10 tips to save on car hire

12 July 2019

When hiring a car on holiday, there are pitfalls to be aware of. Here’s how to make your renting experience a happy one

10 tips to save on car hire

Many holidaymakers who are heading abroad over the next few months will be hiring a car for their trip.

But drivers need to be on their guard, as car rental firms may hook you in with a low headline price, only to then try and get you to hand over more money with all sorts of unnecessary extras – such as ridiculous repair bills or expensive add-ons.

Problems persist despite investigations by the Competition and Markets Authority (see box below).

Here, we take a look at some of the common car rental pitfalls.

1 The ‘collect full, return empty’ fuel policy trick

A lot of car-hire companies will tell motorists they have to pay upfront for a full tank of petrol and that they can return the vehicle empty. The issue is that you will get charged an inflated price for the petrol at the outset and can end up paying for fuel you haven’t used at the end, as it is almost impossible to return a car with no petrol in the tank.

What can you do?

Online broker Rentalcars.com recommends opting for a rental firm that offers a ‘full-to-full’ policy. This is where you pick up the car with a full tank and return it with a full tank.

Nigel Wolstenholme, head of consumer brand at Rentalcars.com, says: “It’s considerably cheaper for you to buy the fuel yourself, rather than have the car-hire firm top up the tank.”

But be sure to follow the refuelling requirements to the letter, or you could risk being charged ‘refuelling fees’.

2 The ‘limited mileage’ hazard

Car-hire firms will sometimes place a limit on how far you can drive and will then charge you for excess mileage.

If firms add a charge per kilometre for exceeding a set daily limit, costs can quickly rack up.

What can you do?

In reply to this, Mr Wolstenholme says: “If you want to drive without limitations while on holiday, opting for unlimited mileage will be your best bet.”

3 Being pressured into buying costly add-on insurance

When you hire a car, the vehicle comes with cover for accidental damage or theft, but you will still be liable to pay an excess.

To cover this cost, you can purchase car-hire excess cover, in order to waive the excess liability.

But even if you’ve bought a standalone policy in the UK prior to your holiday, you need to remain on your guard, as you could get hoodwinked into taking additional insurance from the car hire company.

Emma Coulthurst, consumer advocate for TravelSupermarket, says: “Pushy sales tactics are used by staff at the arrivals desk to sell damage waiver excess cover and super theft waiver – and potentially also a separate tyre and windscreen excess.

“The ludicrously expensive policies sold by the rental desks can turn a bargain car-hire price into a rip-off. The rental desk will often charge around £20-plus a day for this cover. Over a week, the total can end up being more than the cost of car hire itself.”

What can you do?

Shop around in the UK to find a decently priced standalone excess insurance policy costing just a few pounds a day. Don’t get tricked into buying extra cover you don’t need at the collection desk. Also choose your rental company carefully, as some car hire specialists, such as Zest Car Rental, will offer excess protection cover as standard within the price that you are quoted.

4 Unwanted upgrade

Be on your guard if staff at the rental desk say you are being upgraded to a more expensive class of car.

Rory Sexton from car hire specialist Zest Car Rental, says: “While getting a ‘better’ car than you were expecting may seem like a win, this won’t be the case when you find out that it’s not actually a free upgrade, and that you will be charged extra.”

What can you do?

If the car you booked is not available, stand your ground. Insist on either being offered a higher category car for no extra cost or a lower one with the appropriate refund.

What is being done to protect consumers?

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has spent the past few years trying to drive up standards in the car-hire sector.

In March this year, Europe’s five biggest car-hire firms – Avis Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, Sixt and Europcar – were forced to change the way in which they display charges and other key information on their websites, following intervention by the CMA.

George Lusty, senior director for consumer protection at the CMA, says: “No one should be misled or caught out by hidden fees when renting a car. The big five told us in 2015 they would update their practices, but we’ve found they weren’t doing all that they’d committed to. Following our further intervention, the charges people see on the big five’s websites will be clear, prominent and accurate, allowing customers to choose the best possible deal for them.”

The hope is that this will allow customers to know exactly what they are paying upfront – giving them more confidence.

The CMA has also taken separate action against two Spanish car hire companies – Centauro Rent-A-Car and Record Go Alquiler Vacacional – following concerns that UK holidaymakers were being misled by their practices.

The firms have agreed to improve the way they display information on their websites, ensuring they include all compulsory charges upfront.


5 An offer to pay in sterling

Your car-hire company may offer you the chance to pay for your car hire in pounds, which may sound appealing, but there’s a catch.

When paying in sterling abroad, the rental firm can use its own conversion rate and this could be uncompetitive, so you end up paying over the odds.

What can you do?

Be aware that firms are legally required to give customers a choice on the currency they pay.

Always insist on paying in the local currency. Check carefully before entering your PIN.

6 Being charged for ‘extras’ such as child seats

Research from TravelSupermarket shows that more than one in 10 Brits who hired a car say they have been charged for extras that they could have brought themselves if they had known they would incur an extra fee.

Ms Coulthurst says: “Hertz charges £73.80 for a child seat, whereas you could buy a new booster seat in the UK from around £10. Europcar charges from £14 a day for satnav.”

What can you do?

Save money by taking your own child seat with you. Many airlines allow you to take a child seat for free.

Save further by taking your own satnav, using your smartphone, or buying a road map.

7 Failing to book in advance

If you aren’t organised and end up waiting until you get to the arrivals hall to hire a car, you could end up paying highly inflated ‘walk-in’ prices at the car-hire counter.

Ms Coulthurst says: “You could find yourself paying as much as three times the price – or even more – compared with booking in advance online.”

What can you do?

Compare prices and arrange your car hire online in advance. It will always be cheaper than the price in the arrivals hall,and also means you have a wider pool of cars to choose from.

8 Being charged heavily for ‘pre-existing damage’

Here, drivers get home from their holiday to find a letter on their doormat saying they are being billed for dents and scratches they feel sure they didn’t cause.

What can you do?

When you go to pick up your vehicle, make sure you inspect the car thoroughly – including the tyres, glass, roof and underside of the car – and don’t let the hire firm rush you.

Make sure every tiny scratch is marked on the rental contract before you drive away.

Take pictures of the damage while you’re still in the car park – ideally ones that will help you prove the date.

If the vehicle cannot be checked in when you return it, make sure you take lots of photographs of it from different angles.

If you do receive a letter saying that repairs are required, you should be sent clear evidence of how costs were calculated.

If you think repair costs are excessive, complain. The European Car Rental Conciliation Service (Ecrcs.eu) can help get refunds for incorrect or excessive charges – but only if complaints relate to its member companies.

9 The ‘damaged door lock’ pitfall

This is relatively new and involves firms sending out bills for repair for a damaged car lock on a vehicle with remote locking.

Mr Sexton says: “Unless you make a point of trying the keys in the locks during your holiday, you may be unaware of pre-existing damage. You will also struggle to prove that the locks worked perfectly when you returned the car. Once you’re home, this is difficult to contest.”

What can you do?

Take the time to check the door locks before you drive away at the start of your holiday.

Mr Sexton adds: “If you find a problem, ask for a different car.

If that’s not a possibility, make sure the faulty lock is recorded on the documentation.

“When you return the car, ask for it to be checked in your presence and signed off as ‘returned in good condition’ by a rental company rep. If you can’t do this, take a video on your phone of you using the door locks with the key, so you can later prove the locks were working when you left the car.”

10 Cleaning charges

This sting involves car rental firms including a cleaning fee as part of the deposit if the vehicle is not returned in what the company regards as an ‘acceptable condition’. You could face a bill of around £40.

What can you do?

Clean the car thoroughly before handing back the keys. If there is a spillage, clear it up yourself.

You could even look into getting the vehicle valeted at a local garage if you’re worried about the state that it’s in.


“We had to stump up an extra £134 to take the car”

Matt Bowling from Greater Manchester was hit with an unexpected charge of £134 when he hired a car from Spanish firm Drivalia Car Rental, at Girona airport in June last year for a two-week family break.

He was on holiday at the time with his mum, brother, his brother’s partner, and his 18-month-old nephew.

“At the collection desk, the firm said we needed to leave a security deposit on a credit card before they would hand over the keys to the Kia Carens we had hired – to cover against any damage done to the vehicle, or in case it was stolen,” says Matt.

“The firm also said it had to be a credit card in my mum’s name, as it was her name on the original booking. But we were unable to provide this, as Mum had travelled to Spain on an earlier flight, and by then was already 300 miles away.

“I offered my credit card, but the firm would not accept this. They said the only option was for us to pay a £134 non-refundable deposit.”

The request took Matt and his family completely by surprise, as they thought they had taken a real ‘belts-and-braces’ approach when it came to organising car hire.

Matt says: “We had booked early to take advantage of a low headline price, and had paid for insurance from the firm before we left the UK. We thought we had taken out every possible add-on to ensure there would be no extra charges at the collection desk. We even had standalone car-hire excess cover from a UK insurer.

“Despite all this, the car-hire company’s staff told us we wouldn’t be able to take the car unless we could provide Mum’s credit card.”

As Matt had only paid £90 for the actual car hire for the two-week trip, he was reluctant to fork out another £134 at the collection desk, and decided to look at other options.

But when he went online to check out quotes from other rental firms at the airport, they all turned out to more expensive.

Matt was left with no choice but to pay the £134 charge.

“It was extremely frustrating and upsetting having to pay this,” he says. “I don’t recall it stating anywhere in the Ts&Cs that we would be required to pay a security deposit if we didn’t have a credit card in the name of the person who made the car-hire booking.”

Esther Shaw is a freelance journalist who writes for publications such as the Daily Express and moneysupermarket.com

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