How not to get ripped off by a car rental

Nowadays, renting a car on the other side of the world sounds easy, right? Usually it’s fairly simple. Like so many other modern-day things it is a “few clicks” kind of issue. But, in reality it is a bit like insurance. Car rentals try to overcomplicate things to lure you into a trap and make you (and your wallet) into an easy prey.

In this article I want to help you get through the entire car rental process to your utmost satisfaction. And if you were to only read one part of this article, make sure to read the part about car pick-up.

When renting a car abroad it is always good to consider the reason for doing so. Consider the number of people, age, planned distance, terrain and season during which you plan to come (for example in some countries you pay extra for winter tires etc.).

How to choose a perfect rental car

  • Carefully choose the type of car and insurance already when making a reservation, it is the best way to avoid future complications.
  • The rentals generally don´t state particular type/brand/engine on their website. In the offer on their website they only state a class with an illustrative image and you will most likely get a different car than the one shown on the picture. Most of the large rentals have multiple cars within one class, and you can choose from these when picking up the car. If you need a particular type or engine, it is necessary to discuss this with the rental up front.
  • Choose a car according to the nature of your trip. Unpaved roads can be a trap for certain cars. Or at least you will be pretty angry with yourself for not choosing a different car (mountain, agricultural or desert roads etc.)
  • Another important thing is the duration of the trip. While you can basically choose any car for a short trip around the city. When, travelling across the United States paying for a higher-class car is worth it.
  • Consider participants and the reason for the trip. Is it a family trip or with your friends? Are you planning to sleep in the car?
  • It is necessary to state the number of drivers in the booking form. If there are any additional drivers, you usually have to pay extra (some rentals don´t have any extra fees in case of the other driver being a spouse/husband of the first one).
  • The age of the driver is a very important fact for the rentals. In case you are under 25, make sure to check the terms and conditions at multiple different companies, there might be major differences. And if you are under 21, at least in some countries, you might not be able to rent a car at all.
  • The weather conditions at the destinations – what about a convertible?
  • Pay special attention to choosing an insurance already at the stage of registration. Think about what kind of insurance you want and also what kind of insurance you might already have (within your bank card insurance, life insurance etc.) so you don´t pay twice for the same thing.
  • In case you only need the car for a one-way travel (for example when flying from a different place), make sure to check the conditions and prices and in any case, check the different options at multiple companies.

Booking a car online

  • Enter your request into multiple different search engines.
  • In case you are already at the airport and haven´t booked a car in advance, try to make the booking through websites comparing multiple car rental companies – you will get a better rate than at the car rental’s counter.
  • In case you can´t connect to the Internet and there are more rental companies available at the airport, make sure to check the rates of all of them. Within couple of minutes you can manage to save a significant amount of money.
  • Be aware of suspiciously cheap rates, sometimes it is just a trick that´s supposed to lure you in. Later when picking up the car you will be told that you also need to buy mandatory insurance (that was already included in the other offers) and that without it you can´t rent the car. Often the insurance costs as much as the rental cost itself, which will result in you paying more than if you rented the seemingly more expensive car.
  • After making the booking print out the rental contract including the reservation code and price.
  • Be wary of how the gas is included in the price. In some cases, the rentals may charge you for gas within the “full – empty” policy, which means that you take the car with a full tank and upon returning it pay the price of a full tank no matter how much you used up (about 60 USD/EUR). In some island destinations, you basically don´t have a chance to use it all up.
  • Usually it is possible to change/cancel your booking up to 24 hours before the start of the rental. You can use this not only when you need to cancel the booking but, also in case you find a better offer.
  • Rental companies located at airports must pay an “airport fee” so it might be cheaper to book a car at a company located a bit further away from the airport (in case of easy access by public transport).
  • Some companies compensate for the cheaper rental by forcing you to buy a full tank of gas (so called full-empty policy, you get a car with full tank and return it with empty). The gas is not only more expensive than when bought at a gas station, but on top of that no one will refund the money for the amount of gas left in the tank upon returning the car. Using a full tank of gas is seemingly impossible in places such as Mallorca or Tenerife

Picking up a car at the rental

In case you planned to rent a car for you trip and you have made an online booking prior to that, it will most likely be during the pick up of the car that you will encounter some of the shady practices of car rentals. Companies try to increase their profit by any way possible and their employees are very well trained to sell you some extra products. One aspect that plays in their favor is your tiredness after the journey, which makes you more likely to say yes to anything just so you could finally be in your hotel room. It is important to know that you can decline any offers made to you!

What the staff behind the register is after is your money and the commissions they get out of it. The strategy they use is often aggressive and focused on making you feel afraid. You will hear stories about people paying millions in damages and thousands to have a car towed by a car assistance service. They will offer you an insurance that covers all of that. But you might already have it (in a package that comes with your bank card or included in the original booking) or the likelihood of such accident is very low and the price is very high. In some companies, they chose a different approach where the staff tries to be excessively friendly. Why wouldn´t you buy an extra insurance if it is suggested by a friend, right?

The best way to avoid all of these practices is to book a car including everything else from the comfort of your home and once you come to pick up the car, insist that you only want what is included in the original booking.

Here is an overview of what the rental companies might try to sell, why they do it and how to avoid it.

  • Insurance that you don´t want and sometimes don´t even need. Always know what insurance you already have (within your original booking or your bank card) and also try to evaluate the actual risk. What makes this more difficult is the generally complicated nature of insurance policies. And that rental companies also see no shame in selling you insurance that you already have.
  • You will be offered a GPS navigator which will cost you a fortune. The best thing to do is to bring your own, either one made for car use or just have it in your smartphone.
  • An upgrade to a higher class. Another thing you will most certainly be offered is a car of a higher category. You will be presented with many reasons why you must have a car of a higher category. It´s bigger, more comfortable, often (almost miraculously!) has a lower gas consumption. Another reason for this might be that all other cars in your original category are booked out. In this case, they have to offer you a car of higher category without any additional charges. But why would they upgrade the car for free when they can sell it to you, right?


(To this situation applies one trick. If you are heading to some popular place and you booked a car of the most popular category (small or middle sized cars) and you arrive in the evening, it is likely that all cars will be taken for the day and you will be automatically upgraded.)


  • When picking up the car make sure to properly check in what state the car is whether there are any possible defects that you might be later charged for. Either the customer scratched the car before returning it and the staff not noticing it, or it was the staff who scratched it driving in the garage. In any way, it is a good idea to take pictures of the car from all sides when picking it up.
  • During booking you need to state at what time you will pick the car up. In case you might be late for example due to a delay in a connecting flight, let the rental company know and ask them to change the time. Otherwise they might cancel your booking all together.


Choosing a car during the pick up

  • In large rental companies, there are many cars within one category to choose from. The best thing to do is to try sitting in a couple of them and then just choose the one that you feel the best in.
  • When traveling in hot locations, try to avoid leather seats.

What not to forget when returning the car

  • Make sure to return the car before or at the latest exactly at the time stated in the contract. Even a measly 5 minutes of delay might in some cases cost you another full day of rental. With your flight departing soon you won´t have time to argue and the rental company will simply subtract it from your deposit.
  • Reserve enough time for returning the car. This might take more than 5 minutes and you don´t want to miss your flight.
  • Check all the storage compartments, the trunk, under the seats,.. The longer you had the car the more closely you should look. The forgotten phone might be 10,000 km away from you very soon.
  • Prepare all the keys that you were given. Looking for the spare set of keys in a pocket of one of your jeans packed deep in your suitcase could take a while.
  • Request a confirmation of returning the car. In written form.

How to make the best out of the rented car

  • When renting a car, you will most likely be abroad. Keep in mind that there might be different traffic laws and rules than the ones you are used to (passing cars on the right even on highways, turning right on a red light, driving on the left lane etc.). On the other hand, there are some countries where traffic rules are not obeyed. Either way try to be extra careful, especially during the first days of your stay.
  • Look out for all the tolls, fees or fines that might be applicable to you. In case you don´t pay them right away, the original sum will add up due to overdue payment and also administration fee of the rental company. So an unpaid toll of 4 USD can easily end up being 39 USD – 4 USD for the toll, 20 USD fine for overdue payment and 15 USD administration fee.


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