Book the right way and it can be possible to hire a car abroad for £10/day. But don't leave it until you're there. The earlier you book, the more you'll usually save.
This is a step-by-step guide to the top comparison sites, naming your price, slashing insurance costs and saving £100s.
In this guide
Also see Motoring MoneySaving for 40+ tips to drive down motoring costs
Step 1: Define your requirements
Even if you're laid-back about what you need, there are more variables to define than you think. So use the following checklist:
Automatic or manual gears?
In the USA, most hire cars are automatic and so don't cost more. In Europe, and much of the rest of the world, the default is manual. If you have specific requirements, ask.
Do you need air conditioning?
The majority of cars tend to have air conditioning as rental companies upgrade their fleets often. But don't assume the car will have aircon. If you're going in peak summer, you're likely to need it for any long journeys.
Do you need more than one allowed driver?
Most cheap bookings have fixed specifications, including only one driver. If two or more of you want to split the driving, don't leave this until you get there, it can add a fortune on top. Instead, specify in advance, or use one of the car hire firms that offer an extra driver for free.
These include Sixt*, but always double check as it can depend on the car and location. Then compare these to the cheapest using the techniques below.
Do also note you usually need to be at least 21 to hire a car. Under 25s usually pay surcharges, and will be excluded from certain hire classes. Charges for under 25s can vary massively, so check using the comparisons below.
What's the difference between mini, economy, compact etc?
Are you a flash Harry or economical Eric? The smaller and less sexy the vehicle, the cheaper it'll be in fuel costs and to hire. In summer, soft-tops or coupes command a huge premium.
If you're hiring in the USA, a small car in the States is often what's defined as a mid-sized family car in Europe.
When you hire, cars fit into classes, yet these are loosely defined. It varies from company to company, but here's a rough run-down:
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. Eg: Ford Ka, Citroen C1
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. Eg: Opel Corsa, Ford Fiesta, Peugeot 107
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. Eg: Ford Focus, Peugeot 307, Volkswagen Golf
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 conditioning and be an automatic. Eg: Renault Laguna, Audi A4, Opel Insignia
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. Eg: Mercedes C-Class, Citroen C6
Prestige: A sportier car (though don't expect a Lamborghini) with a big engine and everything a full size has. Eg: BMW Series 5 Gran Tourismo, Peugeot 206 Cabriolet
Remember, if you're offered an upgrade, DON'T rely on the category, compare the features you're getting. A top range compact car may be better than a low-range standard car.
Also 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.
Do you get unlimited mileage and where can you drive?
If you're planning to cover a serious distance, check the booking has unlimited mileage or it can cost a fortune on top. Plus, if you're crossing borders, whether national (eg, Spain to Portugal) or a state in the US (eg, California to Nevada), ensure you're still covered by the insurance.
What about petrol costs?
Remember to factor in petrol costs. If you hire for over three days many cheap car hire agencies will make you hire with a full tank of petrol, and return it empty. If you’re getting a big car, this can be £100+ worth. So if you’re not likely to use a full tank you have to think of that as part of the cost.
Do you want a sat nav?
If you've already got maps for the country you're visiting, it's a no-brainer to take your own sat nav as rental can cost around £5/day. For a long journey, if you have a smartphone then paying £50 - £70 for a sat nav app may be cheaper than hiring a sat nav for a week.
Beware downloading new sat nav maps using your phone's internet connection though. Using it abroad could lead to monster roaming charges.
Step 2: The top car hire comparison sites
Manually compare prices and by the time you get a good deal you'll have missed your holiday. Instead, use comparison sites. By the time you've booked, you'll usually be given a voucher to present at a specific hire company when you arrive. Here are the top picks:
KayakFor usability, accuracy & filtering tools
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.
Go to site*It searches 20+ sites, and covers all the biggies.
Car RentalsSimilar to Kayak but different spread
Another very usable site with lots of tools for filtering results, very similar to Kayak. It covers some different companies, searching 50 sites in total so it's worth checking both.Go to site*
TravelSupermarketFor extra breadth & range
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. Go to site*But it's a good belt 'n' braces second check to ensure you're not missing a really cheap deal.
Step 3. Check if you can cut costs further
Low mileage? Check the petrol policy
Check what the fuel policy is. Some companies charge you up with a full tank of petrol at high prices and ask you to return it empty. If you're not planning on many miles, avoid these companies.
Plus, if it says it doesn't matter whether you refill it or not, beware. This most likely means it'll then fill it up itself and charge you for the fuel at a much higher rate than you'd pay doing it yourself. Of course, hiring a smaller car means a smaller fuel tank, so the impact is lessened.
Are you also booking a flight and/or hotel?
A number of specialist cheap travel brokers give discounts if you book car hire alongside a flight, hotel or both. They may not undercut the price, but it's possible.
The main one is Expedia* though just because car hire, flights or hotels are discounted doesn't automatically make them cheapest (see the Cheap Flights and Cheap Hotels guides).
Consider a 'flydrive'
For trips to the US, especially Florida, it's worth looking at a 'flydrive' package holiday deal, which means you get the flight and car hire all wrapped together from a tour operator (see Cheap Package Holidays).
Try for cashback on top
Having found your cheapest car hire company, check whether it's listed on a specialist cashback website. See the Top Cashback Sites guide for a full explanation.
Use overseas websites
If you're heading to an English-speaking country, or are fluent in the lingo, Google to see if that country's car hire sites are cheaper. It will usually be priced in that country's currency, so use the Travel Money Maximiser to calculate the actual cost.
Check BAA and your airline's website
Haggle with individual branches
If you speak the language, or they speak yours, call up specific branches and try to haggle. This is especially powerful for longer trips or more expensive cars – just try a little polite chutzpah. Ask again at the desk when you pick up the car. The bigger companies in particular are likely to upgrade for less.
Look for online vouchers
Sign up to newsletters of the car hire comparison services and car hire companies directly. They often send promotional discounts that will shave an extra few quid off the price. Also have a look at the Discount Codes & Vouchers board of this site.
Don't miss out on new top car hire deals Get MoneySavingExpert's free, spam-free weekly email full of guides & loopholes
Step 4. The cheapest 'extra' insurance
Most, but not all, car hire comes with the bare minimum Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) insurance. It covers the actual vehicle if damaged in a ‘collision’, rather than the people covered by third party, fire & theft policies. Though it may be another type, so check what's included...
The different types of cover
Collision damage waiver (CDW)
Theft waiver (TW)
Super collision damage waiver (SCDW)
Personal insurance (PI)
Personal effects cover (PEC)
Start by checking your Travel Insurance policy, as you may find some of the above events are covered anyway.
Yet if you damage the car you're driving, while there's some cover, there's usually one big problem...
Check the 'excess' – the amount you pay towards any claim. If it's high (c.£500), any scratches or minor damage'll cost large.
While you may leave minor scratches on your own car, the hire company may charge you a fortune to have it fixed, straight from the excess.
The cheapest 'excess cost' car hire insurance
To get round this, they will offer you a policy upgrade to get rid of any excess. This usually costs a fortune of about a tenner a day, especially with cheap hire companies, as often their profits come from the insurance.
There's no need to do this. You can get this additional insurance from standalone providers.
Money MaximQuickly scours insurance excesses
Comparison site Money Maxim* handily lists and compares lots of insurance excess providers, making it a great place to start. Not all the providers it lists are covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) guarantee. So, make sure you tick the box to exclude ones that aren't. See below for more info on FSCS protection if a company goes bust.
It also offers a car hire comparison, powered by Car Rentals. It's useful if you want a quick hit, though prompts you to enter personal details every time you request a quote.
Go to site*
Provider Economy Car Hire* includes built-in excess insurance, so while it's rarely the cheapest, it can be cheaper overall once you've bought the excess insurance elsewhere.
Are you protected if the excess insurance company goes bust?
Insurance providers regulated in the UK are covered by the same government-backed FSCS as banks. This basically means if they go into default or go bust, you're protected.
Comparison sites include many providers, the vast majority of which are regulated. A small number aren't, so it's always worth checking yourself if you're concerned.
In the unlikely event a regulated insurer does go bust, the FSCS will try to find another provider to take over or issue a substitute policy. However, if you've ongoing claims, or need to claim before a new insurer is found, the FSCS should ensure you're covered. For more see the Insurance section of the Savings Safety guide.
Hire cars a lot? Consider an annual policy
Get extra protection if booking flights too
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. From 30 Apr 2012, ATOL protection was extended to include 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 worth considering if you can, as it's an extra way to build in extra protection for your car hire if you're flying out. See the MSE news story ATOL Travel Protection Extended for full info.
Car hire alternatives
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 quickly do a destination check first.
What's the public transport like?
Take the US giants such as Florida, LA and New York. In the first two, every man and his dog needs a car to traverse the huge city distances, while in the Big Apple, you can't park anywhere so the subway wins hands down. Many European cities have great public transport links too so a little bit of location research goes a long way.
Sometimes car hire's cheaper than just one taxi
The best explanation is an example. Take a taxi from Malaga airport in Spain to Marbella and it's around £76 each way. Yet in such a competitive holiday market you can often get car hire for £70 for a week, so even if you never use it again it wins.
International taxi fare calculator Holiday Taxis* gives an estimate of what journeys might cost. They tend to overestimate, but are good for a benchmark price.
Can you take your own car?
If you're going into Europe, 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 to Europe for full protection. It's also easy and cheap to get roadside recovery policies covering the whole of the EU (see Cheap Roadside Recovery).
Car hire checklist
If you are going to hire a car, there are a few safety and cost issues you should always check out. To ensure you've covered all the bases, here are some step-by-step checklists.
Before you book
Always make sure you've checked exactly what's included and whether you need to pay extras, such as for child seats, sat-navs and taxes. If these extras have been added and you don't need them, see if you can ditch them.
With child seats, they're compulsory in Europe for under-3s, and some companies charge a whopping £70/week extra for these. So factor this in BEFORE you book to see which firm is cheapest overall. Plus, consider taking your own seat, or buy there, which could be cheaper than paying the extra.
How to pay
If possible, pay on a credit card. Provided the total hire costs over £100, you get the additional protection provided by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act which, roughly speaking, means the credit card company is equally liable 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 do make sure you pay the credit card off in full. Yet there may be a cost impact:
Credit card booking fees
Some places will add an additional cost for booking with a credit card, so beware. However, if you have a decent Cashback Credit Card, this should balance it out.
If you're booking from an overseas site, always pay in their currency
If you're booking from an overseas site be careful how you pay. 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 one of the Cheap Travel Money Cards.
Also be aware you may be asked to hand over a credit card, and a holding deposit of up to £2,000 may be taken. This can be debited if anything goes wrong with the car, but even if it doesn't, you'll need to have a credit limit that will cover it.
Before you start driving
Sadly, international car hire can be tricky. If something goes wrong, finding recourse isn't easy. There are a few techniques to prevent problems.
Inspect and take a quick photo of the car's condition
Reports of overcharging and claiming damages are rife. So briefly snap some pictures of the car and make notes of its condition on the hire company's form, especially any scratches or dents as these can be the prime source of disputes.
Check the type of fuel the car takes
Always make sure you 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.
If you plan on being adventurous on your hols, 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. There's nothing worse than being stuck somewhere unfamiliar with a flat tyre.
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.
Make sure you know its emergency number
Most car hire companies have a 24-hour contact number in case the car breaks down or in event of accident. Make sure you've got it before you go anywhere.
Can you turn right on a red?
Some countries allow you to turn right at traffic lights on red provided there's no oncoming traffic (this is countries where you drive on the right hand side, eg, USA, but not in New York state or Canada). If you don't do this, you may get abuse from other drivers. So check with the car hire company what the local laws are first.
Before you return the car
At the end of the hire period, you need to carefully obey the rules or you could have more problems.
Check the fuel policy
Before you leave with your car check the fuel policy. Companies can give you a full tank which you must pay for, but say ‘return empty’. So if you won’t drive too far, watch for this or you’ll be paying for lots of unused fuel.
Conversely if the policy is for you to return a tank full and you don't, you can end up paying for the hire firm's costly petrol.
Make sure you're present when the inspection is done
Don't just drop the car off. If possible, be there when the car is being inspected, so you can't have bumps and scratches unfairly assigned to you. If you can't be there, again take photos and notes to prove there were no problems, and record the mileage.
Don't be late!
Return your car on time, otherwise you might face an extra day's car hire charge.
If you have an accident, keep repair bills
Put bills in a safe place. You may not be able to claim without them at home.
Ask for all paperwork to be completed on the spot
Keep your deposit credit card slip so they can't apply any charges at a later date.
Keep all the paperwork
Don't throw any of it away or you have no way to argue disputes.
After you've returned the car
This is the final bit of vigilance 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 is 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.