Car hire

June 12th, 2009

Cambridge is a rotten place to own a car. It has traffic congestion, pedestrianised zones, byzantine one-way-systems, limited parking, expensive car parks and is generally laid out to be got around on foot or bike. As a result, I haven’t bought a car but have instead relied on hiring one when I need one.

Car hire need not be expensive, but it requires a certain amount of knowledge and technique to get the best deal. I’m going to describe a few the techniques I use to get a good deal.

Firstly, Streetcar. This is a pay-as-you go car scheme that has five cars in Cambridge and many more in London. It costs £50 to join for the year, and after that costs £5.95 / hr for a VW Golf or £3.95 /hr for a Polo. The hourly price includes the first 30 miles of fuel, and after that you pay 23p a mile. Streetcar’s main benefit is that you only need to hire the car for as long as you want it – you can book in units of half hours – and so you avoid the minimum 24 hour booking period of a mainstream car hire company. Streetcars can also be collected and returned at all hours of the day and night, whereas the car hire firms in Cambridge are closed on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday. I really only use Streetcar for local journeys (the furthest I’ve been in one is Stansted Airport) because the cost racks up quite quickly if you’re hiring for more than a few hours or driving for more than a few miles.

There are several hire firms in Cambridge: Hertz, Europcar, Thrifty, 1Car1 and Enterprise. The first important thing to know is which brands are actually part of the same group. National and Alamo are both part of Europcar. Dollar is part of Thrifty. That said, different brands will have different promotions – back in the winter there was a free upgrade deal that made booking via Alamo much cheaper than via National or Europcar. All the main companies have special offers on their websites, and most crucially the standard booking form does not necessarily get you the best deal! It may be necessary to click through from an ad or promotional page in order to secure the cheap deal.

There are some other useful tweaks: Hertz have the #1 Club, which if you join (free) gives you 5% off standard rentals. Hertz also partner with Nectar, and going via the Nectar website can often get you a better rate and extra Nectar points. My latest discovery with Hertz is that they give 15% off cars and 20% off vans to students, but that this option only appears when you log out of #1 Club!

Additional driver surcharges are a pain – but sometimes you don’t get charged them, especially if the office is busy and you’ve pre-paid for the main part of the hire. Look out for deals that give you an additional driver free.

Sometimes (but not always) it can be cheaper to go via a third party booking agent. Both Ryanair and Easyjet give discounts (at Hertz and Europcar respectively) if you book a car from the airport you fly to and quote your flight number. The two excellent comparison sites CompareCarHire and VroomVroomVroom can often turn up a better price, though mostly for overseas hires – UK ones are nearly always cheaper booked direct. CompareCarHire is particularly good at picking up overseas deals via the likes of Holiday Autos, eRentals, CarDelMar and so on.

Just to give an idea, here are some real prices for a 48 hour hire of a car in Cambridge.
This is Monday 22nd – Wed 24th June, starting at 10am, for a Compact car (Ford Focus or VW Golf).

Hertz: (via student offer), £44.68
Europcar: (via 50% off special offer banner ad), VW Golf £48.51
Hertz: (#1 Club discount), £49.61
CompareCarHire: Ford Focus from Hertz, £52.07
Hertz: (using Nectar Triple Points promotion, you get 6 points per pound spent): £54.29
VroomVroomVroom: Ford Focus from Hertz, £56.99
Thrifty: £63.12
Alamo: £67.26
National: Ford Focus, £69.28 (National have a free upgrade offer on if you click on the ad, but it won’t give me a Focus for the price of a Corsa, only a Zafira for the same price as the Focus)
Europcar (via booking form on main site): VW Golf, £97.01

You can see the spread of prices – and especially how Europcar customers who missed the special discount ad banner would lose out massively!

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