Tips and tactics when hiring a car in Europe

The UK’s long-term relationship with Europe may have been thrown into question by the result of the Brexit referendum, but millions of Brits are still looking forward to their summer holidays on the Continent.

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For many, that will mean hiring a car. So will that process be any different this year, given the recent seismic political shocks?

Short answer? No. It might cost more given the current weakness of sterling relative to the euro, but the process of hiring a car abroad will be the same.

That said, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably regard hiring a car overseas as a potentially confusing and frustrating experience at the best of times – and it’s one that can end up costing you even more than you expected.

So how can you make the whole process less of a stress-fest, and less of a strain on your pocket? Here are our top tips for a smooth car hire experience…

Before you go…

Book in advance

Imagine arriving at the airport to find there are no hire cars left – not the start to your holiday you were hoping for!

Availability can be a problem at busy times, so book your hire car in advance to ensure you get the right one.

Some companies offer discounts on advance bookings and you can shop around for the best possible deal.

Pick the hire company with care

Some airlines have partnerships with car hire companies. EasyJet, for example, has a deal with Europcar.

This can get you to a discount on the walk-up price. But if you book with a partner firm you are more likely to face queues at the airport thanks to the number of co-passengers chasing the same deal at the same time.

You might also encounter bigger queues with the big car hire names, which is why it’s important to compare deals from both big and small players.

Get a DVLA driving licence code

Here in the UK, since the demise of the paper licence counterpart last year, you now need a code from the DVLA to prove what penalties you do – or don’t – have on your record when hiring a car.

Most big overseas car hire companies claim this is not necessary, but there’s no harm in playing it safe.

To find out more, read our blog on how to get a code.

Buy excess cover in advance

We’ve all been there… Queuing in the car hire office, listening patiently while the salesperson explains why you should lash out a small fortune on excess waiver or collision-loss-damage waiver insurance.

This sort of cover can add hundreds of pounds to the hire cost if you buy it at this point. But the good news is that you can buy much cheaper standalone excess insurance from a separate insurer before you go.

It certainly makes sense to have insurance since the excess levied after an accident, or if your car is damaged, can run into hundreds of even thousands of pounds.

With waiver cover in place, you sidestep that financial risk. And if having cover makes sense, it makes sense to buy it as cheaply as possible. Check out our blog for more information.

Take Sat-Nav/car seats with you

If you have young children who require car seats, take yours with you rather than hiring them along with your car (most airlines will carry them for free).

Not only will you save yourself a lot of cash – some companies charge up to £10 a day per seat – your children will also probably be safer and more comfortable in their own seats.

If you have a Sat-Nav, it also makes sense to take it with you to avoid charges of up to £100 per week.

At the airport…

Send one person to collect the car

If you are travelling in a group, one way to avoid queues at the car hire desk is to send one person to go and get the car immediately after passport control, while the others get the bags.

Check you know how to start the car

It may sound silly, but starting a car you do not know can be tricky in this modern world of keyless vehicles.

So don’t be afraid to ask the car hire executive to explain how it starts – as well as any other driving questions you might have.

Confirm the fuel type

Putting petrol in a diesel car, or vice versa, can be catastrophically expensive to fix.

Most modern cars tell you what sort of fuel to put in on the inside of the fuel cap, but check just in case.

You should also make sure you know what different fuel types are called in your destination country, so as to avoid an anxious moment or two on a garage forecourt. In France, for example, diesel is “gazole”.

Check the fuel policy

Some car hire companies ask you to return their cars with an empty tank, some ask you to bring it back with a full tank, and others give you a choice.

Remember, car hire firms look to turn a profit on selling fuel and they’ll charge way more than a garage, so whichever option you choose or are given, don’t come back with less in the tank than required.

Plan your fuel strategy

If you have been asked to return your hire car with a full tank of petrol, you will need to fill it up as close to the airport as possible.

So as you drive away from the airport, see if you can spot a conveniently located garage you can stop at when you come back.

Similarly, if you have been told to return the car empty, it makes sense to fill up at least a few days before the end of your trip to avoid donating too much fuel to the car hire firm.

Conduct a thorough check for damage

Car hire companies will often make you pay well over the odds for repairs should you damage one of their vehicles.

The same is true if you are unable to prove that any damage was not already done when you picked the car up.

So check everything from the wheel trims to the bumpers and make sure the car hire executive notes any damage and signs the form.

Make sure everyone’s been to the loo!

If you have a long journey to your destination, or kids in the car, you will probably have to stop on the way at least once.

But getting everyone to go before you leave the airport, and stocking up on a few drinks and snacks for the journey, can help to avoid this.

On the road…

Plan your route

Driving in a foreign country can be very stressful – especially when you don’t know where you are going!

So check your route before setting off. Put it into the Sat Nav if you have one, and make sure you have an up-to-date map in the car if you don’t…

Take extra care

In most of the countries you are likely to hire a car this summer, you’ll be driving on the right.

This can make things such as junctions and roundabouts tricky, at least until you adjust to the conditions, so take extra care and stay focused. Ask your passengers to give you some peace and quiet while you settle.

Be prepared for toll roads

You may well encounter toll roads on your drive, so make sure you are prepared to pay the necessary.

Many toll barriers take cash or cards, but some only take coins so you don’t want to be caught out.

France is the most popular driving destination for Brits – here’s our guide to French toll routes.

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