How to protect yourself when you hire a car

Hiring a car can be a stressful business, with many hidden costs and sharp practices. Merryn Somerset Webb has some advice to make it a little less fraught.

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Hiring a car can be a stressful business

One thing you will hear endlessly from anyone writing about the nightmares of hiring a car is that you must read and understand the contract before you sign it. You will also be told that you must photograph the car all over so that you know where the existing damage is and that a photo of the fuel gauge and the milometer won't go amiss either.

This is all perfectly reasonable advice. But it's also pretty useless. It will add to the (already nasty) stress levels around hiring the thing (remember that most car hire agreements are as long and complicated as mortgage agreement forms, just in smaller and more blurred type) and do little to help you when things really go wrong.

Instead, you might remember that when it comes to paperwork and signature capture you are no match for a skilled car rental operator: you never will be their margins depend on your confusion. So skim it for effect, but don't assume you understand it. Instead, focus on the things you can understand and manage.

Make sure you understand the fuel policy. Fuel is an important profit centre for the company it needs to make money on it. But it isn't particularly complicated. Prepaid fuel offers can work if you think you might be in a hurry on the way home, but most firms still expect you to return the car full something that works for most people who aren't going to be horribly tight for time returning to the airport. One insider tip: all tanks have a good bit of leeway above the 8/8 level, so don't assume it is full when you get it (it is probably only up to 8/8) and don't fill it beyond 8/8 yourself (that's good enough for the car hire firm).

Next, when you return the car, do it in office hours and get it checked and signed off while you watch. If there is a problem, argue about it there and then at the counter. If you have to return it outside office hours, my insider suggests doing what he says everyone in the know does: before you board the aircraft home, cancel the card the car hire excess is on and order a new one. Now you control how much money is taken (this is important fraud is rampant in the sector).

Finally, should all that fail, a word from the inside on rental car conciliation services such as the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, or the European Car Rental Conciliation Service: "Don't waste your breath".

For more on car hire, see my column on the matter here.

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