AA Eurotest - car hire survey

4x4 menace in Mediterranean car hire minefield

20 May 2009

UK holidaymakers looking for a car hire adventure in the Med this year will enter a minefield of hidden charges, complex insurances and unhelpful service when they hire a car, an AA Eurotest survey in seven countries has found. Hire a 4x4 vehicle and there is a more than 70% chance of being handed keys to a death-trap.

Not one of the 60 car hire outlets in 12 Mediterranean resorts was rated very good for customer service by expert inspectors hired by the Eurotest consortium, of which the AA is a leading member. Only eight were good and 37 were poor or very poor.

The inspectors were twice over-charged on their credit cards and a lack of vehicle condition checks by hirers meant that 23 car rentals left holidaymakers with no defence against an unjustified claim for damage. Contracts were sometimes not translated into English: half of agreements in Rimini were written in Italian.

Information about insurance coverage was often confusing, insufficient or incorrect. Time and again, seeking assistance on levels of insurance cover, refuelling procedures or what to do in an emergency left the inspectors waiting in vain. More than a tenth of vehicles had empty fuel tanks when hired out, a particular problem affecting six out of the 12 cars in Turkey. Surcharges for a second driver ranged from free to 31 euros, charged by a company in Portugal.

Holidaymakers looking to travel off-road or spice up their driving with a 4x4-style vehicle are very likely to get more adventure than they bargained for. If over-inflated tyres, making road-holding skittish for inexperienced drivers, wasn't bad enough, five of the seven inspected had serious mechanical defects:

  • Malta – a small off-roader that couldn't do hill starts because the handbrake didn't work, dripped oil, and had bald or damaged tyres
  • Turkey – another small off-roader with damaged suspension, oil leaking out of the engine, and a loose back seat without safety belts
  • Spain – a large 4x4 with a bald and half-inflated tyre, driver's side wiper falling off, low on coolant, mirror attached precariously and a driver's seatbelt that didn't roll back automatically

In general, the quality of cars was better than might be expected, although Malta had half its cars in poor condition and Greece, Spain and Turkey with a quarter defective.

Comparing multi-national with local firms, 84 per cent of the big-name cars were in good condition as opposed to 60 per cent of the small companies. Vehicle mileages between the two types of hirer were broadly similar, although the local firms were the only ones to rent out cars with 40,000 kilometres (25,000 miles) or more on the clock, including four that had covered more than 100,000 kilometres (62,500 miles).

Even so, some of the standard hire cars were awful, including:

  • Malta – a 2002 city car with front tyres worn or badly damaged, brakes falling to pieces and no airbags
  • Portugal – a supermini with under-inflated tyres, rear screen wiper hanging off and a spare wheel the wrong size
  • Turkey – a people carrier with low brake fluid, worn brakes and broken plastic on the back seat that could have cut a passenger in an accident

Comment

"Quality of service and potentially expensive pitfalls in agreements, insurance and car-checking has improved little from when a similar survey was carried out in 2005. Holidaymakers, particularly at peak season when rental desks are hectic, are too often vulnerable to the potential for hire firms to accidentally or deliberately over-charge.

"Hiring over the Internet gives some opportunity to examine contracts, agreements and procedures before committing money, and arranging rental with a firm based in the UK provides some chance of getting to grips if a contract goes wrong. Otherwise, using a credit card, where there may be some support for a rip-off, and a video camera to film the outside of a hire car before and after driving it may be the only defence for holidaymakers trying their luck with a local firm. Recommendation from friends may also be invaluable."

"Hiring over the Internet gives some opportunity to examine contracts, agreements and procedures before committing money, and arranging rental with a firm based in the UK provides some chance of getting to grips if a contract goes wrong. Otherwise, using a credit card, where there may be some support for a rip-off, and a video camera to film the outside of a hire car before and after driving it may be the only defence for holidaymakers trying their luck with a local firm. Recommendation from friends may also be invaluable."

AA Eurotest - car hire survey »
(download summary table as a pdf document)

AA advice

The AA offers five pieces of advice when checking the street-legality of car hire abroad:

  1. When booking the holiday, ask for a copy of the terms and conditions of car hire. Ask specifically if the car provided will be fully equipped to meet all the legal requirements of the country being visited and have a breakdown number provided
  2. Holidaymakers should familiarise themselves with the rules of the road of the countries they intend to drive in
  3. When picking up the car, ask the rental firm about their procedures should it break down and the emergency number to call
  4. On getting to the car, holidaymakers should check for the presence of emergency equipment. If it's not there, ask the rental firm to provide it
  5. Also take the opportunity to look around the car and check for damage that may be attributed to them later. Check all the switches, indicators and other controls – if any are unfamiliar or don't work, ask the rental firm for guidance
  6. Holidaymakers would benefit from being able to communicate with a policeman, breakdown recovery firm, garage or local resident, should the car have problems and assistance prove difficult to arrange. A good phrasebook or dictionary will be useful

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21 May 2009