13 Tips for renting a car abroad

Many years ago me and Mr Harlow discovered the joy of rented wheels whilst on holiday. What hooked us is the sense of freedom you get, when you can point the car to any direction at any time and just go. Over the years we have learned a few things about renting a car abroad and thought to pass these 13 tips to you. Here’s the punchline – to get that sense of freedom, it’s good to have done your homework first!

1. Book in advance to get best deals

Renting a car can be costly, but there are definitely deals to be had and made there. What is guaranteed, is that you will get the worst deal if you just turn up to car rental desk asking to rent a car on arrival. It’s also near enough impossible to compare deals, so make sure you sort out your car rental in advance, even if it’s only a week before your holiday.

2. Use price comparison websites and get cash back

We have found best deals through price comparison websites. Even when you go directly to rental company’s website, we have never seen the price to be lower there. It’s also worth checking out cash back websites like Quidco to see if there is something further you can get on that deal. Our absolutely best find has been a practically brand new Audi sports car in Spain for 5 days for £10! We couldn’t believe our eyes either.. which brings us to the next point…

3. Read the small print

This is where a lot of car rental companies hide all sorts of costs. It really pays to knuckle down and read through to ensure you are getting what you want and need. And what is it that you’re looking for? Some basic things to consider for your holiday are

  • How much driving are you planning to do? Some deals have limitations on mileages. This is fine if you think you will not go over, but if you are planning to cover a lot area, then it’s best to go for unlimited mileage.
  • How many drivers for the car? If you want to share the driving make sure you check they don’t charge high rates on adding another driver on the deal
  • How old is the main driver? If you are under 21 yrs, the prices can be a lot higher.
  • Do you need to drive outside the country’s boarders? If this is not included it can incur a lot of extra costs too, e.g if we had wanted to take our rental car from Italy to Switzerland for one day we would have had to pay 60€/day for the entire rental agreement. In this case it was a no big deal, as we decided to leave the car at the Italian border and took a train as described in this post, but this might hit the wallet hard if you are planning a road trip across borders.

4. Get “Full to Full” petrol deal

Rental companies set their own prices for petrol and you can bet you are not getting a good deal here! The best deal is to get full to full meaning that you get the car with a nice full of tank of petrol and you return it full as well. This means you get to decide where you fill ‘er up and therefore you pay just normal pump prices instead of high prices set by rental companies. If you get full to empty, you are still paying for the petrol, but at a rental company’s prices.

We once got a car that was meant to be full, but was actually near enough empty. We set off on motorway and to say the least the weather was bad! I saw a sign that the next petrol station wouldn’t be for another 100 km or so and not knowing the car could make it there, we decided to do some crazy maneuvering and turn back to get some petrol. Can’t  say I would have liked to have been stranded in that weather..

5. Get your own third party insurance (if you can)

We used to take an extra insurance offered by the rental company to cover us on the road. After all, you don’t want to worry about things on your holiday especially when you are driving an unfamiliar car in unfamiliar territory. Or pay 120€ for a set of four plastic hubcaps, when one gets damaged.. #parkedtooclosetothecurb. This is precisely how rental companies make their money..! They charge high prices for little things.

We have found a third party insurance company, like this one, that usually gives us way less than half price for same or actually better coverage than rental companies’ own insurance. There are a few things to keep in mind with this though – Rental companies will block a large sum of money (thousands) as a deposit if you don’t take their insurance and there is not a damn thing you can do apart from walking off from the rental. This might make a dent on the ol’ holiday budget so it’s helpful to keep this in mind. Second thing is that if things do go wrong, there would be more paperwork to deal with, as essentially you are liable to pay the rental company first and then you would need to claim from the third party insurance company. Despite these two things we would still totally recommend getting a separate insurance, it really saves a lot of money. Again some forward planning is necessary as you won’t be able to get one after you’ve gotten the car!

6. Bring right documentation with you

If you have a UK driving license you need to get a licence code to give to the car rental company to allow them to see if you have any penalty points. No rental company so far has ever asked for this, but you are required to provide it by law. It takes less than 5 minutes to get and is very easy to do. You only need your driving license number and National Insurance number along with basic details. The code is active for 21 days. You can get the code here. Also don’t forget to bring your driving license with you on holiday. This is something they will always ask.

7. Brush up on traffic laws in your destination

From rules at the roundabouts in France to not being allowed to have an open container of alcohol inside the car in state of Florida, there are some differences in law when driving abroad. You can see the most up to date information for Europe here. We have found it really useful. Also speed limits can be very different, so it’s good to have a general idea before setting off. If you veer off their rules – trust me they will find you. It may take 9 months to receive a letter home, but they will find you.. #dangitwasthatabuslane

7. Bring your own extras

This is a good way to save money and some grey hairs! After faffing around with a sat nav from a rental company, that was impossible not intuitive to use on the motorways of America we decided to start bringing our own. Then we had some issues in Marseille finding our rental house as the road layouts had changed so much and our poor old sat nav hadn’t had an update for years. We needed something that was up to date. So we then used Google Maps on our phones. And it worked great, except… we were using sooooo much data and ended up doing paper-rock-scissors which one of us would give up most of their monthly allowance whilst on the road.

Our generation 4 solution resolves it all and has worked well for us for several trips now! We downloaded Here WeGo maps app to our phones. Again forward planning is key here as you need to download the area you will be using it in, but the best part is that you don’t need to haul anything extra with you, just your phone and you don’t use any data! We have upgraded this solution and bought a holder for the phone, that slots to a CD player, you can see it here. We have it in our own car all the time and then take it with us for rentals. Just be aware that using Here WeGo maps takes a lot of power on the phone and drains the battery, so bring a charging cable and connect it if possible in the car. If not, then grab your power bank or switch off when not needed (e.g. motorways). As it’s offline you won’t get traffic alerts, but we then use Google Maps to see if there is trouble on our chosen route.

Another thing car rental companies like to charge for is child’s safety seats. My friend who used to work for a price comparison website for car rentals said, that they often got calls from customers complaining that their chosen rental company didn’t actually have child seats that they had reserved. Not something you want to experience! BYO if you can.

8. Check the car before driving off to sunset

When you then actually go and get the keys to the car at the desk you quite often just get pointed to some direction to find your car. Once you find your car and before you do anything else, have a look at the clump of papers given to you by your rental company. There should be a diagram that details any existing marks and defects on the car. Be sure to check what is marked and what you can see on the car are two of the same thing. Often they are not!

We have a routine to check the car and take photos of any existing damage. You then need to insist on the marks to be added to the papers, otherwise they will be counted as yours when you return the car! And yes, this might mean you have to trek the 2 km or so back to the rental booth to get them included, but it will be worth it. We have had to do this surprisingly many times..

Our holiday snaps contain such riveting photos as these! Can you believe that these were not included as existing damage?

9. Aaaand another thing before driving to the sunset..

… Take a minute to get familiar with the car’s different controls if you are not used to driving the make or model. It’s not a great experience to try to find how the wiper blades come on when it’s pissing down with rain and you’re already bombing down the motorway 100 miles an hour *cough*. It’s also a good idea to check what petrol you can put in the car and how to open the tank.

10. You’re good to go! But hit the ATM first! 

From parking meters to toll booths it’s a good idea to have some cash, preferably coins with you. We learnt this the hard way at a Mexican toll booth that took no cards. I will always remember the words: “Señor – reversa por favor” with a direction from the toll hombre to a road marked ‘Libre’ when we were few pesos short. We even had a traumatic experience at a petrol station after the attendant had filled our car up and said that their card machine was playing up. After trying for about 20 minutes, which felt like an eternity, it did work, but just not the hassle you want on holiday!

11. Mind the locals

Don’t try to blend in as they will usually drive faster than you. Even on a narrow mountain road – despite the sheer drop on one side. Just keep a cool head and choose times and routes that you feel more comfortable with. Some countries are easier than others to drive in, most of Europe is pretty easy with the exception of Italy. I would say particularly Sicily has been the hardest place to drive in, that we have experienced – there were some crazy maneuvers we saw from the locals! Northern Italy is a bit better, but still more challenging than most.

12. Pick your routes

Depending what your schedule is, it can be a good idea to exclude toll roads from route searches at times. You can do this with Here WeGo maps too. It can take you through some beautiful local villages you never would have driven through otherwise. We often do this and stop where it looks pretty to have a bite to eat and explore. That’s the beauty of having the car in the first place – your own schedule.

Renting car 1

Park it ⇒ Enjoy the view!

Sometimes the views are not what you expect – We thought we’d see some lovely coastline on this route in Sicily, but turns out it was like driving underground most of the time! Check out our time lapse video below. Ha! Also note how many cars go past us despite the fact we were driving exactly what speed limit allowed..

13. Returning the car

Remember to return the car with full tank of petrol if that was the deal you got. If you don’t, your rental company will do this for you – but you will pay for it at their prices again! Also they will check the car for damages, so pay attention to what they are doing. Remember our £10 Audi deal? It was checked with a microscope! Do you see how they make their money..? Have your copy of the diagram of the existing damages ready, so you can be confident in what’s yours and what was already there. Leave some extra time before your flight, as sometimes there may be a queue and it takes a little longer to check out the car.

So getting some wheels under you on holiday can be a brilliant idea and enable you to do and see so much more, but to take the hassle and stress out of it it’s best to be prepared. We have made great memories based on a spontaneous decisions that would have been impossible without the freedom of a car!

Below is another time lapse video on Mount Teide, a volcano in Tenerife. Another experience that would have been impossible without a car.

Hope you found some of these points useful! If you have any questions or tips of your own to share, then do leave a comment below. 🙂

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