Car hire has turned into a major annual chore for holidaymakers, with a bewildering array of deals on offer that appear cheap but can leave unwary customers with large bills later on.Our guide shows you how to find the best car hire deal and how to cope with the hard sell at rental desks. We also look at what to do when collecting and returning a car to avoid unexpected charges later, while detailing the most common tricks of the trade. Plus, we compare car hire costs at Malaga airport.
1. Check several broker websites
We tested four websites, all of which promised great deals by searching lots of providers – Rental Cars, Holiday Autos, Ryanair and Zest Car Rental. The last of these is smaller than the others but was named best car hire site by Which?.
We tried booking a car at Malaga airport for two weeks from 28 July. Judged on price only, Ryanair was cheapest. It found a Fiat Panda for £67.63 through a car hire company called Del Paso.
Holidaymakers queue at car rental desks at Malaga airport. Photograph: Alamy
Our test suggests it may be pointless checking both Holiday Autos and Ryanair, as they produced identical results from what is evidently the same search engine, except that the latter’s prices were generally a few pounds less. For example, Holiday Autos wanted £75.69 for the identical deal and terms from Del Paso that Ryanair offered at £67.63.
The cheapest deal at Rental Cars was £87.30 (a Ford Ka from Record Go), though next to this boldly highlighted deal was a note saying there would also be a “car hire company fee” of a further €30 (£26.45), with no explanation as to why this fee was not added to the overall advertised price. Zest’s lowest-price deal was £144.14 for a Fiat 500 booked through Centauro.
2. Look out for the mandatory extras
Car hire is a confusing market designed to catch out the unwary, and the key is to make sure you are comparing like with like. “Bargain” deals are usually littered with add-ons (such as Record Go’s €30 fee), while service and car quality vary enormously. For example, in the small print on the cheap Del Paso deal with Ryanair, holidaymakers are required to deposit €1,200 (£1,060) at pick-up. If the named hirer does not have that amount available on their credit card, they are in trouble (debit cards and pre-paid cards are not accepted).
When returning the car, there is a risk that some or all of that amount will be deducted if the company spots any damage – usually a contentious matter (see checklist, below). Always take a spare credit card just for use at the car hire desk.
3. Aim for an ‘in terminal’ deal
Off-airport firms, usually on industrial estates near the airport, tend to be cheapest, but getting the bus from the terminal can be a hassle and there are often reports of long queues. If you shop around the sites and keep a keen eye on “in terminal” providers, you should be able to find a deal at roughly the same price.
4. Only book deals that offer free cancellation
Try to find an offer you can cancel for free up to 24-48 hours ahead of collecting the car. That way, you get a cheap deal by booking early in the year, but can search again the week before leaving for last-minute bargains. When Guardian Money checked broker sites on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, it found prices moved by £10-£20 in 24 hours.
It’s often better to take a ‘full to full’ fuel deal for holiday petrol. Photograph: Jon Nazca/REUTERS
5. Take the ‘full to full’ fuel policy, but watch out for the admin sting
Many of the cheap Spanish car hire firms offer a “full to empty” policy – you pay for the full tank (at an inflated price) when you pick up the car and can return it empty. It sounds convenient but adds extra cost, particularly if you are not going to drive far and won’t use the full tank you paid for. But as drivers have steered away from the full to empty deals, some rental firms block a significant amount on your credit card to cover the cost of the petrol, then charge an administration fee even if you return with the tank full, typically €25-€40.
6. Avoid adding a second driver unless it’s free
Having one driver reduces costs by a huge amount. Typically, car hire firms will charge about €6 a day for additional drivers but have a minimum fee of €18. At Centauro in Spain, the cost for a “basic” car at €7.74 a day quadrupled to €27.81 a day with the “premium” package that includes an additional driver.
7. Book a four-door car
If the price difference between a two-door and four-door vehicle is negligible, always book the four-door. Car hire companies frequently run out of four-door vehicles in their cheapest “mini” or “economy” categories, so if you insist on them giving you a four-door vehicle as booked, they have to move you into a better category car without being able to charge you.
8. Take your own child seats
Even though Ryanair charges £15-£25 per flight for carrying child seats, it can be cheaper than renting on arrival. Car hire operators will charge as much as €95 for a child seat on a two-week rental. You also can’t be sure of the quality and fit, so it’s better to take your own.
Renting a satnav on holiday is usually expensive – bring your own or use a phone. Photograph: Alamy
9. Satnavs are always absurdly expensive
In our search for cars in Malaga, Record Go wanted €9.95 a day for a satnav, or €139.30 for a fortnight. The better option is to use your smartphone’s capability, assuming you are within the EU and will not be hit with roaming charges. Better still, download the free app Here WeGo, where you can use offline maps to navigate without an internet connection.
10. Don’t be fooled by ratings
Broker websites will tell you if a car rental firm is good, average or excellent, usually with a score out of 10. Take these with a large pinch of salt. For example, on Holiday Autos, Goldcar scores a lowly 5.5 out of 10, but on Rental Cars it is awarded a seven out of 10 “very good” rating. Which? conducted its own tests, and gave Enterprise and Alamo the best ratings, while InterRent and Goldcar received the worst ratings of all the firms it surveyed.
The consumer group gave a special mention to AutoReisen for offering outstanding prices and service, but it only operates in the Canary Islands.
Your car hire checklist for pick-up and drop-off
Collecting the car
□ Stand firm and say no to the insurance you will almost certainly be pressured into buying. Buy a separate “excess insurance” policy before you arrive.
□ Only accept a “free” upgrade to a better car if it is definitely free – get that in writing.
□ Study the contract carefully before leaving the rental office, making sure you have circled N (for no) on the optional extras.
□ Use your phone to take a picture of the rental agreement immediately after signing. This avoids unscrupulous agents adding extras after you have left.
□ Don’t pay twice for roadside breakdown recovery. Standard cover is usually included in rental rates, but when you get to the desk, they will try to persuade you to take out more comprehensive cover.
□ Inspect the car thoroughly, remembering to look under the bumpers. Put down every possible scratch and blemish on the vehicle condition report and make sure this is signed by the agent.
□ Check the windscreen for small nicks and the wheel hubs for scratches. Also examine the edges of the wing mirrors.
□ Take photos of the car from every angle and of any existing damage. You may also want to take a video at the pick-up location.
□ If it’s too dark to properly inspect the car on pick-up, note this on the form and inspect it the following morning, informing the car hire company of any damage or scratches not mentioned earlier.
□The tolls for many motorways, bridges and tunnels work on a cashless, automatic number plate recognition system. Ask the rental company about how you should pay. Failure to do so will result in them deducting the toll from your credit card, along with a stinging administration fee, often €30-€50.
Check your car carefully at both pick-up and return. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images
Returning the car
□ Don’t drop your car off just minutes before your rental period expires. Leave plenty of time to go through everything thoroughly and allow time for delays.
□ Bring it back with a full tank and a clean interior. You might think a quick vacuum of the car is all that’s necessary, but you could be charged €50 or more if the car hire company has to do it.
□ Get the car inspected while you are there if possible. Read the return form closely and ensure there is nothing extra to pay.
□ If returning a car when the rental desk is closed, take photographs and videos of the vehicle to ensure that damage is not added later when it is inspected.
□ On your return to the UK, keep a careful eye on your credit card statements to ensure no extra charges have been taken.
Which?’s best and worst car hire firms and brokers
Canary Islands-based AutoReisen came top in the Which? survey. Photograph: Alamy
Car hire firms
Zest Car Rental 89%
Rental Cars 74%
Auto Europe 73%
Holiday Autos 72%
Do You Spain 67%
Argus Car Hire 61%
Source: Which? May 2018 annual survey of car hire companies and brokers. Score based on price, charges, customer service, car quality and clarity of descriptions
Avoiding insurance rip-offs
The aggressive selling of insurance at rental pick-up desks makes for a miserable start to a holiday for many travellers, despite numerous attempts to clean up the industry.
Everyone who has rented a car will be familiar with the sales patter. The agent tells the tired and flustered holidaymaker just off a flight – and trying to keep an eye on heavy bags and errant children – that while their CDW (collision damage waiver) insurance covers them for collisions and major damage, they will still be liable for the first £2,000 in repair costs. Customers are told that all they have to do is pay a few pounds a day for peace of mind.
But it is rarely just a few pounds. The rip-off insurance sold by rental desks often adds up to far more than the cost of the car hire itself. For example, at Malaga airport, Del Paso is able to advertise basic cars for ridiculously low prices – as little as €5 a day, or €70 a fortnight. But the insurance takes the price to €20 a day, or €280 for the fortnight.
The threat of a £2,000 repair bill is enough to get many to cough up, but savvy travellers buy an independent “excess insurance” policy before they fly. These cost around £35 for a year and can be used anywhere in Europe on any number of holidays, so long as the trip lasts a month or less.
The comparison website MoneyMaxim is a good place to start. When excess policies first emerged, Insurance4carhire and iCarhireinsurance dominated the market, but there are now a wider range of suppliers.
Be aware that one of the most popular, Reducemyexcess, does not offer cover for cars rented from Green Motion, which Guardian Money featured last week amid allegations that it lands customers with huge bills for minor scratches and blemishes.
Holidaymakers are often pressurised into paying extra to reduce their insurance excess. Photograph: Alamy
The crucial fact to remember is that if you do not buy the rental company’s pricey insurance, it will place a block on your credit card for the amount of the excess, which could be as high as £2,000. The car pick-up desk will usually only accept a credit card (not a pre-paid card or debit card) in the name of the driver.
The most aggressive rental desks will tell holidaymakers that they don’t accept independent insurance policies as they don’t offer full cover.
There are even stories of agents that tell holidaymakers that their credit card has been declined and that they will have to buy the insurance at the desk instead. The customer later learns from their bank that no attempt was made by the car rental firm to present a charge.
The firms selling car hire too cheaply will lose money if you don’t take their insurance so will try to recover their profit by “finding” scratches and damage that are billed to you at extortionate rates. If buying independent insurance, it is wise to make sure you take close-up photographs of the vehicle before driving away.
But don’t let this put you off buying an independent policy. It is only a small number of unscrupulous agents that will engage in the most aggressive sales tactics.
Excess insurance compared
Name Premium (Claim limit)
ChewInsurance £32.85 (£5,000)
ReduceMyExcess* £33.46 (£7,000)
BigBlueCover £35.98 (£7,500)
Insurefor £36.20 (£10,000)
Insurance4CarHire** £37.25 (£6,500)
ICarHireInsurance** £39.99 (£6,000)
Europe-only annual policy, maximum 31 days per trip
* Does not cover Green Motion rentals
** Cover is for up to two months