Driving tests

Advice for hiring a rental car – avoiding common tricks and ripoffs

Rental car companies have plenty of avenues to rip you off if they are unscrupulous. We had a particularly bad experience with Avis in Italy who charged over $610 for ‘damage’ that already existed without providing any evidence of what the damage was or whether they fixed it. They didn’t even notify us of the charge. Fortunately, we had taken before and after photos to prove that it already existed but we didn’t get the money back without a fight that took several hours of our time spread over 3 weeks.

Our photo of damage that Avis accused us of creating, taken before we drove the car away

One wonders how many times this happens and people haven’t taken photos of the damage beforehand (from an impromptu poll of friends, it seems fairly frequently). So, here are ways you can avoid being ripped off.

Shop around

You can usually get a cheaper deal on a partner site than you will on the rental car company’s actual website.

Don’t succumb to the pressure of upsells

Rental car check-ins can take an eternity, even if you’ve pre-purchased online. This is because of the relentless upsells for insurance and other products. When they try to upsell you to their roadside assistance package, ask what the standard package (free) includes. Usually this is enough, especially if you’re renting a fairly modern car. If you’re travelling in your home country, you might already have a roadside assistance package for your own car and it will be valid for the rental car, too.

If they offer you a vehicle upgrade, don’t take it unless it’s free (sometimes it will be if you ask). Make sure the documentation says there is no extra cost. A larger car could be more costly on fuel and it might also be more inconvenient. For example, we were offered an upgrade to a large Jeep when renting in an Italian city. Anyone knows that driving in an Italian city is like flying in a swarm of bees and having a large car where there’s also very little parking is a ridiculous idea if you don’t need the room. Also, it was going to be 60 Euros more!

Do you really need a GPS?

You don’t need a GPS if you have a cellphone. Download Google Maps’ offline maps using your wi-fi before you leave. This way, you don’t even need to use data and can use your phone. I usually take a hands-free kit in my luggage that I can use as a cellphone holder. This includes a charging cable. If you do need data, roaming data charges are often cheaper than hiring a GPS ($5/day vs around $8/day).

Always get insurance

You’ll be driving a car you are unfamiliar with on roads you are unfamiliar with, possibly even driving on the opposite side of the road you are used to.

When you check in they will try to sell you a car rental excess insurance policy which reduces or eliminates the excess you’ll pay if you have an incident in the hire car. The usual excess for a rental car is around $2000-6000 depending on how expensive the car is, so that’s the amount you’ll pay if you have an accident, so excess reduction sounds appealing even though it will be expensive.

As an example, purchasing travel insurance with a $5000 rental car excess reduction is around $200-300 for a month. Purchasing just the rental reduction insurance will be at least $300 ($10/day) and possibly double, again depending on the type of car. Therefore what you should have done before you got there was purchased travel insurance that comes with rental vehicle excess cover that would take the excess down to around $300. This travel insurance will also cover you for loss of items, medical emergencies and more.

Always take before and after photos

Sometimes you will get the keys at the desk and then go to pick up the car yourself, while other times an employee will accompany you to the car.

Thoroughly visually inspect the car when you pick it up. You need to take a photograph of every dent and scratch. Look under the front bumper (this was the one that Avis tried to get us with, but I had already photographed it). Don’t forget the roof – one car I picked up had a dent in the roof. Photograph each alloy wheel – they are a magnet for scratches from kerbs. Look down the flanks of the car at different angles to spot any dents.

Check the inside for tears in the seats, scratches and missing items (the parcel shelf in the rear is one that is sometimes missing). Take a good selection of photos of the whole interior from different angles, including the boot.

Once you’re sure you’ve found them all, get a representative from the company to fill out a form showing the additional damage. Take a photo of them filling out the form and take a good quality photo of the form itself (you should be given a copy to take with you; don’t leave it in the glovebox when you drop off the car). Some companies do this digitally and ask you to sign again to acknowledge the additional damage.

Is the fuel tank full?

If the fuel is not full, take a photo of the needle’s position, preferably with a watch and something that identifies the location in the background. Let the office know. When you return it, take a photo again. Make sure they acknowledge it.

While some rental agencies will let you return the car without the tank being full, they will charge a premium for it. Other rental agencies let you return it with approximately the same amount of fuel in as when you pick it up.

Often, the petrol stations closest to the airport have the most expensive fees. Fill up 5-10km from the airport – the needle won’t move from full and you might save yourself a couple of dollars.

Always wait for them to do the inspection

When you return the car, wait for them to come out and do the inspection. They should sign the car off as being good. You should get a copy of the document confirming that it’s OK.

Pick up from a city depot

If you are travelling solo, it’s sometimes cheaper to take a bus from the airport to a city depot rather than collect and drop off at the airport as these are considered ‘premium locations’. Yes, it’s a hassle, but it depends on your budget as to whether it’s worth it.

Return the car to where you pick it up from

Unless you get a relocation deal (usually a cheap deal where you get a few days to relocate a rental car from one city to another), returning the car to the same location you collected it from is the cheapest option.

Book well in advance

Booking at the airport or just a few days before you pick it up can attract a premium price.

Exceeding the allowed kilometres

Is there a limit for the number of kilometres allowed per day? Sometimes this is set at 250, which is mostly enough, but check the policy in relation to your intended journey to avoid any unexpected surprises.

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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

Posted in Advice
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