Everything You Need to Know About Booking a Hire Car

A hire car can make or break an adventure away from home. A great, reliable car with plenty of space for everyone can make the adventure memorable. A hire car with missing bits, dodgy electrics and not enough space can make for a memorable road trip, but for all the wrong reasons. Below are a few tips to help get the right hire car for you that will make a road trip easier.

hire car in lava

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For many of our travels we try to ensure we are close to where we want to visit on foot or have checked access to public transport. This gives us freedom to explore at our own pace however there are times when renting a car is a good option. When the sights are spread out or the road trip is part of the reason to visit then a hire car is the best option. Using a hire car made our trip to Iceland possible. 3000 miles around Iceland on tours and public transport would not have been as much fun or as cost effective. Some of the other road trips that are worth exploring include the Atlantic Road in Norway or the route into the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

So what do you need to consider when booking a hire car abroad?

Finding a hire car

There are three main ways of booking a hire car:

  • Direct with a rental company. This provides certainty about the booking but to compare prices you need to look at several companies independently and try to do a like for like comparison. And unless you have discount codes or vouchers this can be the most expensive option
  • Comparison sites. A quicker way to compare the different offerings available, however make sure you get confirmation of the booking and anything extra that entails – we thought we had a great rental deal only to find on arrival the pick up was 2 miles away from the airport with no transport arranged to get there
  • As part of a package. Airlines and hotels will often provide a package deal for car rental, if you are booking then its worth checking to see if buying as a package is cheaper.

As ever shop around to get the best deal. If you don’t need a car for your total stay it is worth asking your AirBNB host or hotel if they can recommend someone. We have booked a car for two days through the hotel for the same price as a rental company at the airport, however the car was delivered to the hotel and collected again making it worth it for the convenience.

hire car from above

Tips for Booking a Hire Car

  1. Book the hire car well in advance. This might seem obvious but the further ahead you book the cheaper the price is liable to be, and more importantly, means you’ll get the car you want. This is particularly important if there is more than one driver, we’ve found that multiple drivers for a vehicle is much cheaper in advance than adding it on the day.
  2. Don’t limit yourself to collection at the airport. The lesson we learnt from our offsite pick up is that this can make it cheaper. Everyone wants to collect their car when they walk out of the airport and the rental companies know this and charge a premium to both make more profit and also to cover the cost of parking cars ready for rental at an airport. Consider either public transport to pick up the car when you arrive or stay overnight somewhere, pick up the car first thing and then return to the hotel to pick up luggage and passengers. this also means you are not driving a new car after a flight while navigating potentially complicated or busy roads.
  3. If you are flying to the destination and picking up from the airport then make sure the rental company has your flight details. This means they know if your flight is delayed and should prevent them giving away your car leaving you with a less attractive option.
  4. Check if there are one-way fees. If you’re collecting the car at one place and dropping at another make sure there are no hidden one way fees to cover getting the car back to the original location, it’s always worth checking the small print to be on the safe side.
  5. Automatic or Manual. Make sure that you book the type of car you are used to driving and have a licence to drive. In the U.K. cars will be manual unless you ask and book an automatic. Many smaller companies may only have one automatic on their fleet so if that is what you want you need to be clear. If you are driving on the opposite side of the road to normal then an automatic may reduce the stress by eliminating the need to change gear.
  6. Do you really need a sat nav? This is an upsell we see at the pickup where they charge you for a sat nav by the day. Many vehicles have them built in (but the agent may try and convince you that it’s not up to date hence you need to hire) or you can get sat nav on your smart phone. For the cost of a phone holder and charging lead you can have your sat nav to hand. Some sat nav packages also allow you to download maps, so you can do that at home using your Wi-Fi or internet allowance thus saving internet roaming fees if applicable as well as planning your routes in advance.
  7. Compulsory items. Check what items are compulsory in the vehicle for the country you are visiting. For example child seats are compulsory in Europe for under-threes, and in some cases booster seats are required for children up to the age of 12. Other countries insist on snow chains, hi viz for every occupant, tyre repair kits, breathalysers, or warning triangles. Most companies will charge extra for these so make sure you factor that in when comparing prices.
  8. Double check the size of the car. Hire companies will claim you can fit an elephant in the car along with space for the rest of the circus but it’s worth doing a quick check to verify how much room the car really has to make sure that works for your trip. Have a look at the model you are booking while you are out and about and get an idea of the size before making a final decision.
  9. Try to book using a credit card. If the cost is above £100 and less than £30000 booking by credit card gives you protection in case of the company not performing as expected or the company has misrepresented what it said it would do.

Rental Car Insurance

It’s important to check the insurance provided in the price covers what you need. When you pick up the car upselling insurance is a typical ploy to increase profit. Make sure you check what the insurance covers during booking and that it covers what you need – after the volcano eruptions in Iceland the hire car companies added ash insurance to cover damage from ash and is essential if you are planning to explore the Highlands in Iceland.

ash on rear of hire car
In Iceland ash can get everywhere

Basic car insurance is nearly always subject to an excess and to get prices down that excess can be quite high. It can be up to £2000 that you are liable for towards repairs or theft from the vehicle regardless of who’s at fault. Most companies will insist on a pre-authorisation on a credit card to cover the excess before they allow you take the vehicle away. There are two main ways you can reduce that excess

  1. Buy enhanced insurance from the car hire company. This is typically referred to as Super Collision Damage Waiver (SCDW) but can go under other names. This may be a convenient way to do it but it can be expensive, but it does mean if something happens you are dealing with the rental company and there is no need for the pre-authorisation amount
  2. Buy insurance from a standalone company. This can be purchased online in advance of your trip and is known as Excess Reimbursement Insurance (ERI) since you need to take out the basic insurance with the rental company but this reduces the excess. Since you are buying in advance you have time to compare different companies and have everything in place before the trip. Then, if there is any damage, you pay the excess to the car hire company and claim it back from the insurer. Make sure you have all the insurance company details because you will need to report to them and the car hire company in the event of an accident.

A less known option is to check the benefits available with your credit card. Famously American Express offers Excess Reimbursement Insurance with all of its available credit cards.

If you are going to be driving over national or internal borders (i.e. US states) check to ensure the insurance covers this.

Fuel options

Fuel options are a good place for rental companies to profit and generally three options are presented for you to choose

  • Full to full. You pick up the vehicle full and return it full. Whilst this is the simplest approach check at pick up where the nearest fuel location to the drop off is (and if it’s open when you are planning to drop off), and if possible check the price there. If you are dropping off at an airport the price at that location could be more than nearby locations so we like to top up at the cheaper locations as we travel and then do the final fill at that last location.
  • Full to fill on return. You pick up the car with a full tank and the rental car company tops it up when you return it. Most rental companies will charge above the cost you would pay at a filling station so whilst this might seem convenient it’s probably the second most expensive way to return the vehicle.
  • Full to empty. You pick up the car with a full tank and return it with whatever is left in the tank, ideally empty. The car rental company will charge you for a full tank regardless, at their fuel price, so this is the most expensive option.
fuel gauge on a rental vehicle
Don’t forget the little arrow by the fuel pump shows the side for filling

It is also worth checking how fuelling is done in the country you are visiting. In many cases we see unmanned service stations where you fuel using a card. If that’s common where you are going make sure your card will be accepted. Some countries will take a refundable pre-payment on the card before you start filling and charge for the fill as well. You need to make sure you have available funds to cover this cost.


If you are planning to cover a lot of miles or aren’t sure about how far you will go its worth checking the mileage limits. Many rental companies have a basic mileage and then charge per mile or 100 miles above this baseline. If you think you may be going beyond the basic daily allowance it is worth contacting the company directly to see how much the additional charges will be and whether there is an arrangement that can be made.

Paperwork on collection

Make sure to check what paperwork the hire company is expecting to see when you collect the car. Whilst this is typically only the passport and licence for all the drivers there could be country specific requirements.

In the UK some car rental places insist you provide your driving license information prior to the rental, this is straight-forward to do at the government website. To apply you need your driving licence number, your National Insurance number, and the postcode on your driving licence. Once completed you will be given a check code which is valid for 21 days.

Car Hire after Brexit

Whilst many countries/companies have said there is no change to the document requirements after Brexit we have heard that some countries might insist on an International Driving Permit (IDP). Some countries like USA, Brazil and Japan a;ready ask for this documentation. The link provides a handy checker if the country you are visiting insists on an IDP.

Picking up the car

When you pick up the car make sure you know what you are expecting. Whilst you might get a lucky surprise and a free upgrade, we have heard of instances where smaller cars have been substituted in order to save costs. When you book check the specifications of the vehicle you want to make sure that if it isn’t available then the equivalent is just that – did you need 4×4, space for 4 passengers, large boot space? Check the equivalent provides what you planned on needing for that trip.

over packed car
Always make sure you have the right sized car. There are 2 children in the rear of this packed car!!!

Read the contract thoroughly and make sure you understand it, make sure you are clear on numbers that can be called if you need to speak to an agent or if you break down. Double check the insurance coverage and any extra charges they might try to add – we’ve seen cleaning charges added mysteriously to cover extra valeting because of the dog we didn’t have!

Take the time to examine the car thoroughly on collection and document any damage or missing items. Whilst the agent may want to do this on their pickup form we like to take pictures so we have proof of the damage. To prove authenticity of the time of pick up get a picture with the agent, that’s an interesting holiday snap and proof of who you checked the car with.

And whilst examining the car check for safety equipment and spare tyres, including any country specific requirements like hi viz for every occupant, tyre repair kits, breathalysers, or warning triangles.

Before leaving the parking area take time to check where everything is. Find the windscreen wipers, lights and indicators. Check the screen wash is working and make yourself comfortable. These extra few minutes will ensure you are ready for any road conditions that lay ahead.

Make sure that you keep all the documents the agents give you. These contain important information that may be needed if you breakdown or have an accident. The form that was completed on collection identifying damage will be checked against the vehicle when it is returned so this will help you check that there is no new, unexpected damage.

Returning the car

As with picking up the car make sure you allow time for the agent to examine the car thoroughly and agree there is no new damage to it and all the equipment has been returned intact. Take photos just to be on the safe side since its not unknown for rental companies to find issues after you have left and simply take an amount from the pre-authorised credit card. Make sure that examination and photos cover the inside of the vehicle, we’ve seen excess cleaning charges claimed due to stains or damage to seats.

Be aware of the drop off time for your rental. This is typically the same time as pick-up. Whilst some rental companies will give you a grace period check what this is. We’ve seen examples of only 30 minutes and then they will charge you for another full day of rental.