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
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 – it is better to err on the side of caution. By all means, take up a travel insurance that would cover the car rental excess (these days it is 950 Euros), then you don’t need to take up further insurance offered by the car rental company. This is the cheapest way to go about it to be fully covered.
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, Japan 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 (in Europe and US at least). 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 – as mentioned above, 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 that will cover the excess fully.