at airports, making collection easy.
If you do decide to book child seats with your car rental, make sure you shop around. Prices vary considerably, and not just between different rental firms, some companies even vary the price of child seats according to location, charging more at rental desks situated in areas popular with families.
For further information about child car seat laws in various countries please click here:
Our verdict on the optional breakdown cover sold by car hire companies is that it’s rarely worth it.
Providers must supply you with a vehicle that is roadworthy and fully functioning for the duration of the rental. If a hire car breaks down due to a mechanical problem that you didn’t cause, then the supplier is under a legal obligation to provide you with a replacement vehicle of a similar size and class, so that you can complete your trip. You may need to pay to be towed to the nearest rental depot by a breakdown service, but the hire firm has to provide you with a replacement car – no arguments.
Limiting their value further is the fact that many of the extended breakdown policies offered by rental companies don’t cover you for problems like a burnt clutch, running out of fuel, or a flat battery, which means you could still be left facing a sizeable bill.
Instead, we think you should consider buying an excess reimbursement policy from an independent specialist that includes insurance for breakdowns, misplaced keys and misfuelling.
Better still, if you are heading to the Continent, take out a single-trip or annual European breakdown policy from a recovery specialist in the UK. It will likely be cheaper and more comprehensive than anything offered by the car hire company.
For detailed information on how to choose the right European breakdown policy, check out our in-depth guide on the subject:
Roof racks & roof boxes
Most rental firms don’t let you attach your own roof/ski rack or roof box to their vehicles as a matter of policy, leaving you no choice but to rent the kit direct from them, often at exorbitant rates.
However, even if you do this, you will still be liable for every tiny new scratch or blemish caused by the equipment and the supplier will hit you with a large repair bill, unless you take out additional insurance that covers damage to the roof of the vehicle. The most cost effective way to protect yourself is to purchase a suitable excess reimbursement insurance policy from an independent insurer.
Note that additional equipment is not always available at every branch, so make sure you reserve any kit you need beforehand, rather than waiting until you arrive at the rental facility.
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Mi-Fi units, also known as pocket wi-fi, are tiny gizmos that allow multiple devices to connect to mobile internet in a car and elsewhere.
Pocket wi-fi is certainly convenient, especially if you are on a business trip or travelling with kids, but you need to compare the cost of renting a portable unit against the cost of simply downloading data using your mobile phone’s or tablet’s roaming plan, to work out if mi-fi is genuinely worth the expense.
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Hire of a sat-nav can easily run to £80 per week, about the same as it costs to buy one outright, which means it rarely makes sense to rent a unit.
Smart travellers either bring their own sat-nav or, better still, download navigation software to their mobile phone and use that instead. These mobile apps are often free and don’t necessarily require an internet or data connection to operate, relying instead on smart phones’ in-built GPS facility to guide you. Here’s our pick of the bunch:
Waze (requires a mobile connection)
Alternatively, you can download any map from Google Maps for offline use. This guide shows you how:
If you prefer to use a dedicated sat-nav with the data pre-loaded, then both of these retailers stock a wide selection of models:
And, if all else fails, there are always good old road maps to fall back on!
One important thing to mention is that when driving in parts of Europe, especially in France, it is illegal to use the speed camera warning function found on many navigation tools, and that doing so could land you with a hefty fine.
Several rental firms do not supply snow chains – not even as an optional extra – nor do they let you use your own.
Where this is the case, the car should come fitted with winter tyres instead, either to help you cope with the terrain or to comply with local road rules, but always confirm this with your supplier before you book.
You can check which countries require winter tyres by law by consulting this guide from tyre maker Uniroyal:
Booking Tips & Tricks
The following is a rundown of the most important points you need to keep in mind when shopping for a hire car, as well as some essential tactics for reducing the cost of rental:
Don’t focus on price alone – everyone wants the best car for the lowest price, but make sure you take other factors into account too, such as the firm’s reputation, extras, T&Cs, excess price, vehicle range, size of the security deposit, and the location of pick up and drop off points.
Compare like with like – the car hire business is extremely competitive and firms often use headline grabbing deals to reel you in. Cheap deals often include hidden extras, so always make sure you are comparing like with like when weighing up offers from rival companies.
Book early to save big – just like airline ticket and hotel room prices, vehicle rental rates fluctuate according to supply and demand. Booking 2-3 months before departure greatly increases your chances of securing the lowest price, because you can avoid local rates as well as the premium applied to last-minute reservations.
Here are a few more reasons to book as early as possible:
- More choice of vehicles
- Time to shop around/compare
- Less time wasted at the rental desk
- You can take advantage of sales/deals
- More time to read the terms and conditions carefully
- You can arrange low-cost insurance and breakdown cover
- Extras like child seats and sat-nav often cost less if booked early
Pick the right fuel policy – full-to-full rentals normally offer the best value, but often cost the most up-front. Don’t be put off by this, do the maths. If you intend to munch a lot of miles and the sums add up, then consider a full-to-empty policy, especially if it refunds any unused fuel, but think twice otherwise.
Pay in advance, not at the desk – try to pay for your booking in full and in advance; paying at the rental desk often results in a poor exchange rate and foreign transaction fees, depending on the card you use.
Additional drivers cost money – some rental companies add a second driver for free, but most charge between £5-10 a day for each extra driver on a booking. Keep additional drivers to a minimum.
Watch out for the age premium – most firms charge extra for drivers aged under 25 or over 70, and those aged under 21 pay the most. Certain high performance vehicles may also be restricted to those aged 25+.
Beware of one-way bookings – one-way rentals, where you pick up at one location and drop off at another, usually attract a premium, unless you bag a drive-in/drive-out deal (more about which later). And a one-way booking may not be allowed at all for cross-border rentals or for certain types of vehicles, e.g. minivans or exotic cars.
Off-airport rentals cost less – rental desks at busy airports and seaports don’t come cheap, and these costs are invariably passed on to customers in the form of higher rental charges at these locations.
Examples of some of the airport surcharges applied to car rentals in the USA, for instance, include ‘Airport Transportation’, ‘concession recovery fee’, ‘tourism fee’, ‘airport access fee’ and ‘County Business License Tax’. In Texas these levies amount to 20% of the total cost of hire, if you rent at the airport.
Therefore, if you want to be a savvy motorist and avoid most of these charges, choose an off-airport rental facility. It’s less convenient, agreed, but a courtesy bus might be available from the airport to the off-site office, helping smooth the way. Even if there isn’t a free shuttle available, it may still be cheaper to jump in a taxi than pay airport rental rates.
The same principle applies to city-centre rental desks. The prices firm’s quote there are often higher than those available at their suburban offices, so choose the latter if you can.
Don’t assume the daily rate is the cheapest – if booking for less than a week, try checking both the daily and weekly rates, as many hire firms offer big discounts for weekly rentals, which may actually work out cheaper than the total daily rate.
To be safe, just make sure you have adequate insurance for the entire period of the rental, if you do opt to go down this route.
Watch out for mileage limits – rentals with unlimited mileage usually cost more up-front than deals that have limits attached, but work out cheaper if you intend to cover a lot of miles. If you know you’re definitely not going to go over the daily mileage allowance, then the restricted mileage option is best.
Daily mileage limits are normally added up and divided by the total number of days a car is hired for, so it’s not an issue if you clock-up more miles one day. Go above the overall limit, however, and you will be hit hard with extra charges, so aim to stay below it.
Also, mileage restrictions may change if you take a hire car across an international border, so always check beforehand if you plan to do this.
Choose pick up and drop off times carefully – most firms calculate rental periods in 24 hour blocks. Use this to your advantage. If you collect a car at 12pm and plan to return it by 10am some days later, still choose 12pm as the return time, that way you won’t be late even if you’re delayed somewhat.
Additionally, always enter your flight details at the time of booking, because the hire firm can then receive alerts if your flight is delayed and try to hold your reservation for you for as long as possible.
Don’t assume the smallest cars are the cheapest – rental prices are governed more by supply and demand than vehicle size. If a large model isn’t proving popular with customers, it’s price may be slashed to stimulate demand. Bear this is mind when searching and be sure to check other car classes, not just the one you are most interested in.
If you are travelling as a group, it can sometimes be cheaper to book two small cars, instead of a large people carrier. Again, research thoroughly.
Read the small print – always download and read the terms and conditions of your rental booking carefully. Make sure you understand what rules and exceptions apply. Firms often sneak extra charges and penalties into the small print. Don’t be caught out.
Take advantage of the cancellation policy – many firms let you cancel your booking up to 48 hours before collection without any penalty. Take advantage: book early, then search again as the cancellation period draws near; if you find a better deal, grab it and cancel the original booking.
Find out what others think – recommendations from friends and family are invaluable when trying to choose a supplier, as are customer reviews and rating websites. Make use of them. One of our favourite online resources for accessing customer feedback on companies is:
How To Save Money On Your Booking
Excess Reimbursement Insurance Specialists
As mentioned earlier, you can save a bundle by purchasing excess reimbursement insurance from an independent insurer, rather than opting for the super collision damage waiver marketed by the rental companies themselves.
You can compare offers from a host of different excess reimbursement insurers at the following website:
Well known providers of stand-alone excess reimbursement policies include:
Car Hire Brokers
Booking through a specialist car hire broker is an excellent way to save money on a rental, because they often negotiate bulk deals with rental companies and then pass on the savings to customers.
A word of caution, though: your contract is almost always with the rental company direct, the broker is merely acting as a go-between, nothing more. For this reason, if you experience any problems, it will be the hire firm’s responsibility to resolve them, not the broker’s.
Having said that, a good broker will still intervene on your behalf and try to sort things out if any issues arise, whereas a bad one will simply try to fob you off. A reputable broker will also give you a clear explanation of what is included in your rental and what is not, rather than leave it to you to figure out.
Price comparison websites are another great way to track down a rental car deal that fits your budget. Tap in a few details and you can view rates from multiple car hire firms with just one click.
The main thing to watch out for is that, because there is so much pressure to appear at the top of comparison tables in order to grab custom, many suppliers offer attractive headline rates which, on closer inspection, turn out to include a raft of extra fees or hidden charges.
The Competition and Mergers Authority clamped down on car hire firms and comparison sites about these tactics a few years ago, and the situation has definitely improved as a result, but it still worth bearing in mind that you shouldn’t take initial quotes at face value; dig deeper instead, to see exactly what you are getting for your money.
There are a raft of comparison sites out there on the internet that you can use to find car rental deals, but here is our pick of the bunch:
Direct with Rental Companies
Don’t overlook the car hire companies themselves. The market is highly competitive and many rental firms will price-match or even beat rivals’ quotes, as well as throw in goodies like zero excess and free cancellation.
If you regularly hire a car from a particular company, or simply want to take advantage of the various discounts and rewards it offers members, then consider joining its loyalty scheme. Well known membership programmes include:
- Alamo Insiders
- Avis Preferred
- Budget Business Program
- Dollar Express Renter Rewards
- Enterprise Plus
- Europcar Privilege
- Hertz Gold Plus
- National Emerald Club
- Sixt Cards
- Thrifty Blue Chip Rewards
An important point to note is that the biggest players in the car hire industry own a wide variety of rental brands, each catering to a different segment of the market, so a firm you thought was an independent may be anything but. Here is what we mean:
Avis Budget Group – Apex, Budget, Maggiore Group, Payless, Zipcar
Enterprise Holdings – Alamo, Enterprise, National
Europcar – Europcar, Goldcar, InterRent, Keddy
The Hertz Corporation – Dollar, Firefly, Hertz, Thrifty
This is particularly the case in America where Hertz, Avis Budget, and Enterprise collectively control over 90% of the market.
If you wish to follow our advice and get quotes direct from rental companies, in order to compare their prices against those of brokers and other players, then we recommend you explore the websites of the following suppliers:
Yescapa (RV and campervans)
Luxury Car Hire
Classic Car Hire
Online Travel Agents
Under UK law all package holidays must be protected. In practice, this normally means Air Travel Organiser’s Licence (ATOL) protection, a government backed financial compensation scheme that either pays out or helps you complete your trip if your provider goes bust.
If your holiday package includes car hire and flights or flights, accommodation and car hire, then you will usually be covered by the ATOL scheme. You can double-check via this link:
Car hire as part of a holiday package can be good value, especially if you decline all the extras firms push in order to boost their bottom line. But this is not always the case.
Our advice is to compare prices before booking, to see if renting independently presents better value. Be particularly sceptical of offers that include ‘free’ car rental, as there really is no such thing; you always end up paying for the cost of a hire car somehow.
Well known online travel websites include:
Cashback sites share any commission they earn with their members. All you have to do is click through the cashback site to reach the website of your preferred rental company, rather than going direct, so that your visit can be recorded. If you then go on to make a valid purchase, you get paid a reward by the cashback site. It really is that simple!
The two most popular cashback specialists in the UK are:
Coupons, Discounts and Loyalty programs
Another really quick and easy way to shave the cost of car hire is to make use of the array coupon codes and discount vouchers that are readily available on the internet. Reliable sites for tracking these down include:
And if you belong to an airline or hotel loyalty programme, it is always worth enquiring if there are any special deals or discounts available to members when renting a vehicle.
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Many airlines now plug hire cars as well as flights on their websites. Their deals can be good value too, especially if you have very simple requirements. But don’t assume that just because you are combining flights and car hire that you will automatically save money. Do your homework, to check if a deal from an air carrier genuinely beats the rates offered by rental firms and other competitors, before you make a final decision.
The real benefit of booking flights and car hire together, and one which many travellers overlook, is that your package will be ATOL protected. So, if anything happens to either of your suppliers, you’ll be covered.
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Drive-in/Drive-Out – £1 Rentals
Vehicles dropped off after one-way journeys have to be returned to their original location. Also, large numbers of cars often need to be relocated to another area to meet demand during high season, e.g. from America’s north to its Sun Belt during winter.
Staff are usually employed to do this, but customers can get in on the act too, by taking advantage of what are known as ‘drive-in’ or ‘drive-out’ programmes, depending on the direction of travel.
If your journey happens to match a firm’s repositioning requirements, you could bag yourself a spectacular rental bargain. And by that we mean a hire car for as little as £1!
Interested? Then call one of the big names in the rental sector and ask what ‘driveaway’ deals they have available. Easier still, approach one of the specialist firms that handle repositioning on behalf of providers, to check if they have any drive-in or drive-out bargains matching your itinerary:
Sixt One Way
Don’t be fooled by those eye-catching car hire deals. Yes, it’s possible to rent a car for just £1, but the majority of low-cost rates you see advertised have been stripped of essential features and protections in order to bring down the price, and are therefore not all they appear to be.
If you really want to save money, focus on picking the right fuel policy, declining pricey optional extras, and arranging excess reimbursement insurance and European breakdown cover through independent providers instead.
Never assume that the price you see is the lowest. Always compare quotes on rental firms’ websites against equivalent offers from car hire brokers and travel agents, to ensure you really are getting the best deal. And, whenever possible, use discount codes, vouchers and cashback sites to slash the cost even further.
When you reach the rental desk, resist any hard sell tactics employed by staff and instead focus on using the information in this guide to identify the options that represent genuine value for money, and so are worth paying extra for.
By understanding how hire companies operate and by following a few simple rules to protect yourself, you’ll not only bag a genuine rental bargain, but ensure that it’s one that has you properly covered should something go wrong.
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