Renting a car

Travelling by car can get you to places very difficult to reach by public transport or tour. It gives you the convenience of going your own way, in your own time, and it can in some cases be cheaper than public transport alternatives, at least if travelling as a couple or a group.

The downside is that in some places, traffic conditions may differ wildly from what you are used to, and foreign conditions can add stress to your travels that you can do without. See Driving in China for one example. In some circumstances it may be better to rent a car with a driver. In countries where wages are low, this may not cost significantly more than the cost of the car alone. Traffic jams and congestion are also an issue: While you might save money by taking a car in some places, road rage is perhaps costing you twice that in sanity, avoid Jakarta at rush hour for one. Old towns are by their very definition not built for cars and if you have to drive a car, try parking it outside the old town proper and exploring the city center per pedes.

You should also consider whether you need a car. In many countries public transport is perfectly adequate for most travellers and the time in a bus, train or boat can – at least sometimes – be used for rest, enjoying the landscape or getting yourself organized, much better than when one in the company has to concentrate on driving. If you will be visiting one or several (major) cities, expect parking to be both expensive and problematic. Finally, there's always the remote chance of your car being stolen or damaged.


Base price

Price is normally calculated by number of days. Usually the more days you take, the less you pay per day. Cars are classified according to a class, small to large, prestige and specialty vehicles, and there is a sliding scale of prices for each car class. When you book you are usually given an example of a car type in that class, but it need not be that type you are receiving.

Rental car companies normally permit a small amount of time, usually around an hour, for late returns. After that they can charge up to another full day rental for a late return. If you know you are going to exceed the rental period you can often call the rental company and arrange an extension. Normally the standard contract rate (without discounts) would apply.

Most rental companies have a one day minimum rental period. Price for durations less than a day normally are not regulated. If you need to return the car at significantly different time of the day, you can try haggling to get extra hours for free.

Insurance surcharges

If the car is damaged or stolen, your liabilities (to the rental agency and/or others) can go far beyond the fee you agree to pay for the rental. In addition to paying for any repairs required, the rental car company will charge you for any loss of revenue while the car is being repaired, and administration costs for managing the repair. If your car damages another or injures someone, there are additionally the liabilities to this party, and possibly charges.

Usually when you come to rent a car you are presented with several insurance options. Some of these are

You should take the time to consider the insurances offered, how they effect your liability, their cost, and whether your personal car insurance, travel insurance or charge card (used to rent the car) provides partial or full coverage. Sometimes some of these insurances and surcharges are compulsory, e.g., in foreign countries where your personal insurance doesn't offer coverage. Sometimes some coverages are built into the base rate.

If insurance or waivers are optional, consider the following before accepting the charge:

  1. As above, if you have an automobile insurance policy on your vehicle at home, check to see if it includes coverage for rental car damage at your destination. Some policies include this coverage only for certain locations, which is unhelpful if you're travelling to another country.
  2. If you plan to pay with your credit card, check also to see if it includes rental car coverage. Be aware that in many cases this coverage is secondary (meaning your existing auto insurance coverage pays first).
  3. If you have purchased a travel insurance policy that covers trip cancellation, medical expenses, etc., check to see if it includes a rental car collision/loss benefit. Some packages do, providing primary coverage up to a certain amount. (Primary coverage means that the insurance pays before other policies, including your own auto insurance.) Depending on the amount of insurance you buy, the per-day charge for a travel insurance policy that includes rental car coverage can work out to less than the per-day amount of a waiver. It is usually cheaper to purchase travel insurance than to pay for the Excess Reduction/Super-CDW at the rental counter.

Rental companies tend to prefer bona-fide visitors rather than local renters when it comes to excess levels and excess reduction. Sometimes these are lower for international visitors booked in advance, for airport renters with a flight number, or for people using a corporate discount code.

Many of the insurances are void if you use the car in a manner not permitted by the contract, e.g., driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, using it to commit a crime.

Distance charges

Some rental agreements may have a limit on how far you can travel per day or in total, and will charge for additional distance travelled. Others have unlimited mileage. In either case, a photo of the odometer shot at the beginning and end of the hire is a useful precaution.

Even with unlimited miles, you may see limits that confine you to adjacent states or regions. Some hire car firms may even use satellite navigation receivers to snoop on motorists, and inflict a costly per-km or per-mile charge onto the entire rental as soon as one visits even a single nearby out-of-province point (like Ottawa from Gatineau). Getting those limits relaxed may involve added fees; violating them may generate stiff penalties...all in the rental contract.

Taking rental cars across international borders is usually not permitted and sometimes even prohibited in places where borders are otherwise very open (say Poland-Germany). However, these rules may in some cases be waived (for extra money) or only apply in one direction (e.g. you can take a Canadian rental car to the US but not the other way round). Shop around if your trip contains more than one country and read the fine print carefully.

Other surcharges

Rental car companies are notorious for finding additional surcharges, sometimes not added until the point of sale. These can include location or airport taxes, improvement fees and other surcharges, admin surcharges, registration recovery surcharges and other local taxes. Sometimes local taxes are not just the local sales taxes, but also local vehicle taxes that are "recovered". At the Las Vegas airport, such fees can increase the cost of a rental by close to 60 percent.

This practice has become so notorious that some consolidators promote themselves on the basis they guarantee to offer a fully inclusive price, but check the fine print.

Depending on the jurisdiction some of these surcharges may or may not be actually illegal, but some rental companies just calculate that most customers don't know their rights and won't press charges for "a couple of bucks". One example are taxes: While it is perfectly legal to quote a price without sales tax in the US, sales tax has to be included in every price in all EU countries.


If you work for a large corporation, you may be eligible for the corporate (employee) rate when renting a car with some of the larger rental companies in any worldwide location. Extra benefits may also include a reduced excess. Check with your company for a discount code that may apply. However, if you use an employee discount code, don't assume it will always result in a lower cost. Many employee discount codes have a cheaper rental rate and included liability, but have increased charges for milage and one-way fees. Check the cost, with and without the "discount".

Similarly, members of professional societies, alumni societies, or even travellers with a partner airline can access discount codes. If you don't have travel insurance a discount code that lowers the excess (deductible) to a moderate amount can be worth a significant part of the rental cost.

Sometimes - though not necessarily always or even in the majority of cases - there is a (small) discount for buying the rental car, the hotel and the flight "in a bundle". Check carefully whether this is actually the case, as especially low cost airlines are notorious for making money off of "commission" they get for selling overpriced hotel rooms and rental cars.

Choosing a car and optional extras

You need to choose a car to meet your needs.

You can usually hire a GPS with the car. Having a GPS when driving in a new city can save considerable amount of time until you get your bearings. Check the price carefully, as GPS rental for a week can sometimes cost as much as a new GPS. If you own a GPS device or smart phone that works at your destination, maybe the small comfort of a pre-installed GPS is not worth the extra money.

Rental car companies often rent child seats or booster seats. If you are flying with a young child, sometimes you can take your seat on the plane to save the cost of this hire. Make sure the seat you have will attach to the car you are hiring and complies with the relevant standards.



If you are considering driving to a different country from that where you have rented your car, ensure that the insurance will also cover this. Even in places such as the European Union where many countries are close to each other, each car rental company can have different policy coverage.

There are sometimes exclusions for certain areas inside the same country. In Australia your insurance may not cover going to remote 'off-road' regions with a standard car. For example Kangaroo Island is often excluded when renting your car from nearby Adelaide, as is the interior of Iceland, for ordinary cars rented there.

In some cases, hire car firms will not allow their vehicles to be driven out of the country; driving into Mexico from the USA or into eastern Europe from the west are often prohibited by the rental contract.


It is common to restrict rentals to only drivers over the age of 21, and to apply a surcharge on drivers under 25.


Some companies insist that your license have been valid for a period of time. Provisional licenses can be problematic, and learners permits are always forbidden. Obviously your license has to be valid in the country of destination. Why this may not be a problem in most countries, other countries, most notably mainland China don't accept any foreign licenses not even those from Hong Kong.

Driving record

Booking and haggling

The decision over whether to book in advance or whether to shop around on arrival can be difficult, and depends on the location and the time.

When renting with major rental agencies at major western airports a reservation doesn't guarantee your rental. On their side, the rental agencies overbook, and on your side you can usually make a reservation without any commitment and cancel at any time with no penalty. Although a reservation will not guarantee you a car in this case, it will give you priority over someone without a reservation.

Some things to consider when choosing whether to book or turn up and try for a better standby rate.

If you book with a travel agent they often require prepayment in full, and will give you a voucher to present at the rental car desk on arrival.

You may also encounter somewhat better offers or treatment if you book through the agent/agency arranging your flight; citing your membership in automobile associations or other specific groups (military, seniors, corporate business travel) may also sometimes be advantageous.

Delivering the car to your location

Some rental car companies offer an option to deliver a car to your initial hotel, and/or to pick it up in the hotel at your final destination. This option may be offered free as part of an extended period of rent (e.g. 1 week and more, as for Budget in Portugal). In this case, an agent comes with a full set of papers, everything is filled out on spot and you may not need to visit a rental office at all. Other rental car companies may pick you up in the car, and take you back to the rental car agency to fill out the paperwork. This is mainly so their driver has a way to get back to the rental car office, rather than being left stranded at a hotel without a car.

If your hotel has only paid parking around it, it is your responsibility to pay for parking time required for an agent to prepare papers with you.

Payment and security deposit

Rental companies invariably require a mechanism to have a security deposit in case of damage, fines or even failure to return a car.

Many operators require that they have a true credit card that they can make charges against, often rejecting debit cards that can have the money withdrawn from them. Usually a hold will be placed on a credit card for a security deposit amount. However. in many cases they mean a card with protruding card details text, i.e. number, expiration, cardholder's name (cards like Visa Classic or Mastercard)--as opposed to Visa Electron or Cirrus/Maestro.

Renting with cash only is unusual, and your should check with the rental company that it is acceptable. If permitted it involves paying an amount of cash as a deposit roughly equal to your maximum liability which can be many times the cost of the rental. Some rental companies will accept payment for the rental in cash, as long as there is credit card available for the security deposit.

The security deposit amount held is not usually fixed in your contract and the funds may remain tied up for weeks (or a couple of months) after you return the vehicle. If having part of your credit card limit held may impact some other part of your holiday plans, you should check with the rental agency.

Before you set out

Make sure you know:

And before you move the car, adjust your seat and then all mirrors to meet your needs.

Frequently you will be provided with a free driving map of the region.

Checking initial condition

Before you go, check the exterior and front glass of the car and ask personnel to mark in the contract every scratch and dent you find, and sign the scheme on both copies of your contract, or even keep digital photos of the condition of the car and picture any damages at time of pick up and at time of drop off. When you return the car, it will be checked against the scheme you put in the contract. You can save considerable hassles at the end of the rental by just taking the time to note every scratch and dent.


Electronic tolling in many countries, means that the car rental company will usually offer some kind of tolling service, where they will make arrangements to pay your toll, or provide you with a electronic tag in return for an administrative fee.

In some cases (for example, Avis and Hertz in the U.S.) will charge a fee for every day of the rental as soon as you pay a single toll on any day of the rental.

You need to give consideration to toll roads on your route, and whether they are tag, licence plate or cash. You can then work out if it is cheaper to pay the local tolling authority directly, or if the convenience is worth the fee charged by the rental company.

Filling the tank

Normally, a rental car is expected to be returned with the same fuel level as when rented.

Some agreements offer you purchase of fuel at an attractive discounted rate. In this case make sure you are going to be driving enough to empty the tank, and that you can return it virtually empty. Many rental sites will charge you to fill the tank as though it is totally empty, not for the actual fuel needed to fill it.

Normally, the most economical approach is to agree to return the car full. Note that:

If the car breaks down

The rental car agency will provide a number to contact in case of problems with the car. Make sure you contact this number first, because they will usually have agreements with service organizations to fix or move the car. If you incur costs of towing, etc, without contacting them you may make yourself liable for the cost.

If you have a flat tire, or similar, and the cost won't be covered by the rental car company, it may just be simpler to get the tire fixed than to arrange service through the rental car company, who may end up charging you more. However, if the repair will be covered by your travel insurance, you may want the rental company to arrange the repair so the paperwork is complete.

Automobile associations normally tie membership to individual drivers (not specific vehicles); this roadside assistance remains available when driving rented or borrowed vehicles. Reciprocal agreements often exist between automobile associations abroad, providing access to roadside assistance when travelling.

Returning a car

Normally you return the car to a rental office at your final point in their working hours and have a final calculation done there.

At smaller locations, sometimes the office will be unattended, and have a lot to park the car, and a drop box for the keys.

If you arrive at the office when it is closed, and you can't return it when open, it usually works to leave the car in the lot, or nearby and place the keys, contract and the information about the car somewhere secure and obvious. You will remain liable for the car until the office opens, which is problematic if the vehicle is damaged or stolen while sitting on the lot, and will usually also be charged up until that time.

With a pick-up-at-hotel option (see "Delivering the car to your location" above), you only need to park a car (for paid parking, pay for the next 1 hour) and hand keys to an agent that comes to the hotel (with a check for parking payment if applicable).

If you return the car at another point than you picked it up, make sure that the opening hours are the same and that you find the place in time.

If you damage the car

If you incur damage to the car the car rental company will initiate the standard process that they have for vehicle damage. They will identify the damage, and you will be required to fill in and sign an accident report form. If the office is unattended at the time you return the car, they will contact you and advise you to fill in the form and return it to them.

They will charge or place a hold on your credit card for the full amount of any excess that was defined in rental agreement, even if that is obviously greater than the value of the damage. They will obtain quotes for the repair, and advise you the cost of the repair, and their administration cost. This process can take up to a month to complete. If this cost is greater than your excess, then that completes the process. The rental car company retains the excess. Otherwise, your card will then be refunded for the difference.

This is usually clearly explained in the documentation that the company will produce when you return a damaged car.

There is a risk that a dishonest rental car operator will attempt to bill you for minor, pre-existing damage to the vehicle which you did not cause; you may return a vehicle seemingly without incident, only to find that the dealer is claiming later to your card issuer that "hidden damage" was found later. Another potential scam involves greatly inflated repair cost - possibly from a repair shop owned by the same operator - or charges for repairs which were never made.

Very careful inspection of the condition of the vehicle both at the start and end of the rental, with the vendor present, is normally advised (don't be afraid to take photos of anything that might be disputed later) but is not fail-safe protection against fraud.

Choosing an operator

Major global car rental brands and franchises operate in many countries throughout the world. Sometimes the regional operator can be an independent company using the name under license, and often the local operator is just a franchisee. These major brands allow bookings through all the electronic booking services, and there is a seemingly endless amount of Internet booking services that allow you to do comparison searches between them.

Using a global operator can have advantages. They often have priority "clubs", which record your details in advance, and can make renting a car as simple as just picking up the keys. You can generally rely on them operating out of prime locations, such as in the airport terminal, rather than in the shed down the street. They usually run cars for a short period of time before updating their fleet. However, don't think that because you are renting from a global operator you can rely on them to do the pre-rental car inspections correctly, or that their terms and conditions of rental are consistent.

The next level is the national or regional chain. Many countries have national operators, which may also operate out of a few neighboring countries in the region. Sometimes these operators can also have prime locations, and sometimes they operate using shuttles or from less prestigious sites.

The next level is the purely local operator. It is unusual for these operators to have the prime locations, often they operate from less prestigious sites. The rental car industries sees its share of shady operators, and often they can be found in this category. This is unfortunate, as many of these operators can offer good value, and good service. It pays to seek out some local advice or reviews.

Often the choice is one between brand, price and convenience.

Car sharing

Various operators appeared around the turn of the millennium to offer "car sharing" as an alternative to car ownership or rental. A product of the Internet era, this model is most commonly seen in large cities in the UK, western Europe, the US and Canada.

Car share vehicles recharging, San Francisco City Hall

These were originally short-term access to vehicles intended for local use by city dwellers who normally travel by bus, bicycle or on foot, only needing a motorized vehicle rarely (and just for short periods) to move awkward, heavy items or travel to points beyond the edge of the local transit system. Vehicles could be obtained for a day, or in some cases for as little as an hour or two. DaimlerAG's Car2Go rents two-seat Smart Cars in Germany as well as some cities in other European countries, the US and Canada. They bill by the minute and offer some electric vehicles. Deutsche Bahn's Flinkster covers most of Germany with a few locations in adjacent countries (Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands), offering electrical vehicles in addition to its internal combustion based fleet.

Most of these organizations own a small fleet of vehicles, which are stationed at various points in the city center or on university campuses. The car share operator sells memberships to drivers, verifying the driver is licensed and insurable at the time of issuing a membership. The member is issued a card which unlocks the vehicles and access to a website on which cars may be reserved in advance. Each car has a preassigned, permanently-reserved parking spot; in most cases, the vehicle must be brought back round-trip to the original car park after use.

The driver goes to the pre-assigned car park spot, inspects the vehicle for dirt and damage, unlocks it with the card and drives away. The system operates unattended; the short-term self-service rental is billed to a charge card, along with any (often costly) penalties for parking tickets, road tolls, vehicles returned late, dirty or out of fuel. Any collisions or problems with the vehicles are reported to the car share operator by telephone or on-line.

The original target market was locals, not travellers; this is gradually changing as larger operators acquire for-profit local independents as a means to expand to more cities. Additional options are also being opened by reciprocal agreements between vendors. A Vrtucar member driver in Ottawa-Gatineau may be able to drive a Communauto in Quebec City or an AutoShare vehicle in Toronto, for instance, without needing to purchase another car share membership in each city.

Operators which own fleets of car share vehicles fall into various categories:

Some operators, such as "City Carshare" in San Francisco, promote environmentally-friendly vehicles for ideological reasons. Autolib', a for-profit operator in France, operates a fleet of all-electric vehicles and charging stations.

There are also "peer-to-peer carsharing" applications, which connect drivers to individual owners of private vehicles. These operate in a similar manner to the "AirBnB" style apps for lodging rental. "RelayRides" in the US and "Car Next Door" in Australia follow this model.

Traffic direction

In some countries, traffic moves on a different side of the road from what you are used to at home. In the USA, continental Europe, China and most countries of the world, traffic moves on the right side of the road. On the other hand, in the UK, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and many former British colonies such as Australia and Hong Kong, traffic moves on the left side of the road. In general, cars in countries that drive on the right are left-hand drive (the steering wheel is on the left side of the car), and cars in countries that drive on the left are right-hand drive, though there are some exceptions.

Usually, adapting to driving on the other side of the road, and operating the steering wheel on the other side of the car takes some time, but does not pose any major issues. It is advisable to start driving slowly while you familiarize yourself with the new configuration and road conditions, and ensure you stay alert at all times while you adjust to the switch. You will probably feel awkward at first, but it will become more natural the more you drive. Pay particular attention when crossing international borders, as you may sometimes have to switch sides of the road after crossing the border (eg. Hong Kong-China border; Thailand-Cambodia border).

Stay safe

Visible signs that a car might not be driven by locals (including rental car logos) increases the risk of crime, such as burglary, robbery or confidence tricks.

See also

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Wednesday, March 30, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.