Car hire

Your essential checklist when hiring a car

14 March 20188 min read

A bird's eye view of a pick-up truck driving along a coastal road in Kefalonia, Greece with calm blue sea

Renting cars abroad has been popular with Brits for generations and having the freedom to explore the open road can really turn a holiday into an adventure.

But renting a hire car can be a bit of a headache if you don’t plan properly. Time and time again, we hear from holidaymakers who’ve been caught out and ended up footing the bill for something they could have avoided.

So, to prevent this being you, we spoke to a number of experts in the field to compile our ultimate car hire checklist. Read on to make sure you never get stung again!

Before you book

Search high and low for the right deal

Don’t just book the first car hire “bargain” you see. To allow yourself time to find a real deal, you should start looking for your hire car well in advance of your trip. We’ve consistently found that by booking early, it’s possible to save hundreds of pounds on a rental.

Do your research and shop around. Think about what’s right for you: How big does the car need to be? Are you hoping to pick up and drop off in different places?

Bob Atkinson, travel expert, said: “A bit of research can be the difference between finding a bargain and paying over the odds for car hire.

“TravelSupermarket’s impartial comparison tool allows you to look at all the options available, so you can find the best deal for you. But remember, don’t always go for the cheapest option; if it’s not the best deal for you, it can work out as a false economy in the end. And finally, always consult online reviews before you commit to a car hire provider.”

Make sure you understand the fuel policy

When you’re comparing your options, make sure you check the fuel policy as opting for the wrong one could wipe out any savings you’ve made on the rental itself.

To help, here are the three most common options:

Full to full: You will be given a full tank of petrol and expected to return the car full. When you arrive to pick up your car, ask where the closest petrol station is so you can refill just before you return it.

Full to empty: You will be asked to pay the rental company upfront for a tank of petrol and can return the car empty. Two things to note here: returning a car empty is extremely hard to do and you’re likely to be charged at a premium for the fuel whether you use it all or not.

Pay for what you use: You’ll be expected to return the car with exactly the same amount of fuel it had when you left the rental company. Make sure you keep a note of this.

For more tips on how to avoid getting ripped off on your car hire, check out our post on the topic here.

Before you pick up the car

Check you have the right documents

In 2015, the paper counterpart to your photocard driving licence was condemned to the scrapheap by the DVLA. In its place, a shiny, new digital code was introduced to share driver information (points, penalties etc) with car hire companies – you’ll need this when you pick up your car. You can generate this 21 days before you’re set to pick up your vehicle on the DVLA’s website. However, for a belt-and-braces approach, we recommend keeping your paper counterpart and taking it with you too.

Another essential is a credit card – there aren’t many companies that will allow you to drive away without some sort of security deposit first. The deposit itself isn’t actually taken from the card, just blocked out until you return the car. The credit card will need to be in the name of the primary driver; some companies will also accept debit cards, but it’s wise to check beforehand.

When you book, you may also be given a voucher from the company which usually contains the details of your rental, so make sure you print this before you leave for the airport.

Oh, and a valid licence helps too. Nothing spoils a road trip like turning up to collect your wheels only to realise you aren’t actually legally able to drive. It can take up to three weeks to get a replacement licence, so make sure you check well in advance of your holiday.

Shop around for car hire excess insurance

Car hire excess insurance can be a tricky concept for many car renters but you can save up to 65% off the price you’ll be charged at the rental desk by buying your insurance online in advance.

Ben Wooltorton, from iCarhireinsurance.com, says: “By the time you get to the rental desk, if you want insurance you’ll only have one option: buy from the rental company. This tends to be the most expensive option and typically costs between £10 and £15 per day – this can easily add £70 to £100 to a week’s rental.

“Some rental companies sell two different types of insurance: one is an excess waiver, which the customer may think is all they need, and one for tyres and windscreens.

“Sometimes people think that the two are the same, but often tyres and windscreen are excluded from the excess. If the customer then takes this out, they are looking at a bill of around £150 for insurance alone.”

In terms of documentation, you are under no obligation to bring any insurance documents to the car rental depot, but Ben recommends having them on you during your holiday, in case you need to file a claim while you’re abroad.

When you pick up your car

Don’t be pushed into something you don’t need

We’ve all come face-to-face with a pushy sales rep: they know best, they know what you need and something could go terribly wrong if you don’t buy what they’re selling – they’ve got your best interests at heart. Honest.

But don’t be conned by the hard sell, especially if you’ve taken out adequate insurance beforehand.

“Over the years, we’ve heard stories of holidaymakers being told that they need to buy extra cover at the desk, but in reality, their own policies covered them all along,” says Bob Atkinson.

“Standalone excess insurance policies bought in the UK are perfectly valid. You will still have a deposit taken but any claim they are not valid in that country or accepted by that company is completely false. You pay the deposit as normal and then claim anything you need to back in the UK.”

The same goes for sat navs, car seats or any other extras you might be offered. If you don’t need them, don’t take them (or bring your own).

Read the small print in your contract

Before you drive away, take the time to read through your contract and ask about anything you don’t understand.

Key things to look out for include price, date and location of the drop off and the fuel policy.

Check the car thoroughly

By the time you pick your car up, you’re probably chomping at the bit to start your actual holiday. But wait, before you drive off into the sunset, you need to check your hire car thoroughly.

And by “check”, we don’t mean a cursory glance to make sure the car has four wheels.

Go round the car, searching for any bumps and scratches, taking photos as you go. If you have a smart phone, use it so you can time stamp the pictures – then make sure your rental company makes a note of any marks you have found. It should have a paper print out of the vehicle for this exact reason.

Check the exisitng vehicle condition report, which you should be given when you pick up the car. This will have any existing damage on the vehicle marked on it.

As well as the general body, always check the wheels too as these can be prone to damage.

“Whenever you pick up a car there will probably be scratches on the alloy wheels as a result of general wear and tear and companies can avoid marking these down on the checkout sheet as existing damage. We have seen instances where a customer is accused of damaging wheels and they have no evidence to show otherwise,” warns Ben Wooltorton.

Finally, check that the car has everything you need, such as a spare tyre and jack or any other equipment you may need to drive in your destination.

Before you set off

Make sure you have a contact number

Last but not least, make sure you have a contact number for the company you are renting the vehicle from. Ideally, you want a direct line to the depot where you rented the car, not just a general overall company number.

If the car breaks down right outside the agency forecourt, fine. But if you’re miles away and the car stutters to a smoky halt, you’ll want a familiar voice on the end of the phone not an automated message.

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