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Cheap Car Hire

£100s off holiday hire & insurance costs

Car hire firms abroad have more catches than a corset, but follow our 30 tips and you can unhook them with ease.

It's possible to get holiday car hire for as little as £4/day even during busy times by booking early, so don't leave it until you're there. Read our top tips to find the cheapest prices, slash your insurance excess and beat hidden nasties.

Speedily find the cheapest with comparison sites

Comparison sites let you search the car hire market at speed. You're then sent a voucher to present to the hire company on arrival.

Here are the top picks. Quickly search all three, as they cover different companies.

  • Kayak's* key strength is allowing you to speedily weed out what works for you. It does this by loading in all the available options, then letting you filter depending on whether it's a convertible, manual, if you want unlimited mileage and more. It searches 20+ sites, and covers all the biggies.

  • Carrentals* is another very usable site with lots of tools for filtering results, similar to Kayak. It covers some different companies, searching 50 sites in total, so it's worth checking both.

  • TravelSupermarket* is good on coverage, searching 20+ sites. While it's clunky, it often undercuts the other comparisons on price. The search is basic - it only allows you to pick the car type. But it's a good belt 'n' braces second check to ensure you're not missing a really cheap deal.

  • Once you've found the cheapest deal, you should check a few key points.

    Use this checklist before you book:

Earlier booking saves big

Find deals quicklyBooking in advance for car hire abroad can save £100s. If you book off-peak when demand's tiny, you can drive down costs in some cases to just £3/day - prices Arthur Daley would weep at.

Even in peak season, the savings can be huge.

Booked four months in advance, got 10 days for £296 for a decent-sized car. Just before I went, checked and the price had gone up to £900. So glad I booked early.MoneySaver Dave

For example, we checked hire prices at popular European resorts this autumn half-term for a family car, and found you could pay £200+ more by waiting till you step off the plane...
Car hire prices
Destination 25 Oct-1 Nov, booked 25 Sept 2 Dec-1 Nov, booked 4 Nov (1)
Spain £21/day £13/day
Italy £37/day £5/day
Orlando N/A £30/day
Car hire policies for a 'compact' family car in Orlando, Pisa and Faro. (1) Estimated prices based on book now, then pay-on-the-day rates. Source: TravelSupermarket.

Beware fuel policy stealth charges

A common wheeze is to give you a full tank that you pay for upfront. You're then told to return the car empty, often with no refund for unused fuel. If you won't drive far, you'll be wasting lots.

What's more, the amount charged can be much more than local prices - a family car in popular destinations can cost £90+ per tank. The best firms offer 'return as you found it' policies, so you only pay for the fuel you use.

How to search by fuel policy

The broker firms and comparison sites below help you avoid hidden nasties on fuel costs. They either provide results where you only pay for the fuel you use, or show quotes where what you pay for is the same as the resort's local pump prices.

  • Enjoy Car Hire* only offers quotes for cars where you pay for the fuel you use. Prices do change from week to week, so always compare prices with other providers below to find your cheapest.

  • TravelSupermarket* lets you search by 'full to full' or 'full to empty' policies. Prices vary a lot with 'full to full' policies in destinations such as Spain and France so always weigh them up - at least with these policies you won't waste cash on unused fuel.

  • While it's a broker (it appears in comparison sites' results), Auto Europe* also provides a fuel policy search facility. You can filter by 'full to empty' or 'full to full' policies at several European destinations.

  • Comparison site Moneymaxim* has a 'Fairer Fuel' search which will only display cars where you pay for the fuel you use at pump price. The tool allows you to compare fuel policies for deals from RentalCars.com, Hertz, Avis, Sixt, Cardelmar and CarHireDepot and Auto Europe.

  • Quick questions

    What if I don't follow the rules?

    Should I go for the cheapest fuel policy or cheapest car hire?

    What if there's no choice but 'pick up full, return empty'?

Beat the 'excess insurance' scare trick and get 15% off your policy

When you collect your car, hire firms often say: "Without our excess insurance, you'll pay huge for a scratch." This insurance can be £25/day - don't do it. Instead, look to get an excess policy from a standalone provider for as little as £2/day.

Click to read MoneySavers' stories of saving £100s.

Warning! If you take excess insurance with a standalone provider, instead of the car hire firm, you'll need room on your credit card for a refundable deposit when you pick the car up. See below for more on the credit card balance you'll need.

How to get cheap standalone excess policies

First, check to see what the best deal you can get via a comparison site is.

  • Comparison site Moneymaxim* lists and compares lots of excess insurance providers, making it a good place to start. All providers listed are covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme - a Government scheme which protects your money if a firm goes bust. Once you've got quotes see if you can beat them with our MSE Blagged discounts from the providers below.
  • MoneySavers can get 15% off excess cover via Direct Car Excess Insurance*, a trading name of big insurer AIG. We're NOT saying it's cheapest - always do a comparison to check. But if it's cheapest anyway, it's a winner.

    Click on the link above to automatically get a quote at the discounted rate. All its policies are protected by the FSCS. The offer ends on 31 Dec. We found prices via the discount - such as £1.69/day for a week's excess policy, for a single trip in December, in Europe. The cheapest we found on Moneymaxim for the same week was £1.84/day.

  • MoneySavers can also get 15% off excess cover via Questor Insurance*. Again, this discount doesn't always make it the cheapest, so do a comparison to check.

    We found with the 15% off, Questor was often one of the cheapest for annual European and worldwide excess policies. Its competitors sometimes have lower daily European and worldwide prices, Questor often provides a greater level of cover.

    For example, it frequently covers towing fees or personal accidents for daily policies, when other providers don't. Click on the Questor link above to get your discount. Then click on 'Buy' under the car logo on the top right. Type in details of when you want to book, then enter the code MSE2072 towards the end of the booking process.

    The code is not valid on sales or with other offers. All Questor's policies are protected by the FSCS. The offer ends on 31 Dec.

  • Quick questions

    Collision damage waiver insurance - what is it?

    Is breakdown recovery included in excess insurance?

    What is supplementary liability insurance?

Watch Martin's quick-fire car hire tips

Looking for a quick overview of the key car hire need-to-knows? Press play to watch Martin's top MoneySaving tips in three minutes...

(Filmed in partnership with The Telegraph in June 2014.)

Going abroad a lot? Get annual excess cover

As a rough rule of thumb, if you book car hire more than once a year, you're better off getting an annual excess insurance policy.

Typically, if you're going away for more than two weeks, an annual policy will also be cheaper in this instance, though sometimes this will depend on the company.

You can search for annual excess policies while doing a comparison on Moneymaxim*.

Slash child seat costs

hire a car seat

From £5/day, hiring child seats from car rental firms is expensive. Child seats are compulsory in Europe for under-3s. Factor this in BEFORE you book to see which firm is cheapest overall. Plus, consider taking your own seat, or rent a child's seat on arrival, which could be cheaper than paying the extra.

Some airports have stalls like Malaga's Tots Store (look for the 'Clubs for Hire' golf stall and you'll see it) where seats can be rented at half the cost. If you know of any other airports with outlets like this, please report them in the Child seat airport hire discussion. This MSE team member's story says it all:

We booked a car seat with a car hire company at £6.80 a day for a family trip to Spain - a £60 spend over the whole trip.

But on arriving, we hired a car seat from a company at Malaga Airport. The cost from this firm worked out at £2.50 a day - £21 over the holiday.

We were able to cancel the seat with the original company and use the airport car hire firm - a £39 saving.

In the Hiring a car seat discussion in the forum, MoneySavers also suggest the BoostApak, a rucksack that changes into a booster seat for children aged 4-12.

Quick question

Which airlines let me take a child seat for free?

Totally free sat-nav app for 50 countries

Car-hire companies can charge more than £50/week to hire a sat-nav. Yet if you've a smartphone with GPS, there's a nifty way to turn it into a sat-nav abroad, with local maps, for free.

Crucially, you can do this without using up any pricey data overseas, which you'd normally pay with more well-known smartphone sat-nav apps.

Launched in 2010, Navfree is a free app for iPhone and Android. It turns a GPS smartphone into a data-free sat-nav, with pre-loaded maps, route planning and voice prompts. It isn't a fully-fledged system like paid-for sat-navs, of course, but it's handy for a one-off trip.

If you've already got maps for the country you're visiting, you could also just pack your own sat-nav.

You could save by booking from the company's foreign site

Once you've found the car on the dates you want through one of the comparison sites above, this sneaky loophole may make it cheaper still. We've found it's possible to pay less to hire the same car on the same dates from the same company if you book using a foreign version of its site.

Type the website's address into your browser, replacing the ".co.uk" extension with that of another country (we used France's - ".fr"). Then search using the dates and the car you found and see if it's cheaper than booking from the UK site.

We had the most luck using this trick to book car hire in the UK. For example, booking a car for three days in Birmingham in September with Budget came to £69.34 via the UK site, yet on the French site the same dates and car came to only €38.89 (£30.36) - less than half the price.

It doesn't always work out cheaper and it can be difficult at first as the site will be in another language, but it's worth the hassle if it saves you a few bob. Just remember to use the right plastic to avoid paying nasty foreign exchange fees on the transaction.

Ask yourself if you really NEED car hire

Do you really need it?If you've got a car at home, it's easy to assume you'll need one on holiday. Yet sometimes it becomes an expensive, unused hindrance. So consider the following first:

  • Check taxi prices

    If you plan to spend most of the time topping up your tan rather than travelling, a few taxi rides may be cheaper. International taxi fare calculator Holiday Taxis* gives an estimate of what journeys might cost.

  • Look into public transport

    Take Florida, LA and New York. In the first two, every man and his dog needs a car to traverse huge city distances. Yet in the Big Apple, you can't park anywhere so the subway wins hands down. Many European cities have great public transport, so a little location research goes a long way.

  • Take your own car

    If you're venturing onto Europe's winding roads, it may be possible to take your own car. All UK car insurance policies automatically provide the correct minimum cover required by law in all EU countries, but check if the full cover extends across Europe for full protection.

Ensure you've got enough space on your credit card for a deposit

If you don't take a car hire firm's excess insurance, a holding deposit on a credit card is usually required when you pick up your hire car. This also applies to policies bought from external providers.

This money isn't charged against your account, but it is usually ring-fenced. So that means that if you bring the car back and it's damaged, your card might be charged. So you'll need your credit limit to cover typically between £300 and £500.

This often catches people out. They arrive to pick up their car without having the necessary funds, meaning they're left with little option other than to take an expensive policy from the pick-up desk - not a great start to the holiday. So check the deposit required and make sure there are enough funds on your credit card.

Package holidays give extra protection

The ATOL programme gives extra financial protection if you're booking a holiday via an ATOL-licensed travel agent as part of a formal package. Basically, you'll get a full refund or an alternative holiday if your tour operator goes bust.

ATOL protection includes flights and accommodation or car hire booked from the same company within a day of each other, even if they're not part of a formal package.

This is an extra way to build in extra protection for your car hire if you're flying out. See the ATOL travel protection extended MSE news story for full info. While package holidays offer extra protection, they're expensive.

If there's not much price difference between the cost of your trip with hotel, flight and car hire booked separately, and a package, go for the package.

Do you really need that Hummer?

Ask questionsWhen you hire, cars fit into classes. Classes vary between company, but the smaller and less sexy the car, the cheaper it is to hire. In summer, soft-tops or coupes command premiums.

If you're offered an upgrade, compare the features you're getting. A top range compact car may be better than a low-range standard car.

Don't assume lower range cars are cheapest. Surprisingly, estate cars and people carriers can work out cheaper than smaller cars - it all depends on demand in that country.

Got a preference for a car? If you've used a certain make of car before, let's say a Nissan Leaf, and it's not available cheaply via a broker or comparison site, try going direct. With a little polite nudge, sometimes you can get lucky and get the car you want at the price you want.

The different car hire classes
Mini

Mini: Usually a two-door car with a small 1.0 litre engine. It can fit four people at a squeeze, but you'll struggle with lots of luggage. Usually offered as a manual car without air conditioning. Ford Ka, Peugeot 107

Economy

Economy: Two to four-door car which can fit a family of four (two adults, two kids) plus a standard amount of luggage. Again, unlikely to be an automatic or to have air conditioning. Vauxhall Corsa, Renault Clio

Compact

Compact: A four-door car which can fit five people and around two suitcases comfortably. Might be an automatic drive. If so, you'll pay extra. Ford Focus, Peugeot 307, Volkswagen Golf

Standard

Standard: A four-door car with a 1.8-2.0 litre engine that can fit four to five adults comfortably plus a good amount of luggage. Will usually have air con and be an automatic. Renault Laguna, Audi A4, Opel Insignia

Full Size

Full-size: A four-door automatic car or people carrier with the full works including room for five or more and lots of luggage, power steering and air conditioning. Mercedes C-Class, Citroen C6

Prestige

Prestige: A sportier car (though don't expect a Lamborghini) with a big engine and everything a full size has. BMW Series 5 Gran Tourismo, Peugeot 206 Cabriolet

Big road trip planned? Get unlimited mileage

If you're planning to cover a serious distance, check the booking has unlimited mileage. Plus, if you're crossing borders, whether national (such as Spain to Portugal) or internal (US states), make sure you're still covered by the insurance.

Don't pay over the odds for separate drivers

Say in advance if two more of you want to split the driving, otherwise it'll cost if you leave it till you get there.

For example, when we looked at hiring a four-door hatchback with car hire firm Sixt* in popular resorts across Spain, the price per day was competitive with Carrentals' results, but beaten by about £2/day with Kayak and TravelSupermarket.

At £22/day for the same car in Alicante, Spain, for example, Sixt's* prices included an extra driver for free. But it's important to compare Sixt quotes with those from the comparison sites. If the difference is only about a £1/day more with Sixt*, and you'll both definitely drive, go for Sixt.

Do you need an international driving licence?

IDPA UK driving licence is accepted throughout the EU, but if you're planning a road trip further afield, check if you'll need an International Driving Permit.

An IDP is required or recommended in about 140 countries, including the USA, Thailand and India. Drive without one where it's needed and you risk trouble with the authorities, and may be refused a hire car.

It's in booklet format and there are two types, known as the 1926 and 1949 Conventions (they're the same price). Which one you need depends on the destination. They cost £5.50 in person from selected Post Office branches, £8.50 by post from the AA, or £8 from RAC.

Beware websites selling 'international driving licences'. These aren't legally recognised documents, so don't get caught out.

See the Is Your Driving Licence Valid? guide for full details, and how to get one.

Get extra discounts in a package

Some websites give extra discounts if you're hiring a car with flights and a hotel. The main one is Expedia* - though just because car hire, flights or hotels are discounted when booked together doesn't automatically make them cheapest (see the Cheap Flights and Cheap Hotels guides).

Airport websites (such as Heathrow's) or airline websites such as Easyjet and Ryanair occasionally offer special discounts, so once you've done a comparison check the site to see if it's beatable.

Fly-drive can be cheaper

For trips to the US, especially Florida, check 'fly-drive' package holiday deals, which bundle the flight and car hire together from a tour operator. They're sometimes cheaper. For tips on how to haggle on these, see Cheap Package Holidays.

Always compare fly-drive quotes with those you get on comparison sites - don't assume it's cheapest. Orlando has a mass of car hire firms at the airport, so you can get dead cheap deals by comparing via Kayak, TravelSupermarket and Carrentals.

Package holidays also offer extra protection via ATOL. Read more about ATOL on the Civil Aviation Authority website.

Know the lingo? Haggle for cheaper hire

haggleIf you're heading to an English-speaking country or are fluent in the lingo, check that country's car hire sites for cheaper deals, or try a little haggling.

Be careful how you pay if booking on a foreign site. In most cases, you're better off paying in the overseas currency, rather than letting it convert the cost to pounds for you, as you'll get a poor rate. Better still, ensure you're using a Cheap Travel Money Cards.

If you're confident with the native language, haggling can work particularly for pricier cars and longer holidays. Just try a little polite chutzpah.

Check van insurance inside out

If you're booking a van for a family or group holiday, you need to be aware of specific insurance issues:

  • Contents:

    Vans' lack of windows make them more attractive to thieves. Check policies before buying to make sure anything left inside overnight is covered. If you have materials on top of the vehicle, again don't expect these to be covered, so a quick phone call to confirm may be needed.

  • Breakdown:

    Most vans are heavily-used, increasing the chances of breakdowns. Some policies include breakdown cover, but separate cover's often cheaper. See our Cheap Breakdown Cover guide.

Pay by credit card

If possible, pay on a credit card. Provided the total hire costs over £100, you get extra protection provided by Section 75. The means the credit card company is equally liable along with the car hire company if things go wrong.

This is very valuable if you end up having problems with an overseas car hire firm but make sure you pay the credit card off in full.

Check your car inside out first

Sadly, international car hire can be tricky. If something goes wrong, fixing problems isn't easy. There are a few techniques to prevent problems:

  • Inspect and take a photo of the car's condition

    Reports of overcharging and claiming damages are rife. So snap some pictures of the car and make notes of its condition on the hire company's form, especially any scratches or dents - these can be the prime source of disputes.

  • Check the fuel type the car takes

    Always check if the car requires petrol or diesel. If you damage the car by using the wrong type, it's unlikely you'll be covered

  • Going off-road?

    If you're going to be adventurous, check what's covered. If you have an accident while racing through the Sahara desert, you may have to cough up for damages. Check the spare tyre is fully operational.

  • Local legalities

    Some countries have legal requirements such as in-car first aid kits, high-visibility jackets, breakdown and spare bulb kits which, if you don't have them, invalidates the insurance. The car hire company should be well aware of this, but do check.

Know the hire firm's emergency number

Most car hire companies have a 24-hour contact number, in case the car breaks down or if you're in an accident. Make sure you've got it before going anywhere.

Know the country's road rules or risk the strong arm of the law

z `

Check country-by-country driving regulations on the AA website to ensure you're familiar with local rules before you go.

Quick questions

Which side is right?

Can you put kids in the front?

Driving in Germany?

Driving in Spain?

Driving in Italy or Hungary?

Driving in Switzerland or France?

Return your car on time or risk big charges

Avoid problems at the end of the car hire period by sticking to the rules. Return your car on time to avoid late charges, preferably in the cleanest state possible so you're not hit with a cleaning bill if it's covered in grime. Also:

  • Stick around for the inspection

    Stop minor scratches being blamed on you, which can lead to charges. If you don't have time, take photos just before returning it.

  • Had an accident?

    Keep repair bills in a safe place. You may not be able to claim without them.

  • Get the paperwork sorted

    Ask for all paperwork to be completed on the spot. Keep the credit card slip for the deposit so it can't apply charges later. Keep the paperwork in a safe place too, in case any disputes arise.

Check your account when you get back

The final bit of vigilance that's needed. Check your credit card or bank statement when you get back to make sure no extra charges have been added to your bill without your knowledge, and ensure you've had your full deposit back.

After that, you can delete the photos and get rid of the paperwork. But not before, otherwise you have no way to dispute the process. If there's a problem and contacting the company to sort it out doesn't work, and you paid on a credit card, remember you have the Section 75 protection as a secondary back-up.

Book cheap airport parking

Airports often make more from parking and shopping than planes. Leave the car there without booking first and you risk sky-high rates, so don't just turn up.

Booking first, even on the day, could save money. See the Cheap Airport Parking guide for the full technique, plus safety tips, how to snaffle hidden local discounts and more.

Hire motorhomes Down Under dirt cheap

Sounds too good to be true, but some firms let you hire campervans and motorhomes in Australia and the USA for a dollar a day.

Go to Aussie site Transfercar or the wackily-titled Vroomvroomvroom to see where you can get the cheapest prices, some days you get to hire for free.

These are relocations - you're picking up and dropping off the vehicles at specific locations, so there's less choice. But there's still a wide range of journeys you can do.

The same applies in the USA - see Apollo for more information.

Paying by card? Buy car hire extras in local currency, not pounds

pay in local currency Many overseas banks or shops at overseas airports ask: "Pay in euros, or pounds?", especially in Spanish tourist resorts. If you choose pounds, then the retailer does the currency conversion. If you've a top overseas card, always say the local currency as your card does the exchange and it's unbeatable.

If you don't, it's touch and go.

Sometimes it'll show you the load. If this is under 2.5%, go with pounds. If it's over, go local. See Martin's blog: Using plastic overseas? Always pay in euros

So if you get any extras at the airport or car hire company (a sat-nav or a roof rack, for instance) and you're asked this question, opt for the local currency, and use your overseas card.

Tons more travel tips to slash costs

As well as our car hire tips, we've got bundles of nifty tricks to use to save even more abroad. See our Travel cost-cutting section for more.

  • Tell your mobile provider before you go

    Taking your mobile abroad can turn it into a cash assassin in some places, costing as much as £2.50/min to receive a call. Many providers have special packages to use abroad, but you won't get 'em unless you call them. See Mobile Roaming.

  • Call any country in the cheapest way

    If you'll make pre-holiday calls abroad for bookings, transfers or to arrange airport pickups with relatives, the International Callchecker tool quickly finds the cheapest way.

    Just enter the country you're calling, and whether you're calling from a landline or mobile, and it'll find you the cheapest no-frills providers. These work by giving you a special number to call first, so they can be accessed instantly.

  • Get a free printable wallet-size travel guide

    The Little Lifesaver is a free, passport-sized printable travel guide to store key details while you're on holiday. It's packed with key holiday info, including which plastic is cheapest to use and your flight cancellation rights.

Make sure the policy's in your name

Once you've finished the booking, ensure the policy is held in the exact spelling of your name. Some drivers who've used the same hire firm for years have booked quickly assuming they could stroll by the depot, then pick up the car with no problems.

However, increasingly drivers are finding that when the policy is not in their exact name, particularly in the US, they've arrived at the pick-up point, and not been allowed to get the car they wanted. They then had to start the booking all over again - and pay much more for it.

Add your car hire and travel tips to the forum

Add any tips of your own to the MSE Forum Cheap Car Hire thread. The Overseas Holidays and Travel Planning forum board is another great place to share your travel experiences with others, including tips and tricks you've picked up along the way.

Whether you want to natter about MoneySaving in Las Vegas, What to do near Calais or Camping tips, it's well worth a visit. Plus if you've any tips to help others, please share them in the 50 Travel Tips discussion.