The car rental business in Korea is somewhat like that in Japan. There are no standardized industry practices. First of all, the local car rental agencies, like AJ rent a car (now actually owned by Avis), don’t allow you to book more than 3 months ahead. Lotte rent a car is worse, allowing you to make an advance reservation only 2 months ahead. If you turn to the international franchises, you hit other problems. For example, Europcar and Avis don’t give you access to extra equipment or services when making the booking, which i do need in my case – child seats. Hertz, probably the owner of Lotte rent a car, asks you to call to book (probably due to restrictions with booking more than 3 months ahead). Only Sixt allows you to complete the car rental reservation online proper. Even then, because i was attempting to do a one-way rental (i.e. return the car to a different location), i was not given an instant quote but was told someone will get back to me in 2 days, which they did.
Anyway, to get comparisons on pricing, i did a simulated 3 days rental with both AJ rent a car and Lotte rent a car. They are actually not necessarily cheaper than the international franchises. Doing the rental with Lotte is easier – you can make reservations as a guest. AJ, on the other hand, requires you to register as a member first, though it wasn’t difficult. Another thing – Lotte allowed me to select a baby seat, but i couldn’t specify that i needed 2 of them! AJ simply indicated that the car seat option was not available (and their customer service confirmed this was the case).
In the end, i just went with Sixt. Good pricing, easy online reservation and quick customer service response. PLUS, you can earn cash back renting with Sixt. Also, i very much appreciated that their reservation confirmation document contained clear instructions about the vehicle pick-up and drop-off.
Post rental update
I have a few tips to offer about car rental in Korea:
#1 You’ll likely get an LPG car
Both rental cars i got were LPG cars, which is mostly good. LPG is cheap, and has very good mileage too. However, the LPG tank takes up 1/3 to 1/2 of the boot space, and you may be in trouble if you need to haul a lot of luggage, so do bear that in mind and get a bigger car if necessary. Also, LPG gas stations are less common than petrol ones, but this would not really pose a problem. You just need to keep your eyes open, or do a search in Google maps or in your navigation app.
#2 Don’t have high hopes of getting an upgraded car
This applies especially on Jeju Island, where they have an abundance of cars to meet the consistently high demand. I booked a Kia Morning and got exactly that, the old model too, which was even smaller. With the LPG tank in the boot, there was simply no space for my luggage. They offered me an upgraded car (additional costs but at a discounted rate), a brand new model Kia Carens, which turned out to be a nice car. Better than Hyundai Avante.
For my other rental in Seoul, for which i picked up the car at an obscure location, i was given an upgraded car, a Hyundai Avante instead of Kia Morning, which was big enough to take in the four of us plus luggage. If i actually got the Morning, i suspect they may not have spare vehicles to be able to offer me an upgrade on the spot, and i might have trouble fitting everyone and everything in the car. I guess the lesson learnt is, do select the car that you really need.
All the cars came equipped with GPS navigation. When doing your rental reservation, don’t bother to add on GPS, the cars will come with it anyway. I didn’t use the on-car GPS but i think it is actually manageable (it might even have English). I used the Maps.Me app on my phone and it worked fine for the whole of Korea. The points of interest information contained in Maps.Me turned out to be surprisingly helpful. I suppose being completely free and relying on voluntarily contributed maps data, it contained a minimal set of data, which was a good thing, because minimal meant that only the worthy points of interests were marked.
#4 Speed cameras
Speed cameras were everywhere, and i mean everywhere. Korean drivers observe the speed limit when going through the speed cameras, so you better do so too.
#5 Meet-and-greet airport pick-up and return
I returned my car at Gimpo airport where there was no Sixt branch office. In fact, i did not notice any road sign with direction given for rental car return, and i suspect that there isn’t any car rental office at the airport. According to the instructions, i was supposed to bring the car to a specific car park zone. I did so, and the car park zone was really just a regular car park. Not knowing what to do, i left the car in a parking lot, with keys inside the car and walked off, at which point the customer service representative who handled my rental car pick-up suddenly arrived. He inspected the car as is normally done and signalled OK.
I actually arrived at the airport more or less around the time i was supposed to return the car. I was wondering, what if i was early, or late? The best i would have been able to do was to take some photos and send an email to prove i have left the car in the car park. I’m not sure about other airports, but for Gimpo, be prepared for this mode of car return. You may not be properly informed about how to do it when you pick up the car.
The expressway tolls are really cheap, so cheap that you should just pay in cash.
Overall, it was a positive experience, renting a car and driving in Korea.