10 car rental tips that will save you money

What I learned from renting a car in Europe

While I’m used to hire a motorbike in Southeast Asia, renting a car is almost a must when travelling in Europe.

Motorbike rentals are not always available and thereby, it’s much more convenient to rent a car when travelling longer distances.

Especially on my recent surfing trip in Portugal. I couldn’t live without it. Renting a car was by far the easiest way to reach my accommodation and it was a must-have to explore Portugal’s amazing beaches.

I ended up renting a car from several agencies (for various reasons that I’ll explain later). Every time I rented the car, I got better at finding the best deals and what to check before booking the car.

Picking up the car rental

Renting a car for less than 2 euro a day

For the first part of my trip, I rented a car for 3 weeks for about €100. Adding up the insurance to cover the excess damage (€5/day), I paid a little over €200 for 3 weeks.

Not a bad price right?

Well, that was until I found out that I could rent a car for less than €2 a day, and get free car insurance with my credit card.

Besides that, there are many small details you need to pay attention to when renting a car. €2 a day sounds to good to be true, but it is really possible.

At least, if you are not tricked into the extra charges that you weren’t aware of during the booking.

10 car rental tips that will save you a lot of money

Booking a rental car

With this guide, you will learn how to avoid extra charges and rent the car for the price as advertised.

I learned these tricks by renting a car in Portugal, but the tips basically apply to car rental in any country.

We first start with 3 crucial car rental tips everyone needs to know about and then continue with 7 car rental tips that not so many people know about.

3 crucial car rental tips everyone has to know

Let’s first start with the 3 most important ones. Basic tips for travellers who rented a car before, but probably also the easiest ones to be tricked into when it’s the first time you rent a car.

Car rentals can look extremely cheap from the first sight, but when you add up the extra charges it can become a totally different story.

Renting out a car for a few euro’s per day can’t be profitable and that’s why they have to come up with other ways to make profit. I have no evidence on this, but I strongly suspect car rental companies of assuming that some customers will end up paying the extra charges and that’s why whey can lower the advertised price to attract more travellers.

With the help of the tips below, I can guarantee you that you can still get an amazing deal without being tricked into these extra high charges.

  1. Book with full to full fuel policy
  2. Pre-book your insurance
  3. Prepare your own navigation

Tip #1: Full-to-full fuel policy

book full to full when renting a car

If you’ve rented a car a few times, you will (hopefully) already know this one. I just hope you haven’t experienced it the hard way by paying up to €100 in refuelling charges.

It’s the most basic tip I can give, but also the one that can save you the most money.

The price difference between full-to-full and other fuel policies is mostly only a few euros, but the costs of not choosing full-to-full policy is somewhere between €70 and €150 euro.

Choosing a policy like full-to-empty means that the car rental company will always charge the extra refuelling fee on top of an increased fuel price. Even if you return the car with a full tank, you’ll have to pay the high refuel fees.

Be smart about this and choose the full-to-full policy. Just make sure to fuel up your car before you return it!

Tip #2: Book car insurance in advance

Car hire insurance

When booking the car online you often get the chance to book insurance that will cover the excess damage for about 5 euro per day. Booking the car insurance online will be much cheaper than buying the insurance when you pick up the car.

When picking up the car, the car rental employee will always ask you if you want to buy an additional insurance. If you booked this insurance in advance, tell them politely that you already arranged the insurance.

They might still warn you, that money will be charged from your credit card in case you make damage. They’ll still try to sell you the insurance by saying it’s much easier if you get the insurance with them, so you get the deposit back instantly.

Don’t let them scare you with this. If you pre-booked an insurance, they will cover the damage. It might take a few days longer before you get the money back, but the savings will definitely be worth waiting a few days extra.

Buying the insurance when you pick up, will likely cost you close to €10 a day. If you book it in advance the rates will be around €4-€6.

But there are even better options! Keep on reading to find the option that works best for you.

Where to buy your car insurance?

Pre-booking your insurance can save you a lot of money. But also here, there are different options.

  • When picking up the car (not recommended; €10 a day)
  • Online when booking the car (€4-€6 a day)
  • Using free car insurance from Revolut metal plan (€11.25 p/month, many other benefits)
  • External websites like IcarHireInsurance (from €3.30 a day)

If you only rent a car for a few days, it might be easier to just order the standard package offered by the booking website.

However, if you want to rent the car for a week or longer, you can also book an insurance on external websites for much better prices. Or even better, receive free car insurance with the Revolut Metal plan (up to 30 days per trip) as one of the many benefits.

We recommend reading our car rental insurance guide to learn how much money the car insurance of Revolut or IcarHireInsurance can save you.

Tip #3: Prepare your own navigation

Offline google maps for rental car navigation

Every car booking website will still try to sell you navigation as an add-on, but think twice if you really need this.

Nowadays there are so many alternatives, even without having access to internet. Just download offline maps on Google maps of the areas you want to visit and you’re ready to go.

Alternatively, you can also use a Waze navigation app which you can also use offline.

From the savings on navigation, you can also buy a local SIM card or international data plan with your own provider.

What’s more, rental cars are often very new and only maximum 1-2 years old. The majority of the cars will have a screen inside the car that you can connect to your phone. With Android Car, you can connect your google maps with the car screen if you have an android phone. If not, you can simply use the navigation of the car for free.

PRO TIP: Before you leave on your trip, order a phone holder for the car. If you don’t have one yet already, they cost less than 10 euro on Amazon. And tust me, this will be totally worth the little investment.

6 car rental tips most people don’t know

Bonus Tip #1: Check Skyscanner for the cheapest car rental

Car rental search on Skyscanner

Most people know Skyscanner to look for the best flights, but it doesn’t stop there. Skyscanner is actually one of the best websites to look for the cheapest car rentals.

Another website that worked really well for me in Portugal is www.carjet.com. More or less the same prices as on Skyscanner, but a slightly better user interface.

You might wonder if the prices shown are real, but it really can be this cheap! Just don’t forget the tips from this blog post.

TIP: For Mexico we found that Kayak offers sometimes even cheaper rates, but keep in mind the tips shared in this post. If you find cheaper rates on Kayak, be aware that they may come with extra charges.

Bonus Tip #2: Check the opening hours to avoid extra charges

If your flight arrvies late in the night, the carrental office might already be closed.

Did you choose a pick up time outside of the opening hours? Pick-up or drop-off outside of the office hours often costs an extra €30-€60.

Although most car rental companies are open between 07:00 and 22:00, some will close earlier or open only at 10:00.

If your flight arrives at 7 in the morning, you better search for a company that is already open once you arrive!

Bonus Tip #3: What you see is not always what you get

Car rental type of car

The first time I booked a car, was a Renault Clio SW and I got exactly this car when I picked it up. I loved it so much, that I searched for this car again when making a new booking, but this time I wasn’t that lucky.

The car had a similar space for my bags, but not for my surfboards. Luckily, I could still make them fit, but the lesson is that you should never rely on the picture of the car when making your booking.

Normally, it’s also written somewhere that the car is just an indication of what type of car you will get.

This doesn’t mean there is no difference in which car you book though!

The car brand or model will likely be different from the pictures, but the size of the car depends on whether you choose, mini, economy, luxury, SUV, etc.

The type of car is mainly an indication of how many doors the car will have and how much luggage space there will be.

Bonus Tip #4: Search for car rental with low additional/young driver fees

Car rental extra drivers fee

Instead of blindly choosing the car rental with the lowest rental price per day, carefully compare the costs of extra charges for additional drivers or young driver fees if this applies to you.

Many car rental companies charge between €5-€15 a day if you want to add an extra driver or if you are younger than 25 years old.

On the other hand, some rental companies make it even free to include an extra driver. Sometimes it also helps to search on larger car rental websites like Hertz or Europcar. These large car rental websites make it also easier to search for cars without the extra charge for young drivers.

Bonus Tip #5: Inform yourself about the toll highway system

In some countries, there will be an extra charge for toll high way devices. When I arrived in Portugal and they asked me if I needed one or not I had no clue.

I just followed their advice to get one.

Later I realised this extra charge of €18 was definitely not needed. There were only a few times that I entered a highway and every time there was a clear distinction between where you could pay cash/card, or if it was only for cars with a toll device.

My advice: if you travel to a country where they have tollways, always check how it works with the toll payments before you start your trip. In the south of Portugal there are a few highways where you can only enter with the device (otherwsie you’ll have to pay extra fines afterwards). Once you know you are going to take this route, you can look for alternative routes, or simply get the device when picking up the car. This roadmap for Portugal showed me perfectly which highways you can only enter with such a device. I bet you can find one like this for almost every country.

Bonus Tip #6: Airport pick-up often results in extra charges

Car rental with airport pick up

Picking up the car at the airport can be very convenient and safe you a lot of time. The process is normally very streamlined and you will be helped quickly.

If you book off-airport pick up, the process can take much and much longer. You often have to wait for the shuttle bus to depart and the offices are often less organised. The process of picking up the car off-airport can easily take up more than one hour, but in some cases even 2-3 hours.

When you pick up the car on-airport, the process will normally not take longer than 30 minutes. Only when it’s very busy at the car rental pick up you might have to add up an extra 30 minutes of waiting in the line at the airport desk.

Be aware of the airport tax

Although the pick-up process at the airport is much easier, there is a disadvantage compared to off-airport:

The airport tax, or also called a “premium pick up charge“.

When picking up the car at the airport, most car rental companies charge an extra airport fee which is around 12% of the total rental price (including all extra’s taken at arrival).

When you renting a car for a few euro’s a day, this won’t break the bank, but in high season it can become a noticeable difference. As the car rental price will be higher, the premium pickup charge can rise up to a maximum of €40.

How to check if your company charges this extra fee? Search for (CTRL+F4) “premium pick up fee” or “airport tax” in the car rental’s policy.

Bonus Tip #7: Return the car on time

Returning the car at car rental company

When returing the car, always make sure you leave some extra time for returning the car.

On the way back, several things can happen. You might miss an exit on the highway, the checkout takes longer or you end up in traffic jam. The car rental company will likely not accept this as an excuse. Even if you return the car one hour later, the car rental company will often charge you for a full day.

Besides that, it’s also very wise to have some extra time left. In case you forgot to refuel or the car rental company tells that your car is too dirty to return, you will still have time to fix the problem.

Clean your car

Even though they will clean the car after you return it, the car rental company will still charge you if the car is too dirty.

Hint: If the dust from the sand road is so thick you can use your finger to make a painting on it, it’s a good idea to rinse if off first.

The car doesn’t need to be super clean, but a quick rinse of one or two minutes can do wonders! Many gas stations will have an area where you can clean the car for only a few bucks.

In case you forgot about all this, but still have some extra time left, you can still drive back to fuel up the car or give it a rinse so you won’t have to pay the extra charges.

Summing it up

If the tips above all sounded like common advice to you, that’s great news! That means you probably won’t get tricked into unexpected charges.

For those who read these tips for the first time, I hope you will remember them when making your booking!

One last tip, if you save this post in your bookmarks, you can always read it over once you book a car.

And of course, don’t forget to share these tips with your friends so they are also well prepared when renting their next car.

Safe travels!