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Renting a car

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Revision as of 20:11, 7 November 2012 by Singapore.Alice (talk | contribs) (See also)
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Renting a car

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    This article is a travel topic

Travelling by car can get you places which can be very difficult to reach by public transport or tour. It gives you the convenience of going your own way, in your own time, and it can often be cheaper than public transport alternatives, especially if travelling as a couple or a group.

The downside is that in some places, traffic conditions may differ wildly from what you are used to, and foreign conditions can add stress to your travels that you can do without. See Driving in China for one example. In some circumstances it may be better to rent a car with a driver. In countries where wages are low, this may not cost significantly more than the cost of the car alone.


Base price

Price is normally calculated by number of days. Usually the more days you take, the less you pay per day. Cars are classified according to a class, small to large, prestige and specialty vehicles, and there is a sliding scale of prices for each car class. When you book you are usually given an example of a car type in that class, but it need not be that type you are receiving.

Rental car companies normally permit a small amount of time, usually around an hour, for late returns. After that they can charge up to another full day rental for a late return. If you know you are going to exceed the rental period you can often call the rental company and arrange an extension. Normally the standard contract rate (without discounts) would apply.

Most rental companies have a one day minimum rental period. Price for durations less than a day normally are not regulated. If you need to return the car at significantly different time of the day, you can try haggling to get extra hours for free.

Insurance Surcharges

If the car is damaged or stolen, or if your car damages another or injures or kills someone, your liabilities (to the rental agency and/or others) can go far beyond the fee you agree to pay for the rental. In addition to paying for any repairs required, the rental car company will charge you for any loss or revenue while the car is being repaired, and administration costs for managing the repair.

Usually when you come to rent a car you are presented with several insurance options. Some of these are

  • Collision Damage Waiver - sometimes included in the rental cost, this reduces your liability in case of an accident to a fixed amount advised by the rental agency.
  • Theft Liability Waiver
  • Windscreen Breakage Insurance - sometimes a small extra daily fee will cover you against the cost of windscreen damage
  • Excess Reduction/Super-CDW - reduces the deductible amount in case of an accident to a lower or sometimes eliminates all liability. Can be a substantial cost on top of the base price amount.
  • Third party insurance
  • Personal Effects Insurance - covers loss of personal items in the car when it is stolen or damaged.

You should take the time to consider the insurances offered, how they effect your liability, their cost, and whether your personal car insurance, travel insurance or charge card (used to rent the car) provides partial or full coverage. Sometimes some of these insurances and surcharges are compulsory, e.g., in foreign countries where your personal insurance doesn't offer coverage. Sometimes some coverages are built into the base rate.

If insurance or waivers are optional, consider the following before accepting the charge:

  1. As above, if you have an automobile insurance policy on your vehicle at home, check to see if it includes coverage for rental car damage.
  2. If you plan to pay with your credit card, check also to see if it includes rental car coverage. Be aware that in many cases this coverage is secondary (meaning your existing auto insurance coverage pays first).
  3. If you have purchased a travel insurance policy that covers trip cancellation, medical expenses, etc., check to see if it includes a rental car collision/loss benefit. Some packages do, providing primary coverage up to a certain amount. (Primary coverage means that the insurance pays before other policies, including your own auto insurance.) Depending on the amount of insurance you buy, the per-day charge for a travel insurance policy that includes rental car coverage can work out to less than the per-day amount of a waiver. It is usually cheaper to purchase travel insurance than to pay for the Excess Reduction/Super-CDW at the rental counter.

Rental companies tend to prefer bona-fide visitors rather than local renters when it comes to excess levels and excess reduction. Sometimes these are lower for international visitors booked in advance, for airport renters with a flight number, or for people using a corporate discount code.

Many of the insurances are void if you use the car in a manner not permitted by the contract, e.g., driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, using it to commit a crime.

Distance charges

Some rental agreements may have a limit on how far you can travel per day or in total, and will charge for additional distance traveled. Others have unlimited mileage.

Even with unlimited miles, you may see limits that confine you to adjacent states or regions. Getting those limits relaxed may involve added fees; violating them may generate stiff penalties...all in the rental contract.

Other surcharges

Rental car companies are notorious for finding additional surcharges, sometimes not added until the point of sale. These can include location or airport taxes, improvement fees and other surcharges, admin surcharges, registration recovery surcharges and other local taxes. Sometimes local taxes are not just the local sales taxes, but also local vehicle taxes that are "recovered". At the Las Vegas airport, such fees can increase the cost of a rental by close to 60 percent.

This practice has become so notorious that some consolidators promote themselves on the basis they guarantee to offer a fully inclusive price, but check the fine print.

Choosing a car and optional extras

You need to choose a car to meet your needs.

  • If you can't drive a manual transmission (stick-shift), check that your rental car is equipped with an automatic transmission. Rental cars in most of North America and Australia as well as some parts of East Asia normally come with automatic transmissions. Rental cars in the rest of the world, especially Europe, Africa, and South America, will usually come with manual transmissions, and renting a car with an automatic transmission is much more expensive.
  • Check there is room for all the passengers and luggage you will be carrying. The car may not be the exact model you booked, and the boot (trunk) space may vary.
  • If you are travelling on unsurfaced/gravel roads you may want to consider a car with high road clearance or 4-wheel drive.
  • Most rental car agencies can rent you a GPS navigation system with the car that is preloaded with maps for the relevant city and region. Sometimes the system is already built into the car; sometimes they will give you a portable unit to attach to the dashboard.
  • GPS navigation when driving in a new city can save you a considerable amount of time studying maps while trying to get your bearings. Check the price carefully, as GPS navigation rental for a week can sometimes cost as much as simply buying one.
  • Rental car companies often rent child seats or booster seats. If you are flying with a young child, sometimes you can take your seat on the plane to save the cost of this hire. Make sure the seat you have will attach to the car you are hiring and complies with the relevant local standards.
  • Most industrialized countries are going to electronic toll collection (ETC) and replacing traditional toll plazas with toll gantries that read transponders and license plates on passing vehicles. Some rental car agencies include transponders across their entire fleet; others rent them at the counter. If you do not make appropriate advance arrangements with the rental car agency for toll payment by renting a transponder, the rental car will get hit with a fine by the toll road operator, and the rental car agency will pass on the fine to your credit card along with a "convenience fee."

Booking and haggling

The decision over whether to book in advance or whether to shop around on arrival can be difficult, and depends on the location and the time.

When renting with major rental agency at major western airports a reservation doesn't guarantee your rental. On their side, the rental agencies overbook, and on your side you can usually make a reservation without any commitment and cancel at any time with no penalty. Although a reservation will not guarantee you a car in this case, it will give you priority over someone without a reservation.

Some things to consider when choosing whether to book or turn up and try for a better standby rate.

  • If you book a small economy car, it is quite common to get upgraded at the airport if those cars have sold, in which case you will get the upgrade at no additional cost. You can usually still change your booking at the airport if don't get upgraded.
  • If you don't book you run a greater risk of no availability -- particularly in a small location, or at popular times of year.
  • Some airports don't have all the airport rental agencies in one place to enable you to haggle effectively.
  • A better price can sometimes be obtained by an rental car company not in the city centre or at the airport.

If you book with a travel agent they often take a require prepayment in full, and will give you a voucher to present at the rental car desk on arrival.

You may also encounter somewhat better offers or treatment if you book through the agent/agency arranging your flight, or through or by citing your membership in clubs or large associations, e.g., AAA/AA, AARP.

Delivering the car to your location

Some rental car companies offer an option to deliver a car to your initial hotel, and/or to pick it up in the hotel at your final destination. This option may be offered free as part of an extended period of rent (e.g. 1 week and more, as for Budget in Portugal). In this case, an agent comes with a full set of papers, everything is filled out on spot and may not need to visit rental office at all. Other rental car companies may pick you up in the car, and take you back to the rental car agency to fill out the paperwork. This is mainly so their driver has a way to get back to the rental car office, rather than being left stranded at a hotel without a car.

If your hotel has only paid parking around it, it is your responsibility to pay for parking time required for an agent to prepare papers with you.

Payment and security deposit

Rental companies invariably require a mechanism to have a security deposit in case of damage, fines or even failure to return a car.

Many operators require that they have a true credit card that they can make charges against, often rejecting debit cards that can have the money withdrawn from them. Usually a hold will be placed on a credit card for a security deposit amount. However. in many cases they mean a card with protruding card details text, i.e. number, expiration, cardholder's name (cards like Visa Classic or MasterCard)--as opposed to Visa Electron or Cirrus/Maestro.

Renting with cash only is unusual, and your should check with the rental company that it is acceptable. If permitted it involves paying an amount of cash as a deposit roughly equal to your maximum liability which can be many times the cost of the rental. Some rental companies will accept payment for the rental in cash, as long as there is credit card available for the security deposit.

The security deposit amount held is not usually fixed in your contract. If having part of your credit card limit held may impact some other part of your holiday plans, you should check with the rental agency.

Before you set out

Make sure you know:

  • what to do in case of accident; breakdown when you still can drive; breakdown if you cannot
  • any local specifics of driving rules and conventions
  • controls of the car that differ between car manufacturers (rear gear, seat adjustment, lights, radio, opening gas/fuel tank, opening trunk/boot, opening hood/bonnet, etc)
  • what kind of fuel is recommended, and how it is marketed at your destination (A98 vs A80; petrol in a diesel engine--both can prove an expensive mistake)
  • known issues of this car model, of this particular hire car

And before you move the car, adjust your seat and then all mirrors to met your needs.

Frequently you will be provided with a free driving map of the region.

Checking initial condition

Before you go, check the exterior and front glass of the car and ask personnel to mark in the contract every scratch and dent you find, and sign the scheme on both copies of your contract, or even keep digital photos of the condition of the car and picture any damages at time of pick up and at time of drop off. When you return the car, it will be checked against the scheme you put in the contract. You can save considerable hassles at the end of the rental by just taking the time to note every scratch and dent.

Filling the tank

Normally, a rental car is expected to be returned with the same fuel level as when rented.

  • If the tank is not full when the car is returned but it was when it was received, you may be charged a premium - up to three times the cost of the fuel - for the tank to be filled.
  • If the fuel indicator indicates less than full, do not leave without a rental agent noting it.

Some agreements offer you purchase of fuel at an attractive discounted rate. In this case make sure you are going to be driving enough to empty the tank, and that you can return it virtually empty. Many rental sites will charge you to fill the tank as though it is totally empty, not for the actual gallons/liters needed to fill it.

Normally, the most economical approach is to agree to return the car full. Note that:

  • Gas stations close to your rental site may charge considerably more, so you might refill large amounts elsewhere.
  • Some rental sites may ask for a "fill-up receipt" as an indicator the tank has not been used much since being filled; you might just top-off the tank near their site.

If the car breaks down

The rental car agency will provide a number to contact in case of problems with the car. Make sure you contact this number first, because they usually will have agreements with service organisations to fix or move the car. If you incur costs of towing, etc, without contacting them you may make yourself liable for the cost.

If you have a flat tyre, or similar, and the cost won't be covered by the rental car company, it may just be simpler to get the tyre fixed then to arrange service through the rental car company, who may end up charging you more. However, if the repair will be covered by your travel insurance, you may want the rental company to arrange the repair so the paperwork is complete.

Returning a car

Normally you return the car to a rental office at your final point in their working hours and have a final calculation done there.

At smaller locations, sometimes the office will be unattended, and have a lot to park the car, and a drop box for the keys.

If you arrive at the office when it is closed, and you can't return it when open, it usually works to leave the car in the lot, or nearby and place the keys, contract and the information about the car somewhere secure and obvious. You will remain liable for the car until the office opens, and will usually also be charged up until that time.

With a pick-up-at-hotel option (see "Delivering the car to your location" above), you only need to park a car (for paid parking, pay for the next 1 hour) and hand keys to an agent that comes to the hotel (with a cheque for parking payment if applicable).

If you damage the car

If you incur damage to the car the car rental company will initiate the standard process that they have for vehicle damage. They will identify the damage, and you will be required to fill in and sign an accident report form. If the office is unattended at the time you return the car, they will contact you and advise you to fill in the form and return it to them.

They will charge or place a hold on your credit card for the full amount of any excess that was defined in rental agreement, even if that is obviously greater than the value of the damage. They will obtain quotes for the repair, and advise you the cost of the repair, and their administration cost. This process can take up to a month to complete. If this cost is greater than your excess, then that completes the process. The rental car company retains the excess. Otherwise, your card will then be refunded for the difference.

This is usually clearly explained in the documentation that the company will produce when you return a damaged car.

Choosing an operator

Major global car rental companies have famous brands that operate in many countries throughout the world, for example Avis, Hertz, etc. Sometimes the regional operator can be an independent company using the name under licence, and often the local operator is just a franchisee. These major brands allow bookings through all the electronic booking services, and there is a seemingly endless amount of Internet booking services that allow you to do comparison searches between them.

Using a global operator can have advantages. They often have priority "clubs", which record your details in advance, and can make renting a car as simple as just picking up the keys. You can generally rely on them operating out of prime locations, such as in the airport terminal, rather than in the shed down the street. They usually run cars for a short period of time before updating their fleet. However, don't think that because you are renting from a global operator you can rely on them to do the pre-rental car inspections correctly, or that their terms and conditions of rental are consistent.

The next level is the national or regional chain. Many countries have national operators, which may also operate out of a few neighbouring countries in the region. Sometimes these operators can also have prime locations, and sometimes they operate using shuttles or from less prestigious sites.

The next level is the purely local operator. It is unusual for these operators to have the prime locations, often they operate from less prestigious sites. The rental car industries sees its share of shady operators, and often they can be found in this category. This is unfortunate, as many of these operators can offer good value, and good service. It pays to seek out some local advice or reviews.

Often the choice is one between brand, price and convenience.

See also

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