How to book a car hire

Hiring a car on KAYAK takes less than 10 minutes if you know what documents you need and what you’re looking for. Learn all about how to hire a car and get a good deal.

How does car hire work?

So you’ve decided to hire a car. You may be gearing up for a long road trip with your family, touching down in a city for a short business trip, or just picking up a car to move some furniture. No matter your reason for hire a car, it’s good to get familiar with the process so you can get a great deal. At very least, you should be able to answer what documents you need to hire a car, how to get a cheap car hire, how booking and payments work, how different types of insurance work, and how pick-ups and drop-offs work. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can hire the right car for your trip in under 10 minutes.

What do you need to hire a car?

In order to hire a car, you need to provide a valid payment method and documents, you must be within the local legal age range for car hire, and you’ll need to provide proof of insurance to ensure you are covered at all times.

In order to hire a car in the UK, you will need the following documents:

  • Driving licence – full and valid licence
  • DVLA code – UK drivers must obtain this within 21 days of hiring the car
  • Proof of ID – Valid national ID card or passport
  • Proof of address – such as a recent bank statement or utility bill

If you are considering hiring a car when going overseas, make sure you have the following documents with you prior to travelling:

  • Driving licence – full and valid licence
  • International Driving Permit (IDP) – if driving in non-EU countries*
  • Passport – as proof of ID

*From 1 January 2021, some EU countries might also require UK nationals to have an IDP.

Most car hire companies will require a credit card for payment as they prefer to charge a holding deposit when you pick up the car, which will be refunded to you upon returning it without damages. Some car hire companies might accept debit cards, but in that case, you must ensure you have appropriate funds to cover the full hire cost. Please check the full-length article about car hire without a credit card for more information.

You must be at least 21 years of age in order to hire a car in the UK, and you need to have held your full licence for at least one year. While the minimum age in most European countries is set to 21, some will allow car hire from the age of 18, including Germany, Austria and Sweden. Please check the full-length article about age restrictions for car hire in different countries for more information.

There are different insurance options to choose from when it comes to hiring a car, so be sure to read the full article prior to booking.

Normally, car hire companies will include a CDW, or Collision Damage Waiver, as part of the full cost of the booking. Although policyholders are still subject to an excess in the event of damages, the hire company waives the right to charge you more than the excess specified.

A Loss Damage Waiver is an umbrella term for both CDW and Theft Protection (TP) policies, meaning the cost of the vehicle replacement is covered in the event that it is stolen.

Third Party Liability insurance ensures you are covered for death, damage or injury of a third party in an accident you are liable for.

Excess insurance covers the excess liable for in any of the above instances.

Learn more about different car hire insurance types in our full-length article.

Which car hire to choose

When picking up a hire car, it is important to look beyond the choice of car itself. Make sure you pay attention to extras such as unlimited mileage, which would be ideal if you’re planning a long road trip, or a flexible cancellation policy that will give you peace of mind in case of last-minute plan changes. The best car hire company is the one offering services that suit all your needs. Check out the insurance that is included to ensure you are covered in the event of an accident, and for your peace of mind, read about companies’ COVID-19 health and safety policies.

How to hire a car on KAYAK?

KAYAK searches through hundreds of car hire companies at once so you can filter and compare all the results for your given destination and dates. You can shop around for hire cars and compare rates on one site without opening multiple tabs and browsing for hours. Here’s how to find a cheap car hire on KAYAK:

1. Select your dates

The first thing you have to do is select your pick-up and drop-off dates. This one’s pretty self-explanatory, but try to be specific about the times you plan on picking up and dropping off, because it affects the price and availability of cars for hire. You can also select between “same drop-off” point and “different drop-off” point, so you can hire a car for a road trip and drop it off at your final destination.

2. Apply filters

Car type

Filter by car type if you already know if you want a compact car, a full-size saloon, an SUV, a luxury car, etc. KAYAK has simplified the filter terms to just small, medium, large, SUV, luxury, and pickup truck to avoid any confusion with industry terms. However, if you want to know more about car hire types, check out this article.

Filter by either passenger capacity or bag capacity if you’re not sure if the car type you have in mind will comfortably fit the number of people or bags you’re travelling with. This narrows your search across multiple car types.

Car hire agency
Filter by car hire agency if you have an existing membership with one that includes perks, or if you just prefer one over the other because you’ve had positive experiences in the past.

Filter by policies including unlimited mileage, free cancellation, fair fuel policy, and enhanced cleaning. Check out our article on how far you can drive a hire car to help decide whether you’ll need unlimited mileage, or if you’ll be okay with a mileage cap.

Total price
Filter by total price (including taxes) if you have a strict price range in mind.

If you search for a specific city, you can filter by airport or non-airport pick-up. There are advantages to both, and prices are usually comparable across locations. However, it’s always cheaper to pick up and drop off at the same location.

“At terminal” or “Shuttle”
If you search for an airport, you can filter between cars you can pick up directly at the terminal, or cars that you have to take a shuttle for to pick up. These shuttles are typically free and are conveniently located so you can get to the car from the airport.

“Pay now” or “Pay at counter”
If you select pay now, you’ll enter your card payment information online and complete the transaction. If you select pay at the counter, you’ll complete your booking online and pay in person when you pick up the car.

3. View deal

When you’re ready to book a particular itinerary, select “View Deal” to continue. Depending on the deal, you can complete the booking on the KAYAK site, or go to the car hire company’s site. The price will be the same either way, but you might have to take this small extra step sometimes.

4. Complete booking

When it’s time to complete your booking, you’ll be able to review the details of your deal again and add extras if you’re interested. One final thing to keep in mind is that you’re booking the type of car, but the exact model you pick up depends on availability.

Search for hire cars

Car hire pick up

When you’re ready to pick up your hire car, remember to bring a valid driving licence, any additionally required driving permits, and a second form of ID. Come with the form of payment you already used if you paid online, or a form of payment you want to pay with at the counter. Always review the terms and conditions and check everything one last time before paying.

The car hire company will give you a short report on the condition of the car, but take pictures before leaving if you want extra security about any small dents or scratches that may have already been on the vehicle.

Car hire drop-off

When dropping off your hire car, make sure you give yourself enough time to return the car within your hire period. In the below, we have listed some of the most important factors to consider when it comes to returning your vehicle, but make sure to carefully read your hire contract:

  • Plan your route in advance to ensure you arrive on time or even a bit earlier
  • Choose the closest petrol station to the return location to refill the car on the way
  • Once you arrive, take some photos of the car inside and out in case you decide to dispute any potential damage charges.
  • Double check all compartments and make sure you have taken out all your belongings
  • Ensure you leave the car in the state you picked it up in. If you return the car dirty, the hire company may impose extra charges to have the car cleaned to a professional standard.

Learn more

Car hire booking FAQs

When hiring a car, you need to have a valid full driving licence, a credit card for payment, valid proof of ID such as a national ID card or passport and you must have insurance to cover you against any possible damages. In some countries, you might also need an International Driving Permit. Make sure you meet the local minimum and maximum age requirements for car hire.

When choosing a car hire company, consider the extra services they offer that you might benefit from, such as unlimited mileage, a flexible cancellation policy, any included insurance and whether they clean the cars according to COVID-19 policies.

It can vary depending on the company you book with, but car hire days are usually calculated on a 24-hour basis. This means that hiring a car for 25 hours (for example, picking it up on Monday at 10am and returning it on Tuesday at 11am) may actually cost double than returning it just one hour earlier! Also keep in mind that many hire companies have a weekly rate which is cheaper than their daily rate, meaning that it can be worth your while to book for a full 7 days rather than 5. If your plans are flexible, you can try playing around with your dates and pick-up/drop-off times to see if you manage to find a better deal.

Read more tips on how to save money on a hire car in our payment guide.

Some car hire companies offer a service to either pick you up at your home or the hotel you’re staying at, or deliver your hire car to a specific address. Keep in mind, the availability of pick-up services may depend on your distance from the car hire location and pick-up service might cost more than picking up the car yourself. Some car hire companies that may offer a pick-up service include Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, and Sixt.

If you arrive at your scheduled pick-up time and the car type initially agreed-upon is not available, you have a few options. The hire company might offer you a larger or smaller car. If you get a bigger car than the one you’ve booked, the counter staff should not ask you to pay for the upgrade. If you receive a smaller car, or a cheaper car group, ask for a refund of the price difference from what you originally paid.

If the replacement cars offered don’t work for you or there aren’t any replacement cars available, call the company you booked with and see if they can help you. They might be able to help find you another hire car as well as help you get a refund for your original booking.

Your best chance of scoring an upgrade is by being a member of the hire company’s loyalty scheme. Some hire companies also have online vouchers you can find on their website and bring to the counter for a free upgrade. Of course, if you’re willing to pay for an upgrade it’s usually possible to get a better car simply by asking at the counter.

Check out more tips on how to get the best deal on a hire car.

If you’ve already reserved your car hire and you want to extend it, you have a few choices. If you haven’t picked up your car yet, you may be able to cancel and re-book your car for free with new dates, or make changes for free to your hire. However, you should keep in mind that prices can change and you may not find the same price you originally booked.

If you’ve already picked up your car and want to change the drop-off date, it’s probably possible. You’ll need to contact the car hire company you booked with and ask them if you can extend your hire. Keep in mind that some companies might charge an additional change fee on top of your daily hire fee. You will also likely be charged at a higher daily rate than you found when booking the car.

You can return your hire car earlier than planned, but you may not receive any money back – in fact, some car hire companies might even charge you extra for an early return. For example, some car companies charge a weekly rate that costs less than a daily rate, meaning that a seven day car hire could actually cost less than a 5 day car hire. If you return your car earlier, you may be charged on the daily rate instead of the weekly rate, meaning you’d have to pay more. Some companies charge a flat fee for any changes made to the hire agreement. It’s always safest to check in advance with your hire company what might happen if you return the car earlier.

Many car hire locations at airports are open all year long, including on Sundays and national holidays. However, some non-airport locations may run different schedules. It’s always worth checking before you reserve your car, as some agencies may also charge an “out-of-hours” fee for an early or late pick-up or drop-off time that is outside of usual operating hours.

After-hour pick-ups might be offered depending on the location you rent from. Sometimes airport car hire counters will stay open to accommodate passengers whose flights have been delayed. However, this sometimes incurs an “after-hours charge”. Non-airport locations may also offer out-of-hours pick-ups at specific times of the day, however, this could cost more than a pick-up during regular hours.

Many car hire agencies also allow you to return your car after hours. This is usually done with a key drop-box: you’ll park the car in a pre-approved parking space and then drop the keys in the box. Keep in mind that the car keys will usually be time-stamped with the time they were dropped off, so even if the station is unattended, you should try to return the car before the time specified in the hire agreement. Even after returning the car, you may still be responsible for any damage or theft that happens to the car until it has been checked in the next morning, so it’s always a good idea to park the car in a brightly lit spot, near a security camera if possible, and to photograph the car from all angles when you drop it off. Depending on the agency and location you hire your car from, returning your car after hours may be charged an additional fee. Make sure to check the details in advance when making your reservation and when picking up the car.

Returning a hire car doesn’t have to take long. In most large airports or locations it can be a fairly quick 5- or 10-minute procedure – you’ll simply pull into the return lot, flag down the nearest agent and allow them to go over the car’s condition with you.

If you’re returning after-hours, it’s even simpler. You’ll just drop the car keys in a drop-box and then you’ll be free to leave.

Remember, many car hire agreements are full-to-full, meaning you should budget time to refuel the car before you return it. It’s also a good idea to photograph the car’s exterior and the mileage and fuel level meters on the dashboard when returning the car so you’ll be able to prove the condition the car was returned in, if necessary.

Most major car hire companies will allow you to rent a car even if you are under 25. Bear in mind that you will likely have to pay a “young driver surcharge” and some car models may be off-limits.

Read also about age regulations for driving a hire car in other countries.

Certain companies are more flexible when it comes to adding a second driver. In US, rules vary by which state you hire in and the company, but if the second driver is a spouse or domestic partner, companies like Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Fox, Payless, and Silvercar are a good bet as they don’t charge a second driver fee. Some companies like Hertz and National will also waive second driver fees if you join their rewards scheme.

In the UK and Europe, however, companies such as Europcar and even local branches of the aforementioned hire companies may charge a second driver fee of around £10-£14 per day, so make sure you clarify in advance what your plans are to avoid any unexpected costs accruing and having to pay these in full upon returning your hire car. Remember, a hold will be placed on your card when you book, so if you do accrue extra charges, these will be taken automatically even if you decide to dispute them.

No, If your driving licence has expired or will expire during the hire period, the car hire agency will not allow you to pick up your car. Your driving licence must be valid for the entire duration of your hire period.