Hassle-free car hire: some top tips

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Whilst working as a travel agent and in my own capacity as a tourist, I’ve experienced the pain of hiring a car abroad. From aggressive up-selling of insurance policies to long queues, it’s a tedious business especially when you have children in tow. I’ve detailed a few of my findings below, feel free to add anything I’ve overlooked in the comments below.

Don’t let price dictate
Whilst it’s tempting to search the Internet for the cheapest car hire deal, my biggest piece of advice is to avoid the low cost operators. As with everything else in life, it’s cheap for a reason. Along with suspicious credit card charges, rubbish child seats and desperate sales staff (of which more later), in my experience these firms always have the longest queue at the airport, snaking through the arrivals hall. Everyone has booked their car with this firm for the same reason as you. On a recent holiday I decided to spend a bit more money and hey presto, I arrived at a desk with no queue whatsoever. (No doubt this was partly luck as well as good planning but my previous car hire company had a long queue again.)

Buy a tank of fuel
Now, this is a point that not everyone will agree with. Certainly, if you’re only using your car for a few quick jaunts it may not be necessary but, if given the option, buy a tank of fuel from the hire firm and opt to bring it back empty. At the end of the holiday, it is much more relaxing to head straight to the airport rather than driving half way round the country looking for that elusive last petrol station to fill the tank up at. If you happen to be dropping off your car for a lunchtime flight out of the Med, the petrol stations may well be shut from 12 until 2 and their self-service machines won’t necessarily accept your foreign credit card (can you tell I’m speaking from bitter experience?) Although buying the tank of fuel upfront will cost a bit more than paying at the petrol pump, it means you also avoid the exorbitant charge on your credit card post-holiday when the hire firm decides the tank was two millilitres short of full.

Take time to check for existing damage and take photos
It’s tempting when you collect your car to dash off to your holiday destination, especially if you have tired and / or hungry children. However, it really pays to take a few extra moments to double check all the existing damage on your vehicle and ensure  in a really pedantic way that EVERY scratch is noted. Following a trip to Portugal, I spent several months clawing back a €250 charge for repairing a tiny scratch which I swear was already on the car but hadn’t been noted as it seemed too small to matter. On another occasion I hired a car in Italy with a huge dent in the side which was casually dismissed as irrelevant by the laid-back staff when I collected the vehicle (I felt much more relaxed once I’d convinced them to mark it on the paperwork). As you often drop off a car at the end of the holiday without seeing a member of the hire company’s staff, it is worth taking a few final photos of the car to confirm it has been returned in good (or the same) condition.

Take your own child seats and satnav
As with much of the baby and child paraphernalia parents have to fork out for, hiring a child seat with your vehicle is a complete rip off. I’ve done some cursory research to prove my point (based on a week’s hire at Palma de Mallorca from 28th May 2016). Of Avis, Hertz and Europcar, the latter came out cheapest at £55.59 for a toddler seat. So, to save money you can either take your own seat or, if you’re concerned about losing / damaging an expensive seat or the one you have is too awkward to transport, you could buy one for holiday use. There are seats starting from £30 if you have a quick look online or if you want to go with a name you recognise, Mothercare has an own brand seat costing £100. Alternatively, you could invest in a £200 Joie Every Stage seat which will see you through from birth to 12 years. So, providing you’re planning more than one trip during your offspring’s childhood, this would be a sound investment. And it’s always handy to have a spare.

Satnav costs upwards of £68 to hire for a week with the three providers while Halfords currently sells a TomTom including Western Europe for £70.

Other than cost, there are also some practicalities to consider on the car seat front. On my aforementioned trip to Portugal (where I had opted for a cheap rental company and endured a tediously long wait) I hired a car seat for my then two year old. I had planned our trip meticulously with all of my supposed travel agent knowledge and everything had run smoothly until we tried to fit the child seat into the car. After two infuriating hours and a refusal by the car hire firm to assist in any way we finally fitted (or possibly jammed) the seat into the car. On a more recent trip we took our own car seats for our children which the airline carried free of charge. We bought JL Childress car seat covers which do a great job of protecting the seats, or in our case protecting other people’s luggage if your child has had their first ever attack of travel sickness on the way to the airport and there’s no time to clean the vomit off the seat properly before checking it into the hold.

Collision Damage Waiver
When you hire a car, the excess you have to pay in the event of an accident is usually around £1000. Taking out collision damage waiver insurance gives you the option to reduce the excess down to zero. I am guilty, as I am sure others are too, of having purchased collision damage waiver insurance twice: once at the time of booking and again at the collection desk when faced with a very sophisticated sales pitch. It’s amazing what an early start, tedious airport queues, a failed attempt to speak the local language and an underpaid car rental employee can do to your intelligence. The local charge you’re likely to incur ranges hugely depending on the supplier but to give you some examples, Hertz quotes insurance on an economy car collected from Palma de Mallorca airport at around €130 payable locally while Europcar charges £145 for a similar car at the point of booking. Instead of being bamboozled by rental firms, I’m planning to purchase a separate insurance policy on my next trip. The AA recommends Insure My Car Hire for this purpose; the annual cost, currently £39.99, looks very reasonable. No doubt there are plenty of others on the market too.

Know what size car you have booked and how much luggage it will take
Collecting a hire car is hard work. Once you have fought off the impulse to purchase the aforementioned CDW insurance, your next battle will be avoiding the car upgrade scam. On my last holiday, the staff at the rental desk were charm personified. Even our reluctant one year old who has a healthy suspicion of everyone was nearly seduced by their sales patter when they offered him a lolly pop. I was so taken off guard that I nearly agreed that the huge saloon car I had booked wasn’t sufficiently huge for our modest luggage and little family. Only fall for the sales pitch if you really need to.

Measure your expectations
It can be difficult to avoid national stereotyping when hiring a car. If you travel to Germany or France you expect good service and a reliable car. If you go to Italy on the other hand not only are you pleasantly surprised that the car hire firm is open but if you are handed the keys to a car without any damage to the paintwork it’s an unexpectedly pleasant way to start your holiday. I hired a car in Morocco a few years ago, I expected it to have no air conditioning but I hadn’t banked on it having blood on the upholstery. However, it didn’t break down and it allowed us to explore some amazing parts of the country.

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