Hire cars are once again in high demand in Australia, with most travel restrictions coming down and Aussies exploring more of their own backyard, or getting back to business.
But many hire car providers are struggling to keep up – especially those that downsized their fleets due to much lower travel demands in 2020 – and quite often, finding a car can be very difficult.
If you’re planning to hire a car on your next trip, these 10 tips will help you get on the road.
1. Book your hire car ASAP
As cars are tricky to come by, making your booking ahead of time will give you a better chance of securing a suitable vehicle.
Where a hire car is critical to your visit, consider booking that car before arranging flights and hotels – or at least, checking availability first, ahead of locking down other travel arrangements.
Many car hire companies offer flexible rates that can be amended or cancelled without charge, so make that your first port of call.
2. Don’t limit your search to just one website
Aggregator websites like Kayak and VroomVroomVroom can save your time by searching multiple providers at once – but it never hurts to visit the website of each car hire company separately, as prices and car availability may vary between booking systems.
Websites operated by the car hire companies can also be better at offering alternatives when your initial search reveals no cars.
For instance, when aggregators can’t find anything to match, you’ll often see “no cars found”.
But, when the Hertz website can’t match your search to its availability, for example, it flags things you could try tweaking in your search, such as the pick-up location or collection time:
Sure enough, delaying the pick-up time by just 30 minutes revealed a selection of cars to choose from, versus zero at first:
3. Search for cars downtown, not just from airports
Not only can shifting a booking by 30 minutes reap results, but making that booking from a different location can also improve availability.
For example, you might search for cars from an airport site, only to see that none are available: yet repeat that same search for a rental location in-town, and the results might improve.
In-town pickups may be less convenient – requiring a taxi or rideshare from the airport at first, to reach the pickup location – but if it means securing a car when you otherwise wouldn’t have, it’s a small price to pay for the convenience you’ll enjoy for the rest of the trip.
You may also find in-town rentals cost less, by having a lower 'location surcharge' applied to the booking versus an airport counter.
4. Find the best price, not just the first price
Discounts are common in the car hire industry – you may even qualify just by being a member of a chain’s own rewards program, or holding a particular credit card.
To make sure you’re seeing the best prices, login to that car hire loyalty account before searching for cars on a provider’s website. This should automatically apply any loyalty or corporate discounts you’re entitled to, which will be reflected in the prices you see.
When you come across a new discount code, such as one provided by your employer, you can simply add this to your profile, pre-loading it for future rentals.
5. Look beyond the big car hire brands
While Avis, Budget, Europcar, Hertz, and Thrifty are popular choices, they’re not your only options for hiring a car.
Other global companies like Enterprise and Sixt also operate in Australia – and aren’t listed in some aggregators – so it’s worth searching these brands’ websites individually, too.
Broadening the search even further, services like GoGet may be available at your destination, giving access to a vehicle when you need it. Just be mindful of any recurring subscription costs that may apply with services like this, levied over and above the quoted rental price.
Google Maps can also be a great tool for finding smaller car hire companies, that also may not appear on car hire aggregators.
It’s as easy as searching “car hire in (city)” – “car hire in Newcastle”, for example – where alongside the big names are many alternatives.
6. Don’t give up on your search
Travellers change and cancel their plans quite regularly, so if you weren’t able to find a car on your first attempt, don’t give up.
Repeating your search on another day could provide a different result, as could hiring a vehicle for a shorter portion of your trip, if there’s a time you’ll need it most.
For instance, searching for a week-long booking may display no availability, because a car isn't available on just one day of that trip.
Making two bookings could be a way around that, while reverting to other methods of transport that day – and that's still a better alternative than having no car at all.
If you’ve given it your best shot and still can’t track down a car, give a car hire company a call.
An operator may be able to reserve cars not visible online, or could provide handy tips to secure a booking as you continue your search.
7. Speaking of status…
Sometimes, car hire companies offer “guaranteed availability” to their highest-tier members, being the promise of an available car when you can’t otherwise find one.
Avis provides this for its invitation-only President’s Club cardholders, for example – an invitation to which was recently extended to many Qantas Platinum One frequent flyers.
If that’s you, don’t forget to mention your status when making a call, as it could just be your ticket to drive.
Regardless of your status, it also pays to learn about the benefits of each car hire company’s rewards program – among which, upgrades or additional driver could be unlocked for free, as could the ability to choose the vehicle you want at collection time.
8. Do you really need a car?
Cars come with convenience, but it’s worth taking a step back and reassessing whether you really need one for your journey.
You can’t go without one on a road trip, of course: but if you’ll just be zipping around town, alternatives such as taxis or rideshare could cost far less overall.
Here’s an example: on a recent visit to Canberra, the cost of hiring a car exceeded $600 for just three days, with fuel and parking costs on top. Using rideshare to get around the city instead clocked in at less than $100 all up.
Not only did that deliver a saving of $500, but also added convenience in not having to find a park at every location, especially busy points within the city: simply arrive, and you’re ready to walk in.
9. Check your insurance
If you do hire a car, double-check any rental insurance or rental car excess cover you may have through your broader travel insurance policy or credit card.
Coverage like this often comes with important restrictions, which could include having to pay for your car hire using a particular credit card to activate the cover, not hiring a vehicle over a certain RRP value, not driving cars onto barges, and taking out baseline insurance through your hire car provider.
On the AMEX Platinum Charge Card, for example, Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) cover may be available when you pay for your rental using that AMEX card: but if you begin that rental within 150km of your home address, you’re not covered at all.
If you don’t already have excess reduction cover and don’t want to risk a large out-of-pocket excess, you can often lower that amount by paying an additional fee when you first collect your car, but independent alternatives are often cheaper.
Covermore, for instance, offers standalone rental car insurance from $8.99 per day to cover the excess amount payable to a hire car company, which it claims can be up to 65% cheaper than the rates charged at the rental desk.
10. Expect to use toll roads? Plan ahead
In some cities, toll roads can be practically unavoidable – while in others, they’re still a convenient and time-saving way to get from A to B. Using them in a hire car, however, requires some extra planning.
If your hire car provider is left with the bill, expect to be charged a ‘handling fee’ of $30 or more, in addition to the base price of any tolls – and any recovery fees also levied by those toll roads.
Instead, you could either add your hire car’s licence plate to an existing tolling account – being sure to remove it as soon as the rental has ended – or use an app like LinktGO (formerly Roam) to review and pay for tolls as you go.
Once you’re in the driver’s seat…
Get into the habit of taking photos and/or videos of every car you hire before you leave the pick-up area – and repeat this process again when you return the car.
If the hire company claims their vehicle was returned damaged, you’ll have your own evidence on file showing exactly what the car looked like at the beginning and end of the rental, which may avoid you being charged for damage you didn’t cause.
Don’t forget to include close-up photos of the windscreen as part of this process – and if it’s been raining before your rental, run the wipers once before taking those images, so that the glass is clear.
In the past, this level of vigilance has avoided being stung with the cost of a replacement windscreen, after staff had missed a stone chip during their pre-rental inspection and noticed it on return – but which had been captured by camera before commencing the rental.
Chances are, you won’t need to call on those photos and videos – but on occasion, you’ll be glad you took them.