Renting a car in Hokkaido

The rental car business is a very competitive one in Hokkaido, because the majority of visitors to Hokkaido will rent a car. This means plenty of choices and relatively low prices. I booked a rental car for JPY 32120 (S$405) for 7 days, which is only S$58 per day. This is inclusive of a one way fee of JPY 1500 (S$19) for returning the car at a different location (pick up at Airport but return in Sapporo), but excluding CDW, which would have cost an additional S$100.

Here are some findings that may be of interest to you. I basically tried getting a quotation from all the rental companies that are listed that may offer the Hokkaido Expressway Pass. Not all of them worked. Some of them are aggregator sites for which i have no interest. Some of them don’t allow one way rental. Here is a summary of the quotation for a compact car: Continue reading Renting a car in Hokkaido

Renting a car in Thailand

The car rental experience in Thailand was a pleasant one. I was really impressed by the condition of the roads – wide, two lanes, level trunk roads just about everywhere. Very low volume traffic (in South Thailand), and few traffic lights. No speed camera, mostly. Thais are rather polite on the road (beyond comparison to Malaysia). Motorcyclists keep to the side. All these made for an ultra smooth and pleasant road trip.

Here’s how my rental experience went: Continue reading Renting a car in Thailand

Renting a car in Korea

You will likely get a white car
Don’t be surprised if you got a white car. I got white for both rentals. Hyundai Avante pictured above.

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. Continue reading Renting a car in Korea

Renting a car in Japan

Car rental is usually a pretty standard affair if you’re renting with a large international chain agency. The websites have more or less the same form submission flow. In Japan, things work differently. First off, the largest car rental companies are actually the car manufacturers, whereby Toyota and Nissan have the largest presence. Then there are the agencies – Times car rental, Nippon rent a car, Orix rent a car, Budget rent a car and J-net rent a car (this is not an exhaustive list). There are also local car rental companies serving only a specific region such as Hokkaido or Okinawa. Finally, there are aggregator websites such as ToCoo! and Tabirai. Continue reading Renting a car in Japan

Newbie guide to car rental for your trip

I’ve done car rental for my travels for over 10 years now, from no less than 10 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, UK, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Norway and Taiwan. There were just a few minor negative experiences (which weren’t too bad), but overall, car rental is usually the best way to get around for travel. I suppose many people don’t dare to drive in a foreign land, and i can relate to that fear. However, if one can muster the courage to do it once, one will do it over and over again.

When to choose rental car

In order of importance:
1. When the rental car allows you to go places you otherwise can’t get to (e.g. when you have to go outside of an urban area where there is poor availability of public transport)
2. When it saves you a lot of time
3. When it saves you a lot of money
4. Comfort

More often than not, a rental car achieves all the above advantages. The one exception is in the case of a very long distance one way journey. Obviously, with a car, you can go anywhere you want. A car is usually the fastest way to get from point to point (relative to bus or train where there is waiting time involved). Since you are driving yourself, you save on labour cost, which is usually a lot more than the cost of renting the car. A car is also more comfortable (although a train can sometimes be more comfortable), especially if you are travelling with kids. You can move or stop at will. Also, I think that driving myself is infinitely more comfortable than engaging a stranger to drive me and follow me wherever i go.

How the car rental business works

You might be asking why you need to understand how the car rental business works. Well, i think it may help you make a more informed decision when choosing your rental car.

There are generally two kinds of rental companies – large chain rental agencies (e.g. Avis, Hertz) and small private companies. The large chain rental agencies bring in new cars to be rented over a duration, after which the car is given a makeover and sold off as a used car. They can do this because they have the economy of scale. Small private companies tend to hold on to their cars longer.

The implication: the newer cars that you get from the large chain rental agencies are almost always trouble free. I rented a car from a local agency in Hungary and ran into some problem on the second day of rental. It had to repaired in a workshop. I suspect the car didn’t get the routine maintenance it needed. If you want more assurance, it is better to get a rental car from one of the large chain rental agencies. I didn’t do so in Hungary because they didn’t have a strong presence there and thus the prices were well beyond their typical rental rates elsewhere.

The large chain rental agencies try to capitalize on every opportunity to make money, and they like to do this by getting customers to take up insurance plans. On the other hand, the small private companies are usually more focused on making money from the car rental itself rather than selling “insurance plans”. I think it is wise to minimally take up the Collision Damage Waiver (or CDW, which is sometimes also referred to as Loss Damage Waiver or LDW). This can sometimes cost as much as the car rental rate itself, but it buys you peace of mind which you need when you are on a holiday. Depending on the location of rental, it is sometimes already included in your rental agreement. Whether you take up further insurance plans is at your own discretion. If you know you tend to be careless, then they are worth considering. This is how i would quantify “careless”: if you are someone who drives everyday and have caused a minor damage to your own car once in a span of two years, i think it is fair to consider yourself careless. When driving in a foreign country (especially in some parts of Europe where the roads and garage entrances can be very narrow), your tendency to be careless are much higher.

Of all the times i have rented a car, i have taken up an upgraded insurance plan just once. This was after i was being lied to that i have to pay more than the excess for causing damage to the car. This was of course not true – if you have taken up the CDW, you pay only up to the amount of excess stipulated for any damage to the car not involving the tyres, windscreen and undercarriage, which are typically not covered. Anyway, out of worry that the rental company (it was Sixt, by the way, and it was my first time renting with them) might try to bill me for even the smallest scratch or for damages not caused by me after i have returned the car, i took up the plan that brings the excess amount down to zero. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. This was the first and only time that i actually caused some serious damage to a rental car. The irony was, when i returned the car, the personnel who did the car inspection did not spot the damages! It is possible that because my rental records showed i had the zero excess plan, the person did not bother to do careful inspection. Anyway, the important thing was, i could continue on my holiday without worrying a single bit about how much money i had to cough up for the damages to the car, and what i paid for the insurance plan was much less than the excess amount. Thank God!

I think the lesson to be learnt here is, if you are confident of yourself being a careful driver (like i do), don’t fall for the hard sell tactics of the car rental reception personnel (although i have really only encountered this only once when renting from Sixt in Madrid, Spain). I believe they do get some kick-back if they manage to convince customers to sign up an upgraded insurance plan. However, if you are seriously worried about having any kind of risk at all, then by all means, sign up the zero excess insurance plan (or even those that cover the tyres and windscreen). It will cost an arm and a leg, no doubt about it, but to the risk averse, it will be worthwhile i suppose.

How to choose the car rental

Car rental offerings and terms are quite standard, so price is pretty much the determinating factor, for me at least. Of all the rental agencies i have tried (and it spans the majority of the large agencies), there was not one that i would condemn really. I normally prefer to book directly with the rental agency rather than go through an aggregator (a reseller that pools together the offerings from various rental agencies), to avoid any ambiguity between the terms and conditions specified by the aggregator and that of the actual rental agency, but an aggregator might point one in the right direction, or sometimes their price might be a lot cheaper to be actually worthwhile. A good idea might be to start your search with an aggregator website, then check each of the rental agencies suggested by going direct to their respective websites.

In the case where the typical large international rental agencies do not have a strong presence (e.g. in Hungary as i have mentioned), you might want to refer to forum postings to find out the preferred local agencies, and in the absence of such suggestions, to just pick a few agencies and ask for a quotation.

What happens when you pick up and return the car

When picking up the car, you will have to present your driving license (has to be in English, or else there may be a requirement for an International Driving Permit) and credit card in your own name. Usually the passport is not required. The credit card is needed to allow the rental agency to bill any post rental charges (such as payment for toll). You may be presented with a choice for your rental car if they have more than one available. You will also often be presented with a choice to upgrade your car and insurance plan. When you are done with the paperwork, you are shown your rental car. An inspection is performed on the spot and any existing damage is noted on the agreement. You should try to spot and point out any damage that is missed out. When you are satisfied with the inspection, you’re good to go.

When returning the car, an inspection is performed. I have not encountered the situation where new damages have been found, so i can’t really comment on what happens in that situation. I do know, though, that it is possible that you are only notified of new damages a few days after you have returned the car. If you’re worried that you may be wrongly accused, it may help if you took some photos of the car at the point of returning the car (though i have never done this myself). Take your time to unload your personal belongings from the car, not forgetting, especially, any smartphone or tablet mount.

Tips and reminders

Airport or train station car pickup – There is usually a 10% surcharge (on top of the total rental cost) for picking up a car from the airport or train station, which can be significant. I try to avoid that, but sometimes it is unavoidable. Only the airport rental office is open beyond normal office hours, and they usually have more cars available.

Rental rates – It usually goes up (by a lot) the closer you are to the date of rental, so it is best to book ahead. Then again, other than at the airport or train station, many rental locations don’t allow you to book, say, half a year in advance (the website will typically tell you that no car is available for your rental dates, but what that might mean is they’re not sure if they can offer you a car yet), so you’ll really have to monitor and book as soon as they start taking reservations.

Fuel top-up – You’re required to fill up the tank before you return your car. You’re sometimes given the option to pre-purchase one tank full of fuel, but I found that the tank capacity they use for calculation are typically more than the actual tank capacity. Besides, it is difficult to return the car on an almost empty tank, so you’ll definitely pay more if you take up this option.

IDP – Do check carefully if an international driving permit is required for rental. In some countries, like Taiwan and Korea, it is mandatory.

GPS – It is cheaper to bring your own GPS device than to rent one. I use Sygic on an Android tablet, and it comes with the option to download maps of most of the world. Taiwan, Japan and Korea are the usual exceptions.

Child seats – It is usually cheaper to bring or even buy child seats than to rent them. Most airlines allow you to check in child seats for free, so you should take advantage of that. Though seemingly counter-intuitive, it might even be cheaper to buy and then throw away child seats at the end of your car rental.

Travel insurance – this can cover the rental excess in case you damaged the rental car. Read the terms and conditions of the insurance policy to make sure you get an insurance whose coverage amount is at least S$500.

4 tips on saving money on your trip

#1 Book ahead

Prices for hotel and car rental normally go up the closer you get to the date you are traveling, especially if it is holiday season. I have seen hotel and car rental prices more than double two months before my travel date, so you can save A LOT if you secure your hotel and car rental bookings way in advance (4 months or more). Sometimes, prices can fall as you approach the date of your stay, probably due to poor hotel occupancy rate (e.g. Booking.com sometimes has a 10% discount nearer to your date of stay), in which case you can cancel your original booking and book again (I normally avoid doing non-refundable bookings). So DON’T just book and forget but check often to see if prices have been adjusted. Car rentals are also usually cancellable without any penalty, so there’s no harm booking ahead and cancelling later if you find a better deal.

Flight fares are more likely to go up than down especially for peak travel period, so i personally think it’s better to book in advance. In any case, without having a firm date for your flights, you can’t book your hotel stays and car rentals, so you’ll likely lose out much more if you waited. The good-value accommodation in popular destinations do sell out very quickly.

While I’m least stingy when it comes to spending on food when travelling, I do want good value food too. I check TripAdvisor to get an idea on how much the meals will cost, and I mostly avoid the super expensive fine dining establishments. In the past when I didn’t do prior research on meals, I had a terrible experience eating at a place just outside the Vatican City. It was a place that served pre-cooked food, like a canteen. The meal which consisted of a chicken main course, some pasta and some veg came up to more than 50 Euros. It was clearly a tourist trap. Since I started planning ahead the meals for trips, i can say that I was seldom disappointed, and i’m quite certain I saved money too.

Other than car rentals, you may also have other transport needs, like airport transfers, or public transportation within the city when it is not feasible to drive. It pays to find out ahead exactly which option will save you money (e.g. day pass vs single trip tickets). When i was in Stockholm, i found out before hand that the metro/bus pass actually covered the ride to the airport (though it requires you to transfer from train to bus). I suspect many people don’t know this and they take the easy but very expensive option of the airport express train.

#2 Choose the right hotel and hotel booking website

Individual personal preference for hotels is a very subjective matter. You usually have to decide between price vs location and comfort. I’m more inclined to get a cheaper place that satisfies the basic criteria of having a private bathroom and a review rating of at least 6.5/10. The cost for accommodation is usually the biggest chunk of your trip expense, so if you do spend enough effort in searching, you will save money. Check out my strategy for hotel search.

#3 Use the right credit card

You may save on exchange rates and transaction fees if you bring cash, but i think nobody brings a huge amount of cash for practical and safety reasons. Credit cards are indispensable for a trip. If you’re renting a car, it is a prerequisite to have a credit card under your own name for the rental. Quick tip: remember to activate your credit card for overseas usage! Since you will be incurring a fair bit of spending on your credit card, make sure you get some cash rebate in return! Check out my post on the credit card i found to be best for overseas spending.

#4 Carry your passport with you when shopping

If you’re going to Europe or Japan, you can enjoy tax-free (8% for Japan and around 5-15% for Europe) shopping IF you have your passport with you at the point of sale.