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We’re Georgina Penney and Tony Johnson, a couple of digital nomads exploring the world. If you’re interested in getting back to the fundamentals of traveling and having new experiences without the pressure of playing the tourist and being in a rush, we’ve created this site for you!

Avoiding Rental Car Disasters

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We’ve rented a whole mess of cars over the years and (touch wood, invoke lucky charm and the power of the Great Old Ones, iä-iä-cthulhu-fhtagn) have not had an accident in any of them. But we have had been subjected to a whole mess of stress, poor experiences and questionable business ethics. Some house sits and rental properties require you to have a rental car (if you are far from public transport or in a rural location) or you may want one to explore the area yourself! So here are a few hard-earned nuggets of wisdom:

  1. The devil is in the details

If using a major car company you are probably okay here, but it doesn’t hurt to pan over the fine print (urgh I know, right?!) and keep an eye out for the following, especially in the case of smaller rental companies, or if you are using an aggregator site. We have been hit with all of the following in the past:

  • An absurdly large bond (£2500 in our case from one of the smaller car rental places at Heathrow airport.) There was no mention of this on the aggregator site we’d booked the car through.

  • A pickup fee/booking fee not obviously included in the online booking site (that made the cheaper option about the same price as the bigger rental company.)

  • Limited miles per day. Again, this is sometimes not obvious when you book the car. Always, always, always check mileage and what the penalties will be if you go over. We just booked a car in France with a 3500k allowance—which was fine—but which would have cost us 0.50 euro cents a kilometre for every one we went over. That would have added up to a lot if we’d spent the month we’d rented the car traveling around!

  • A ridiculous clause that requires you to have a bill sent to your home address in the past three months. If you’ve been traveling the globe for a year or so, this obviously isn’t going to work for you. We just got stung with this with Interrent and even though we had a scanned copy of a bill they refused to release the car or refund us. Our conclusion was that they hadn’t had the car on the the lot and were looking for an excuse not to give us our rental which we’d booked at a very low price months before.

2.     It’s a “new car” guvnor

Rental car companies seem to be making all their profit off of the extra insurance they want to charge you for rental, but if you’re like us and have that insurance covered in your private travel insurance policy, you’re going to need to go over the vehicle and make sure there’s nothing they can charge you for when you return it.

Check the car thoroughly for damage, even if the guy at the rental company is acting like you’re an asshole for doing due diligence and sighing about you making him have to do paperwork (I’m looking at you, SK Rentals at Heraklion in Crete). You can be sure they’ll go over the car with a magnifying glass when you return it! This includes the rims, wheels, seats, dashboard, boot (trunk), roof, bonnet (hood), door handles, windows for chips and bodywork closest to the ground. Red flags are if they tell you it is a “new car,” if the bond is exorbitant, or if a video is playing in the pickup area telling you how to check your car for damage (Green Motion at Heathrow, I’m giving you the beady eye here.)

When we pick up rental cars, we always do the following:

  • Inspect all panels from a shallow angle to see if there are minor dents in the bodywork.

  • Use a thumbnail to check scratches.

  • Check the inside of the car for cuts and cigarette burns to the upholstery.

  • Check their policy on the size of chipped paint or other damage. In most cases damage smaller than a few cm is not recorded and you are not liable for it but it pays to make sure.

  • Look at the last damage report in the glovebox (if it’s there!)

  • Photograph everything out of the ordinary, and before we leave, we always grab a rental company employee and have it written down and signed off on the rental receipt.

  • Check the tires—including the spare—are not flat

We have noticed a trend in the last few years of car companies issuing a blank damage report (even when the car was obviously damaged) and making it your responsibility to report damage before accepting the car. Even the larger car companies seem to be doing this. I strongly suspect they may be charging multiple people for the same damage. Almost every car we have hired has had some kind of reportable damage on it even when they assure us it’s a new vehicle.

3.     Quality of life vs cost

There are a few things that we’ve learned to check with rental car companies before booking. Sometimes it means paying for a more expensive car, but in the end time can be money and you don’t want to be stuck with extra costs in addition to car rental that you wouldn’t have considered. We always ask the following before booking:

  • Will the rental car office be open when your plane arrives? Don’t assume like we did and end up having to book a hotel overnight in Geneva because the French side of the rental car company closed at nine pm. Always allow time to get through customs in your time calculations.

  • Will you need to catch a bus to the pickup point? How much does it cost, how frequently does it go? When do they stop running? Do you have to change airport terminal to catch it, how long does that take? Sometimes forking out an extra $30 or $40 for a more expensive car that’s available in the terminal is worth it. You won’t end up having to pay £20 for a black cab to change from Terminal 5 to 1 in Heathrow because the tube wasn’t working and there was a 30 minute wait for the nearest bus or Uber. (Insert coronary here and a manic trip to our next house sit.)

  • Does the rental company claim to have short queues? We have queued for 2hrs at a cheap car rental place near Heathrow (Again, Green Motion, I’m looking at you) while they tried to sell car insurance to non-english speaking people who didn’t want it and had to explain why their bond was so extortionately high.

  • Are they trying to sell you a SatNav? They’re absurdly expensive and google maps is just as good most of the time.

4.     Which car to pick?

When picking the actual car to book, there are a number of things that we also take into account. We’ve learned the following guidelines are handy:

  • Learn to drive stick shift / manual. Automatic cars are disproportionately expensive to rent in a lot of countries.

  • If we’re in a relatively safe country for driving, we tend to pick a smaller car. Half the time the company won’t have it on site and end up upgrading us to a better one. However, if they ask if you’d like pay to upgrade on the day, say no, you will probably get the upgrade anyway for free.

  • If you are in Europe and will be doing any amount of highway driving, then do not get a Fiat 500 equivalent (the smallest car size) as they struggle to reach the speed of the freeways and autobahns even with an accelerator planted to the floor. We found this quite dangerous.

  • If you will be doing winding country driving on single lane roads—particularly in the UK where there may be hedges either side, drystone walls or ditches—then steer clear of large 4WD cars. Instead, go for a smaller car (hello, Fiat 500!) that will be easier to manoeuvre and to park.

  • In the Middle East—or anywhere that driving safety may be an issue—get a larger car that will be safer in a crash. We spent a lot of time driving in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and found that the BMW X3 we owned was about as small as I would be comfortable going and was still one of the smaller cars on the road. Talk to a local before renting.

So in short, trust no-body (even me, gasp!). If the car you’re looking at is cheaper than all the others, there is probably a hidden reason. Use reputable renting sites and rental companies you trust.

You have been warned and good luck!

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