How to Make Driving Abroad a Smooth Experience

Mustang at CPH Historic GP

Driving abroad could be classed as a hobby of mine. There’s no better feeling than finding your own special destinations out on the open road.

But all freedom comes with a price. With driving, it literally comes with a price that’s often quite high.

Luckily there are some tips and tricks to make driving abroad smoother than the asphalt under your wheels.


Car hire: Don’t forget to compare

There’s simply no excuse for avoiding price comparison sites these days. For car hire, there are plenty to choose from.

I use Skyscanner to give me an overview. Alternatively, check out the airport website of your destination. Often they will have car hire lounges and are able to quickly give quotes. After all, you’ll probably be returning your car to the airport you arrived at, right?

However, as with all price comparison sites, not everything said on them can be taken as gospel and prices often change when you go through to the provider. So to stay safe, I typically:

  • Use a price comparison site to see which companies there are
  • Set a ballpark figure in my mind
  • Try quotes through the companies directly to see what the difference is

So which company do you choose after this? Let’s have a look.


Check online reviews of car hire companies before driving abroad

Simple but key: the only way you will truly know what you’re about to get yourself into is by reading reviews.

You’ll be faced with multiple companies when you’re looking at driving abroad. Wondering if Sixt beats a local competitor? Seeking opinions from others, whether through online reviews or asking your friends, is the only way to find out.

You don't want a nasty surprise like this, do you?
You don’t want a nasty surprise like this, do you?

Personally, I avoid companies I have not heard of and ones which seem disproportionately cheap in comparison to competitors.

However a company like Budget, which regularly undercuts competitors, has decent reviews. A friend of mine was driving abroad with Budget and he said he liked them, so perhaps they are worth a shot over my regular Sixt option?

It’s up to you, but do check what customers before you have said, and check with your peers too. Seeking direct feedback is the only real way to determine the service you’re about to get.


Watch out for car hire traps!

Tourists wanting to drive abroad is unfortunately also an opportunity for some companies to squeeze out every last cent. This will typically be done with options about excess, extras such as SatNav or a young driver surcharge.

Let’s tackle these one by one.

Avoid excess fear with excess insurance

When hiring a car, you’ll often be given the option of paying a little more per day (in the UK this is typically around £10 per day) to lower your excess amount if you have a crash.

As excess on most hire cars is often around £1,000 it can seem like a no brainer.

Think again.

Often the prices given by the car hire company are extortionate. Sure, you need some kind of cover if you are driving abroad as the accident risk could be higher.

But instead of paying lots to the car hire company for their lower excess policy, buy an excess insurance policy through a third-party provider.

That’s right – you can insure your excess. Questor are a great company for this.

You can buy a policy for one trip, or an annual policy (saving you money if you hire more than twice a year).

These companies work by insuring your excess. So when you hire the car, you will still be liable in an accident up to the top excess amount (let’s say £1,000) but the excess insurer (like Questor) will cough up the money to pay the excess.

The bonus is that excess insurance costs a fraction of what the lower excess costs with a car hire company will.

Try comparison site Moneymaxim to see what your excess insurance could cost.

BEWARE: If you take this route, you may need to leave a large sum on your credit card. Martin Lewis explains this on his excellent Money Saving Expert site.


Don’t buy extras you don’t need

Will another person really be driving the car?

Do you really need a SatNav when a map, or your mobile phone, might solve your problems?

Driving abroad is stressful enough without paying for unnecessary items. Don’t purchase anything you don’t need, even if the company promises a good deal.

Oh, and while it’s fun to hire a car you’d never have at home, think of the costs. Two people travelling with a piece or two of luggage each can typically hire one of the smaller car categories.

Koeniggsegg CCXR
Let’s face it, you probably won’t be hiring this.

Jo and I have found cars like a Vauxhall Astra, a Citroen C4, a Citroen Cactus and even a Volkswagen Up to easily fit us both along with our hand baggage and two small checked in cases. These cars are also much cheaper to hire and run than a BMW or a Mercedes.

A Fiat 500? Well that might just be too small. (Ask us how we know that!)


Watch out for the Young Driver Surcharge

Even if companies say they allow people to hire their cars so long as they are over 21 years old, it’s often not the case that it costs the same amount as anyone else.

Typically the Young Driver Surcharge will apply to anyone up to AND including 25 or 26 years of age. This surcharge comes in the form of a whopping daily charge piled on top of your car hire costs – a charge which is sometimes more than the car hire itself.

I was a young driver once...
I was a young driver once…

Check all the costs when you book. Companies like Europcar and Enterprise are not very clear with their pricing and when the Young Driver Surcharge applies.

Sixt on the other hand are very clear and DO NOT charge the Young Driver Surcharge. This means that as long as you are 21 years old, you can hire a car like anyone else.

While Sixt prices tend to be a little higher, for drivers between 21 and 25 this doesn’t really matter as the slightly higher hire price is still less than paying a Young Driver Surcharge elsewhere.


Watch out for kilometre or mileage limits

Some companies offer unlimited mileage when you hire a car. Others do not.

Check the mileage suits your needs and, if not, alert the company that you may need a higher allowance when hiring the car. This can sometimes lead to a cheaper deal than if you pay for your increased mileage in retrospect.

Remember: haggle, haggle, haggle.


Check your fuel policy

Some companies require you return the car with a full tank of fuel. I prefer this option as then you only fill up what you’ve used, but it depends on a petrol station being close to where you are dropping the car off.

(A word of caution: if you go with the full fuel tank return option, MAKE SURE TO DO IT. Car hire companies charge higher prices to fill up the tank.)

Another option is to pay a flat rate with the car hire company. Depending on what fuel you use, they fill up the tank. It’s useful as it saves you the stress of filling the tank before dropping the car back to the company, but it also means you might pay a bit more as car hire fuel prices are often steep and you may not end up using the tank of fuel you just paid for.


Less than a year since you got your licence?

The UK is a strange place: odd posh accents, greasy cuisine and Brexit tendencies only scratch the surface of this odd, unique place. Another oddity is that to hire and drive a car in the UK, you need to have held your licence for at least one year.

This rule is also used in France and a few other countries. Check before you start planning that dream road trip. You can find many national rules on the website of the national tourism board, or by contacting a car rental company.


Now go hit the open road

You’re all set to go. Best dig out the driving licence and classic rock.

But before you do, here’s you eight point checklist to remember for cheap car hire when driving abroad.

  1. Hire a car that’s suitable for your trip
  2. Watch out for excess scaremongering
  3. Check if the Young Driver Surcharge applies
  4. Check your licence has the necessary validity
  5. Choose an economical vehicle
  6. Check your mileage limits
  7. Agree on a fuel policy that works for you
  8. Don’t buy extras you don’t need
  9. Compare prices
  10. Look for car hire offers but read the terms and conditions

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