Why hiring a car abroad can drive you up the wall

The fees and the 'super' insurance extras that can leave you perplexed and poorer
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Hiring a car on holiday may be one of the most popular ways of exploring foreign countries, but there is a risk of being taken for a ride.

You should worry less about driving on the right side of the road and more about hidden charges, complex insurance policies and extreme excesses - not to mention unexpected, and unexplained, charges on your credit card, according to a recent report by the AA Motoring Trust.

At car hire desks worldwide, consumers are routinely offered a baffling array of policies that can tempt the unsuspecting motorist into signing up for expensive, and often unnecessary, add-ons. Ones to watch out for include the collision damage waiver (CDW); additional liability insurance; "super" CDW; theft protection and "super" theft protection.

And there are plenty of other things that may confuse customers. For example, do prices include VAT? Is there a charge for additional drivers and for child seats? What are the requirements for filling the tank on the car's return? And what is the routine for pre-hire inspections to check for any damage?

"Hiring a car anywhere in Europe should be relatively easy and transparent, but often it isn't and can cost you dearly when you get home," says Paul Watters of the AA Motoring Trust. "Confusing insurance and dubious post-hire charges can mean being ripped off - with little or no protection or ways of getting your money back."

Excess charges - the upfront cost to the motorist in the event of theft or damage to the rental vehicle - are the biggest concern.

In Europe, hire a car through Hertz and you will be subject to a "non-waivable" excess ranging from €475 (£323) for a basic hatchback to €2,500 for a soft-top sports car. Hertz's highest excess in the UK is £1,100

Elsewhere, Alamo has excesses of up to €1,500 in Greece and €3,500 in Ireland. Again, the charge depends on the car type.

If these prices are too high, motorists have the option of a "waiver". In a nutshell, this allows the hirer to slash the cost of the excess by paying an extra premium up front. A "super" CDW can even reduce the excess to zero, though the premium will be higher still. The same principle holds for theft-protection policies.

Some car hire firms, such as Sixt, include a CDW as standard. "It is normally included within the rental fee, unless otherwise stated," says Beverley Oliver of Sixt. "If damage occurs to the car, the driver should not be liable for the cost of the repairs regardless of whose fault it is, except where negligence is proved."

At Sixt, "negligence" means accidents caused by serious offences such as speeding or drink driving.

But double-check any policy you might take out: other firms can be more vague in their definition of what is negligent. In some cases, accidents or knocks caused simply by misjudging the car's width (when parking, for example) can count as negligence.

If you are under 25, the cost of car hire could be beyond your budget - an extra £22 a day at Hertz when hiring a vehicle in France.

Sometimes, the real hassle for motorists begins after they have returned the car.

"One of the most common complaints concerns customers being charged for damage caused by other hirers before or after them," says Stuart Nassos at Holiday Autos, a car hire broker that acts as a mediator in disputes. "Many find their credit cards are billed months later."

The AA Motoring Trust's report related how an inspector had hired a car in Turkey, but the firm had been too busy to check the car for damage when he returned it. When his credit card statement arrived, an extra €300 had been added with no details of the charge.

It turned out the money was taken for putting right damage that had happened before the car was rented - and the €300 excess had not been mentioned in the rental agreement.

To avoid situations like this, consumers should ensure a damage report is completed when the vehicle is hired and again when it is returned.

It is virtually impossible to hire a car without a credit card. Most firms insist on a blank card slip to which they can add any costs as they see fit.

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