Car hire pitfalls and how to avoid them

I’ve worked in the car hire industry for a long time. And whilst many experiences of renting a car are hassle-free, there are pitfalls, which can leave customers with a not-so-great experience.  In this blog, I’ve put down all the things you should be aware of when booking a car so you can avoid car hire pitfalls! A lot of it is common sense but, trust me, it’s worth reminding yourself of these every time you book a car…

Read the Terms and Conditions before you book

Why so important?? Because the first assumption the supplier makes is that you’ve informed yourself about all the details of the rental. This includes the “Terms and Conditions”, which you can find on the website you made the booking on. When booking a car, it’s important to read these so you know what to expect when you pick up your car. And when you do come to collect your car, it’s absolutely vital you read the rental agreement before signing it. This brings us to my next point…

Understand what you’re signing. It’s a contract!

Remember the rental agreement is a contract and when you sign it, you’re agreeing to everything on it. Before you sign it, do question the supplier about ANYTHING you’re not sure about. This is especially the case if it’s your first adventure into this world of doublespeak, where what is said hides what is not said! And when hiring a car abroad, there can be an added language barrier. More importantly, what is on the contract is what you sign up to. You should pay particularly close attention to the costs on the contract. Yes, you should already know the rental rate from when you booked. But are there additional items that shouldn’t be on the contract?

Hire car suppliers like to make everything look easy. And it can be – as long as you’re aware of what’s actually going on. At the most basic level, the supplier wants you to sign a contract and pay for the hire and they expect you to take care of it. But they also expect you to accept liability for any damages or other problems that might arise. And if there is any damage, the costs can rise dramatically! So although the contract is long and complicated, it’s important you read and are happy with all the details. The supplier relies on your desire to get on the road ASAP as the lever to make everything as quick and simple as possible. This allows them to move onto the next customer in line. BUT it’s not worth getting on the road quickly if you haven’t taken the time to read and understand what you’re signing up to. This is possibly the biggest of the car hire pitfalls!

Fuel: Refund unused, or Full–Full?

Generally, this is swings and roundabouts. At the end of the day, the supplier has already worked out how not to lose money either way.

  • Refund unused cars are usually cheaper. They come with a full tank (check this before you drive off) but the cost of this is added to the agreement and is an additional cost when you collect your car hire. As ‘refund unused’ suggests, you should get a realistic refund for the fuel left in the tank when you return the car. However, there is usually an administration charge, which is also added to the cost. This is NOT refundable. So when comparing prices, you should mentally add the cost of the administration charge. And remember that when you collect your car, you’ll need to pay for a full tank and admin charge on top of the rate.
  • Full–Full means you get the car with a full tank and need to return it with a full tank. If not, you’ll be charged for the missing fuel plus the cost of refueling. Beware that sometimes the fueling policy is linked to mileage restrictions. Strange, but true. Check it!

Condition of the car

Check the car over before you go. Any bumps, scratches, or damage of any kind should be marked on your exit contract. If you’re not satisfied, make sure anything else you find is marked on the car sketch. Double check the exit mileage and fuel level. Don’t get fobbed off with a “it doesn’t matter”or “I don’t have time.” When you return the car, you’ll find it does matter after all! Remember, suppliers know you’re anxious to get going. However, with car hire, patience really is a virtue.

Extra Insurance with the supplier (in brief)

The supplier will try very hard to convince you that you need their extra insurance. Perhaps you do want this. But make sure you’re clear about what you are buying. Check what is covered and – more importantly, what is not. There may be pesky “exceptions”! It is in these “special conditions”, such as towing fees, or windscreens, or who knows what else is not included in the extra cover, that make many people opt for a private insurance cover instead (see next paragraph). The Spanish are lax about insurance sales. A UK supplier can be in serious trouble for mis-selling insurance. Spanish authorities don’t seem to give a fig. This is why I have published a separate blog to talk in depth about the pros and cons, the ins and outs, of private insurance and Super CDW. Which leads me to…

Private Insurance (also in brief)

It is possible to buy your own private insurance for car hire. Our Top Up insurance is one such, which is specially designed for car hire in most countries, including Spain and other EU countries. This insurance must be contracted before the date of hire. It means you have decided beforehand to NOT accept the local Super CDW, and that you WILL leave a credit card deposit for your excess liability. Please see my blog “Car Hire and Private Insurance” for fuller information. Also see “Top Up Insurance Information”.

One-way hires are possible – within the same country (hint: Portugal is not Spain)

Most suppliers offer the possibility of a “one-way hire”. This means you can return the car at a different destination from the place where you collect it. However, the two locations must be in the same country. Seriously – a lot of people ask about this. It is’nt possible to make a one-way hire between Spain and Portugal, nor between Spain and the UK.

There will also be an extra charge for one-way service. This which can vary between about 40 euros up to about 150 euros, depending on the supplier, the distance and the type of car. Make sure they tell you where to leave the car at the end of hire. And ask for a map, which can be useful.

Cross Border. Don’t assume you can!

If your intention is to drive outside Spain, crossing into another country for a while, you absolutely MUST make sure this is allowed by the supplier before making the booking. Be aware that they will make a standard “Cross-border charge”. This is to cover the extra insurance required and the contracting of breakdown assistance in another country. They will charge you for the full length of hire, even though you might only want to visit, say, France for one day. You skip doing this at your own (uninsured) risk.

When booking a car, the Terms and Conditions should include information about taking the rental across the border.


You might not want to hear it, but a lot of car hire complaints found in travel forums boil down to the hirer not reading or understanding the Terms and Conditions. This is why we think it’s the biggest of car hire pitfalls! Travel forums only give you one side of the story. And thankfully, most complaints get resolved correctly. However, a very small percentage do not work out quite as hoped. But that’s life, unfortunately. The best way to protect yourself is to read and understand all the information on the rental agreement – including the Terms and Conditions. And don’t sign it unless you do! It is very difficult to resolve a problem in your favour if you’ve signed up to it even if you haven’t read it.

If you’re booking with an agency rather than directly with the supplier, then the agency must act as a ‘middle-man’. Agencies will do their best to support you, but you must make sure they have all the facts. It’s always a good idea to take photos of the whole car – before and after pics – in case you receive a charge for damage you did not cause. When you return the car, if you can, make sure the car is signed in properly. That means making sure the supplier registers that it has received “no damage”, has the correct mileage and fuel level, as well as being signed off. Don’t let the agent say they will do it later. And do ensure you leave plenty of time to return the car. Once again, patience is a virtue.

Breakdowns and accidents

Here are five golden rules if you’ve had a breakdown or accident:

  1. In case of accident involving another vehicle, call the police. Unless it is something very minor, the supplier will require a police report. And take photos.
  2. In case of either breakdown, accident or accidental damage, call the supplier.
  3. In case of breakdown, the supplier will assume it is your fault until an inspection proves otherwise. Engine or mechanical failures are rare. Whereas leaving lights on all night, using the wrong fuel, dropping electronic keys in the water, driving off-road, over-running the engine or ruining a clutch by trying to pull a friend’s car out of the beach sand, etc., etc., are very common problems.
  4. Don’t try to fix it yourself.
  5. Don’t call a tow truck unless the supplier tells you to do so. In which case, get the name of the person who has authorized this.

More car hire tips