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How to find cheap car hire

Lydia Fitzsimons
Lydia Fitzsimons
  | Edited by Tom Church
Updated 10th January 2022

If you’re planning a trip in the UK or abroad and are thinking of getting a hire car, this guide can help you. Keep reading to see how to find cheap car hire, checklists to keep costs down, and everything else you need to know.

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What is car hire?

When you travel abroad or in the UK, a hire car can be a great way of seeing more of the place you’re visiting. If you’re thinking of booking one for an upcoming trip, this guide can help you avoid hidden costs, find the cheapest car hire available, and make you aware of any pitfalls.

How to find cheap car hire

Hiring a car should be simple, but often people end up paying far more than they expected as a result of hidden costs. If you’re planning on hiring a car, there are steps you can take to ensure that you don’t end up paying more than you should.

Before hiring a car, while you have the car, and when you return the car, you can do things to ensure costs will be kept down, and below we have checklists for each of these stages to help you save money.

IMPORTANT NOTE: While travel restrictions are still changing regularly, it is a good idea to consider car hire companies that offer flexibility or free cancellation. Even though it can be more expensive, if your holiday ends up being cancelled or rescheduled it can save you money in the long run.

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What to do before you hire a car

  1. Compare car hire companies

Whether it’s the price of a hire car, travel insurance or your flights, comparing prices is always a good idea. As well as comparing the costs, you should also compare what’s included for the price. For example, some companies will cover the cost of the clean when you return the car, whereas others won’t and you’ll need to do it yourself or pay for it. Whether you’re looking for a luxury hire car, or a budget hire car, try and find the best price available.

Popular car hire comparison sites include Travel Supermarket, Skyscanner and Kayak.

  1. Book in advance

If you’re looking for a hire car in Spain, for example, it can be tempting to just sort everything out when you land at the airport, as there are usually lots of car hire companies with desks there.

However, if you do that you may end up paying more for your hire car, as you haven’t compared prices to see if you’re getting a good deal. You also likely won’t know about the car hire company’s reputation. If you book in advance you can read customer reviews of the company you’re considering, and see if other people found there were hidden costs, or poor service and so on.

  1. Check the contract carefully

Before signing the contract, make sure you read it through carefully. If you’re not sure what something means, ask. It’s better to know exactly what you’re signing up for.

  1. Check for extra charges

Checking for extra charges is essential, as lots of hire car companies have them. If you don’t want or need these extras, you can ask for them to be removed, or find an alternative company that won’t overcharge you.

  1. Check the insurance

Make sure you read through your insurance carefully, as you may be liable for more than you anticipate. For example, often with hire car insurance, damage to the windows, tyres and undercarriage are not included.

  1. Decide what sort of car you need

The type of car you need will depend on how many people you’re traveling with, and what you’re planning to use the hire car for. Generally, hire car companies divide their cars into categories, so you can keep costs down by choosing one of the cheaper categories, if it fits in with your needs. 

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What to do while you have a hire car

  1. Pick up the car on time

When you pick up your hire car, make sure you allow plenty of time. You’ll usually be given a window of time for the pick-up, and if you’re late you may incur additional charges. 

  1. Allow the vehicle to be carefully inspected

Picking up your hire car on time also means allowing plenty of time for a full inspection of the vehicle. It’s important that you pay attention when this is being carried out and make sure any damage the car has is noted. If it isn’t, you may face the cost of it, even if it was already on the vehicle. 

  1. Check for safety essentials

When you’re driving abroad, different countries will have different requirements when it comes to safety equipment you need to keep in your vehicle. When you pick up your hire car, make sure you check everything you need is in the vehicle and that it’s all in working order, for example, if there’s a spare tyre, make sure it isn’t punctured.

  1. Take photos or a video of the condition of the car

It is good practice to take photos of every side of the car (including the roof!) and perhaps walking around it taking a video. This is to protect yourself against claims that you caused damage to the car, when in fact your photo can prove it was there already.

  1. Take care of the car

It’s important to look after the car you’re hiring. Any damage it sustains you’ll have to pay for. Even if your insurance may cover it, you’ll likely have to pay an excess, and your insurance premiums will then go up, so it’s best to avoid this if you can!

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What to do when you give back a hire car

  1. Take photos of the exterior and interior

When you return the vehicle, it’s a good idea to photograph the interior and exterior of the hire car. This is so that if there are any issues, you have your own proof, and so can’t be blamed for any damage that you did not cause.

  1. Take photos of any damage you’ve caused

If you have damaged the hire car, for example a scratch, make sure you photograph this too. If the hire car company then tries to charge you more than what is reasonable to fix the specific problem, you have evidence of what it looked like.

  1. Return the car with plenty of time to spare

Lots of car hire companies will charge you if you return a hire car late. So, it’s important to get it back to them with plenty of time to spare, and allow time for their inspections.

  1. Return the car clean and in good condition

Some car hire companies will include the price of cleaning, but with others there may be an additional charge. To avoid this, it’s best to return the car clean, and in a good condition. You don’t want to be faced with an expensive, unexpected cleaning bill.

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How to avoid extra costs

There are certain extra costs associated with hire cars that you need to look out for. Here are some of the most common charges you should beware of.

Car fuel costs

Before hiring a car, it’s essential to understand how you will be charged for fuel. There are a few different options, and it depends on the company you’re using. With all of the below options, if you buy fuel, make sure you keep the receipt, as some companies may require one.

  • Collect the car full and return it full

This is an easy and affordable option, and is often referred to as ‘full-full’. The only thing to bear in mind is that you’ll need to return the car full. If the company feels you could have topped the tank up more, you could face a refuelling fee.

When you collect the car, you can ask where the closest petrol station is. Then you can go there on your way back to drop off the car. Just make sure it will be open when you return the hire car.

  • Buy a full tank from the rental company and return it empty

Alternatively, you can buy a full tank from the rental company when you pick the car up, and then return it empty. This is known as ‘full-empty’. This option can be expensive, as you won’t get any money back if you don’t use a full tank. Also, the car hire company may charge a premium price for the petrol you buy from them.

  • Pay for what you use

Or, it may be that you pay the car hire company for the fuel you use. This is called ‘same-same’. When you return the car, make sure you return it with the same level of fuel as when you got it, or the company may charge you a premium to make up the difference.

Additional mileage

Some companies will have a maximum number of miles you can drive per day. If you exceed the maximum number, you could face additional charges, so it’s important to read the contract carefully and understand any limits. 

Admin fees

If you damage your hire car, as well as potentially being liable for it, you’ll also need to pay admin fees. For things such as damage to the vehicle, parking tickets or speeding tickets you’ll need to pay an admin fee on top of covering the actual cost.

Cleaning

If a car hire company tries to charge you a cleaning fee for damage to the interior of the car, it’s important to request photographic proof of the damage. Cleaning fees can be very high, so taking your own photos before returning the car can help save you money.

Late fees

Whether you’re late picking up your hire car or late dropping it off, you may be charged.

If you arrive late to collect your hire car, the vehicle you pre-paid for may no longer be available. Instead, you may be offered a smaller vehicle, or you may need to pay the walk-up price. If you’re picking up your hire car from the airport, you may be able to enter your flight details when you make the booking. If your flight is delayed, they should be able to track it and shouldn’t give away your car.

If you drop back your hire car late, usually, a daily rental charge will apply, plus a processing fee. 

Problems with hiring a car abroad?

When you’ve hired a car abroad, make sure you check your bank for any extra charges that you weren’t expecting once you’ve returned it.

If you run into any problems, you can contact the European Car Rental Conciliation Service (ECRCS) if the car you hired was in Europe. They can help with incorrect charges. Bear in mind that they can only help if you booked directly through a company and not through a broker.

You should also make sure that you pay for your hire car with a credit card for added protection in case something should go wrong.

If you got a hire car as part of a package holiday and the car is damaged or faulty, you may be able to claim back from the holiday provider.

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