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Taking the sting out of car rentals

For many Irish people living overseas, Christmas provides an important excuse to travel home and visit friends and family. But it's also a mini-bonanza for the car hire industry here, which sees demand for hire cars reach one of its highest peaks of the year.

On December 6, the Irish Independent checked out online the prices asked by a number of car rental firms to hire a small car from Dublin Airport for one week over three separate periods in December: 9-16, 16-23 and 23-30.

We obtained prices directly from the websites of Avis, Thrifty, Hertz, Enterprise, Europcar and Budget. The average price charged for the cheapest car on their fleets (eg Ford Ka, Fiat 500, VW Up, Toyota Aygo, Citroen C1) was €114 for the first week, €320 for the second week, and €395 for the third.

The average percentage increase between the first and third weeks across these six firms worked out at nearly 250pc.

We also checked out two brokers: Argus Car Rental and Carhire.ie. They provided the cheapest quotes by far for the first week at €45 and €61 respectively. However, prices quickly caught up to the average quotes of the direct car hire firms for the second and third weeks - but were still among the cheapest.

Argus' cheapest quote was €212 for the December 16-23 period, and €342 for December 23-30, while the cheapest price from Carhire.ie was €169 for the second week and €359 for the third.

The Consumers Association of Ireland used to highlight this Christmas car hire price inflation every year for a number of years and, while it accepted that companies were entitled to raise prices in line with seasonal demand, it questioned why such price hikes had to be in the order of 200-250pc or more.

Martina Nee of the European Consumer Centre said that car rentals were not alone in increasing prices at times of greatest demand. "The same trend can be seen in airline prices and hotel rates. Unfortunately, not much can be done about it as, in general, traders are free to set their prices as they choose as long as they are not engaging in anti-competitive behaviour."

While it might look like your best strategy against seasonal car hire price inflation is to book as early as you can and check out the brokers for the most competitive rates, here are a few other tips.

Some firms offer a small discount if you pre-pay online at the time of booking rather than at the hiredesk. And if you don't plan on driving that far, choose a company that offers a 'full-to-full' rather than a 'full-to-empty' policy, as that way you will only be paying for the fuel you use.

Buy a collision damage waiver (CDW) insurance policy from a separate provider rather than from the car hire firm. These policies will cover you if you cause any minor damage to a rental car, but car hire firms will charge you an arm and a leg. Instead, you can buy a separate policy from AIG, AXA and CarHireExcess.com for around €60 a year, or else up to €3 a day.

But if your itinerary involves staying or passing through Dublin or Cork city, the best tip is to sign up to the car-sharing service, GoCar.

GoCar, which is now owned by Europcar but is still run independently, offers a short-term car hire service where you can use a car for as little as an hour at a time, but you can use it for longer periods, too. Normally you pay a rate of €2.50 or €5 a hour, but if you need a car for more than 24 hours, a rate of €40 a day kicks in.

Elaine McDaid has been a regular user of GoCar since the summer. Originally from Derry but living in Dublin city centre, she had initially signed up to the car-sharing service for her work as an opera singer and singing teacher, but now she uses the service up to five times a week for both business and domestic use.

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But this Christmas she is planning to avail of the GoCar 24-hour rate of €40 a day to drive to Derry on Christmas Eve and return to Dublin on St Stephen's Day. She has the option to pay for her own fuel instead of the normal 45c a kilometre rate, which would work out much cheaper in her case.

She particularly likes using GoCar's new electric car, the BMW i3. "It's perfect. Probably the best car I've ever been in. Naturally I wouldn't be able to afford the €50k it costs, but you have the use of a really nice car."

A recent airport run with the BMW cost her just €15. "For people living in the city centre, it's really affordable."

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