There is an art to hiring (renting) cars -- and hired cars are often important to the semi-adventurous traveller, as a way of getting to places you might not otherwise see. The main things to watch out for are price; extras; and the small print. Then there are accidents and breakdowns.
Price is obviously important, but it is not necessarily decisive. It may well be better to pay a bit more, for an all-inclusive package, than for a low headline figure which is rapidly inflated by add-ons. The usual add-ons are collision damage waiver; fuel; personal accident insurance; contents insurance; and additional drivers. Most of these are covered in the small print.
Enfield Bullet, Goa.
You need to pay close attention to the desk clerks at local rental agencies, especially if you have pre-booked a package (as we normally do, usually via skycars.com). More than once, we have been told a variety of flat lies: for example, that we have to purchase extra insurances, or will be liable for all damage if we don't, or that we must to pay extra because Frances uses her own name and 'spouses are people with the same surname'. Argue from a position of strength, having read the hire agreement, and you will always win. You may have to demand that the desk clerk send for his or her supervisor, but you can save hundreds of pounds, dollars or euros a year by refusing to pay extra for things you don't need or don't want. Skycars are dead straight; the local agencies sometimes need reminding of what you have already paid Skycars for.
We almost invariably order the smallest car in the line-up -- often described as 'Sub-Compact', using the American terminology -- and have always found that this is entirely adequate for two people (or, on the rare occasions we have travelled separately, one person). Surprisingly often, too, you will get a free upgrade, because they won't have the car you ordered. This is especially true in the United States, or if you book an 'open jaw' rental which gives the company the chance of getting rid of something that is an embarrassment to them (no demand, out-of-state registration, whatever). As a result, we have found ourselves with vehicles as disparate as a Lincoln Town Car, an 8-seater Plymouth Voyager, a Sebring convertible (right) and a full-size pick-up truck, while paying for the cheapest car they have.
If they try to suggest a paid upgrade, as often as not it is because they don't have the car you want and are trying to get more money out of you. Politely refuse, and you may well get exactly the same upgrade for nothing.
These are quite rare but are still encountered in a few countries or with de-luxe models. Slightly more often, there is a 'free mileage' limit, beyond which you have to pay per mile (or kilometre), often at punitive rates.
At worst, you may be responsible for every cent's worth of damage to the car -- including imaginary damage, or damage you never saw when you picked it up, or damage that occurred after you returned it. Always go over the vehicle carefully, and insist that they note and sign for any dent, scratch or bent radio aerial. If at all possible, go over it with them again when you return it.
CDW lets you off some or all of this liability. Full CDW lets you off all of it, but this is increasingly unusual. Normally there are two levels of CDW. The lower level (which may be included in the package) leaves you with an excess of a few hundred pounds, dollars, or euros: the first £500, say, which you will have to pay for before their insurance kicks in and pays for the rest. A higher level lets you off all liability -- or does it?
Many contracts specifically exclude damage to the wheels (sometimes including hubcaps!) or underside of the car, or to the windshield, so even if you pay the extra for 'full' CDW, you may remain liable. Mostly, the 'wheels and underside' exclusion is to stop you driving off-road, though what constitutes a 'road' or even a 'surfaced road' may be a subject for considerable debate. Off-road driving may or may not be specifically excluded, even for 4WD vehicles, which is a bit of a laugh if you think about it.
Reservoir, northern Spain.
Most contracts will also exclude carriage for hire (taxi work) or racing or speed trials or competition of any kind.
Finally, if it is fairly clear that the damage really is fair wear and tear -- such as a puncture and bent wheel we sustained in Malta, where the roads are notoriously ill-surfaced -- then you are unlikely to have to pay. This is why you have to strike a fine line between forcefulness and downright yelling when dealing with unusually obtuse desk clerks.
Some credit cards purportedly give insurance when they are used to hire a car, but we do not care to rely on this without looking very closely indeed at exactly what they do cover. Usually, it's not much.
The traditional approach is that you bring the car back with as much fuel as when you took it: full, empty, half-full, whatever. If you return the car with less fuel then when you took it, they charge you for the difference or for filling it up, often at a 50-100% premium per litre (or gallon). This is not a good idea.
An increasingly popular alternative is pre-paying a full tank, after which you can return it as close to empty as you dare. Only you can decide which is a better bet. We normally reject the pre-payment option unless fuel is very cheap, as it is in the United States, or unless we know we may be unusually hurried or stressed when we return the vehicle. At the very least, you are likely to be giving the rental company 5-10 litres (a gallon or two), or 10-20 euros or £5-10 (in dollars, it's usually trivial).
PITA (Pain in The Arse) is more accurate than either PAI/PIA, consisting as they do of absurdly high premiums for derisorily low cover. If you have annual travel insurance (as any semi-adventurous traveller should) or indeed any kind of travel insurance, these are in our view an utter waste of money.
As with PIA/PAI, you should already be better covered elsewhere. Watch out for high excesses, and low maxima on payous (£300/$500 for a camera, for example), as well as high premiums.
Often, spouses are covered at no extra charge. Sometimes, a second named driver can be added at the time of booking, either free of charge, or at a nominal charge. If you want to add another driver on the spot, when you pick the vehicle up, prices vary enormously from the reasonable to the outrageous, 'outrageous' being defined as 'at least three times as much as reasonable.' This is definitely one of the places that a more expensive headline rate, plus zero or reduced second-driver charges, can save money over a lower headline rate.
We have already mentioned mileage charges, damage/CDW, damage that cannot be insured against, carriage for hire, racing and the like, fuel and additional drivers. There may also be territorial restrictions -- usually affecting only international borders, but sometimes less -- and of course you are liable for parking violations, speeding tickets and the like. A really crazy one was that we were once stopped on the Washington Beltway for an expired license tag. The cop got very aggressive when we pointed out that this wasn't our problem, but the hire company's. "You're driving, it's your problem," he snarled. Two or three hours later, while we were heading towards a rental company depot to replace the car, we were rear-ended by a Commonwealth of Virginia maintenance truck, who admitted liability...
Exactly the same rules apply to accidents as if it were your own car: don't admit liability. In continental Europe you are normally required to fill out a constat à l'aimable, an agreed version of what happened. Each party fills in his/her version; each party keeps a copy of both sides' views. If you have no constat, try to get the other side to write a brief account of what happened. This once helped us to settle an Italian insurance claim in under 6 months. The dear girl wrote (in Italian), "I came around the corner and saw the road-works, but it was too late to stop and I hit the motorcycle."
Of course, get the names and addresses of as many witnesses as possible. Do not trust anyone who says he won't be reporting the accident; this can be a ruse to stop you collecting witnesses, after which it is quite easy to paint you as the guilty party.
As for breakdowns and mechanical failures, if the car is still mobile, it is generally a lot quicker to take it in and change it than to wait for them to do anything. We did this with the bent car in Virgina (see above) and with the car that they gave us to replace it, where the window on the driver's door shattered when Roger slammed it (it wouldn't close otherwise). In Malta we were once given a car with an appalling clonk (missing engine bolt); had it replaced by a car that turned out to have a burned-out clutch; took that back next day, and were given the original car, now repaired.
We hire cars less than we used to, because we live on the European mainland and prefer to drive to our destinations in our own car (or on our own motorcycle). Even so, it's a rare year we don't hire a car at least once. The most important thing is to be clear what the terms are, which actually means reading the reams of agreement that they hand you.
Next comes checking the car over carefully, as described above. Few companies are as casual as the Portuguese renter in the Algarve who said, when Roger pointed out numerous scrapes and scratches, "Why do you care? You've got full CDW!"
Finally -- or perhaps first -- deal with someone reputable. If you haven't booked beforehand, reps on package holidays can be a good source: they daren't stitch you up too badly, or take overly obvious kickbacks, or the tour company will be down on them like a ton of bricks. Today, as already noted, we almost invariably book via Skycars They act as agents for all sorts of well-known rental companies, and sell complete packages with (mostly) fair terms: the UK packages still have excesses on collision, though, and the local add-ons can be absurd. The last time we hired a car it was £10 a day for CDW, £10 a day for additional drivers, £10 a day for PAI/contents and £10 a day for hiring a SatNav. That's £40 a day -- on top of the basic rental of under £20 a day.
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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks