If you’re travelling in a car in your own country then chances are you’re travelling in your own car. If you’re travelling internationally, or to a more distant destination in your own country, then leaving your own car at home and hiring a car when you get there by aeroplane, boat, or train is likely to be the only, or at least the best, option for you.
Hiring a car instead of using public transport has both advantages and disadvantages, and there are some tricky aspects to hiring a car that need some careful consideration. I’ve covered the main points of hiring a car in another article, here, but to get the best out of it there are a few more things to consider.
Car-hire prices are even more volatile than airline ticket prices. As far I can tell the price depends on the stock that the car-hire companies are expecting to have during your required hire period. If you are booking for an off-peak hire period you will probably get a good rate, but car-hire companies hedge their bets on this. If you are booking well ahead of your required hire period they may infer that you are committed to that period and will pay more for it, regardless of the actual demand they expect. I’ve checked prices every few days for a required hire period in an off-peak time and seen the price progressively fall, and eventually bottom out and then start rising again as the required hire period gets closer.
The answer to this is to start looking as soon as you know even rough dates for your required hire, and see which way the market is going. This is a bit of mucking around, and picking the bottom of the cycle is like trying to pick the peak and dip of the stock exchange or the housing market, but the difference can be considerable, especially for a long hire.
The length of the car hire can make a difference, too, so try changing that as you search.
It’s best to book to collect and return a hire car at an airport if possible, even if you aren’t flying in or out. Car hire companies pay an airport concession fee for the right to hire cars from within an airport, and I’m sure that leasing space at an airport is very expensive; but despite these factors, hiring a car from an airport is always cheaper than hiring it anywhere else. I guess this is because there is so much demand for hire cars at airports and the turnover is high, that the hire-car companies set themselves up well there.
I have on occasion gone to an airport to get a hire car even though I’m not flying, just to get the better price.
Sometimes it’s preferable to collect a hire a car at one location and return it to another. This is especially true when you are travelling for a long time and over a lot of territory: you may collect a car at a major airport when you first arrive, but after the hire you are moving on to your next destination from a regional airport, ferry terminal, or an intercity railway station, and you don’t need to go back to the major airport.
You may expect that, for a large national car-hire company with cars moving all over the place, this would be no issue as the flow of cars would even out most of the time. However this isn’t so; car hire companies always charge a hefty fee if you return a car to a different location to your collect location. The argument is that they are charging you to relocate the car back to where you got it from. I strongly suspect that this is just a way to squeeze money from you, and that they will usually be able to hire the car out from your return location; but that’s the way it goes, and you have to consider this when you are planning your travel.
That doesn’t mean that returning a hire car to a different return location is always a bad choice. We hired a car at Heathrow Airport in London after arriving from Australia. we planned to tour the Cotswold’s region, after which we needed to travel to a house-sit in Southampton on the south coast of England. The hire company charged us an extra £75 (AU$150) to return the car to Southampton rather than Heathrow, for the same hire period. I considered catching a bus from Heathrow to Southampton instead, but the bus tickets were £33 (AU$66) each and there were three of us, and that’s before you even start to think about the inconvenience of the bus!
Usually a car-hire contract allows you to travel as far as you like during your hire, but occasionally a car-hire company will offer you a deal with limited included distance and a charge rate for extra distance beyond this limit, for a lower overall hire price.
If you are travelling broadly this option probably won’t suit you; but if you are travelling from a short-term base doing mostly day trips to local points of interest (as we do sometimes, when house-sitting), then this option may be worthwhile.
If you want your hire car to include unlimited travel distance look for this to be stated clearly when you book the hire car. If you change to unlimited kilometres at the rental collection desk, it is likely to cost you more than it would at the time of booking the car hire. I’ve covered this in another article, here.
Car-hire companies commonly placed limitations on where you can take their cars.
Almost universally, hire cars can’t be taken off properly formed roads (unless the vehicles are designed for that purpose and it’s noted in the hire contract). Gravel roads aren’t necessarily a limitation as long as they are properly formed roads, although some hire companies don’t even allow gravel roads. Sometimes specific roads are banned, for instance if you hire a car in Hawaii, the Big Island, you almost certainly won’t be able to take it on Saddle Road on Mauna Kea.
Ferries, including ferries to near-shore islands, are commonly off- limit, too. This may put such places as the Isle of Wight, England; and Bruny Island, Tasmania, Australia; off-limits for hire cars. I expect this would usually apply to cross-river ferries too, such as the ferry across the Noosa River at Tewantin, Queensland, Australia, that gives access to Rainbow Beach, and the ferry across the Pieman River, at Corinna, Tasmania, Australia.
Despite the almost seamless continuity of European countries and their often invisible borders, driving outside the country of hire is commonly forbidden. Hire companies may also forbid travelling interstate in countries such as Australia and the USA.
I’ve given you just some typical examples of these geographical restrictions, but the restrictions are highly variable from company to company, and it pays to investigate them before you collect your hire car.
Unfortunately, these geographical restrictions aren’t usually apparent when you book a hire car on a website. If you think these restrictions are likely to affect your plans for a hire car, you can look up the car-hire company’s terms and conditions on their website before you book, which should give you these restrictions, or you can contact them to discuss this.
If you use a car-hire aggregator website you may not get to find out which car-hire company you have booked with until after you have completed your booking. In this case, you need to be sure that the car hire is fully cancellable, and then, if you find that the car-hire company won’t let you do what you plan to do with their car, you can cancel and find somewhere else to hire the car.
You may be tempted to think that the car hire company will never know that you have been driving somewhere where you shouldn’t, and that you will certainly get away with it. This is absolutely true – not only will they not know but they won’t even care; all they care is that you return the car to them undamaged. However, if you do damage the car when driving somewhere where you shouldn’t be, their insurance won’t cover you, and the hire-car company will be after you for the full cost of repairs, or the cost of a replacing the car.
Leasing the space to run a car hire business at a large airport is very expensive – some car-hire companies avoid this cost by leasing much cheaper space at a nearby commercial area, and use shuttle busses to transfer their customers to and from the airport. Because of the lower cost of having premises away from the airport, these car rental companies can be significantly cheaper.
This arrangement isn’t always apparent at the time of booking – you may select that you want to collect a hire car at the airport on the web form, but you actually get one that is nearby, so be aware of this possibility. If you really want to collect a hire car at the airport check that the hire proposal actually says at the airport, not near the airport or via a shuttle bus.
Even so, you can still find yourself using an off-airport car hire unexpectedly – we used MalagaCar.com in Spain and didn’t realise that it was off-airport until the shuttle bus we were on left the airport! Everything worked out perfectly, they were easy to deal with, and the hire only cost us AU$10 per day over seventeen days, so we weren’t complaining about the misperception!
There’s no deep problem using off-airport car hire – I’ve used them a couple of times – however, there are some limitations that you need to consider. The process of arrival and departure at the airport, and collecting up and returning your hire car are a little more complex, and take longer than they would if you were using a car-hire company that was right at the airport. Mostly, that’s just a minor annoyance that takes a little more planning and a bit more time when you may be very tired after a long flight.
The most serious issue here is that, when you are returning your hire car to catch a departing aeroplane, you are at the mercy of the efficiency of the car-hire company’s processes. This is always an issue when returning a hire car to an airport before departing on a flight – if you get stuck in a long queue of people returning cars you could miss you flight – but here you are adding the complexity and uncertainty of the shuttle bus to the airport into an already complex and critical process. The solution is to make sure you leave plenty of spare time!
When you collect your hire car the car-hire company will collect a security bond (deposit) from you. The security bond covers any extra cost that you may incur, and the repair cost of any damage that isn’t covered by the insurance.
Credit cards, and to a lesser extent debit cards, are a very efficient way of placing security bonds. This is because, if you pay with a credit or debit card, the car-hire company will have your card details, which guarantees that they will be able to take more money from your card if they need to when you return the car.
If you were to pay for your security bond with cash the amount of the bond will be much greater that if you are using a credit or debit card, and the car-hire company will probably require you to take out no-excess hire-vehicle excess insurance with them as well. This is because, if you pay with cash, they won’t have your card details and they won’t be certain that they will be able to take more money from you if they need to when you return the car if the car has been damaged, or for any other reason.
You can find out more about the security bond in another article, here.
Car-hire companies have a well established reputation for hiding the costs of extras that you are definitely going to need with your car, and then selling them to you at a high price when you pick the hire car up, at which point you have no opportunity to think about them or to look at alternative options. Those extras may not be necessary, and you may be able to get them cheaper if you book them in advance, or if you get them somewhere else.
These extra costs may also mean that that you would have made a different decision on your transport needs if you had known about them and factored them into you costings.
You can find out more about hidden and extra car-hire costs in another article, here.
Car-hire companies that hide costs from you until you get to the counter to pick up the hire car up are pretty annoying; but they aren't really crooked, and it’s still possible to pull out of the deal at the counter; although, that's going to be extremely inconvenient. However, some car hire companies really are rouges, and with access to your credit card account after you return the car they have excellent opportunities to apply themselves.
A rouge car-hire company can claim that you have breached the terms and conditions of the hire to justify retaining your security bond, and even taking more from your credit card. They could also claim that they have found damage to the car after you’ve returned it and moved on to your next destination, and charge your credit card. When you're a long way from home, and perhaps even in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, these types of claims are very difficult to counter.
The best way to attempt to avoid crooked car-hire companies is to stick with the big, well-established, companies like Hertz, Avis, Budget, Alamo, Europcar, Thrifty, and the like, which usually have a good reputation.
If you use a car-hire aggregator website you may not get to find out which car-hire company you have booked with until after you have completed your booking. In this case, you need to be sure that the car hire is fully cancellable in case you don’t like the look of the car-hire company that you get.
Sometimes a small or unknown car-hire company will have an especially good deal, or you might be in a place where the big companies don't operate, or you might need to go to a specialist car-hire company, for something like an off-road car. In these cases you have to balance the risk of using these companies, and try to find out what you can about their reputation.
We’ve hired cars from small companies a few times: we hired a car from a large, but independent, company in Malaga, Spain, as I described above, because they had an exceptionally good deal. We hired a car from a tiny car-hire company on King Island in Bass Strait, Australia, because there are only two tiny car-hire companies on the island (actually I think that they may both be the same company). And we hired a car recently in Western Australia from a small company with just a few branches around Australia, because they had an exceptionally good deal. All of those car hires worked out fine, but you never know.
In the spirit of keeping you informed, here’s a news article, which describes a small, specialist, car-hire company on the Gold Coast in Australia as ‘carrying out "a relentless, systemic and well-rehearsed fraud" on 4WD vehicle hirers’.
I’ve based this commentary on my personal experiences, circumstances, and impressions, and my limited research on hiring a car – it isn’t the result of an exhaustive study about hiring a car. It may not apply to you, or your circumstances.
Over time, the things that I say here may become out of date, and, while I’ll correct anything I know is wrong, I’m not going to be excessively conscientious about ensuring that it is current. So, treat this commentary as a great place to start, but do your own research and confirm everything that you read here before deciding to hire a car!
Share this The Journey and the Destination post using your favourite social media:
Would you like to add something, or ask a question? Add a comment below (you can leave the 'Website' field blank):