preloadWinter car hire for ski trips, rough terrain and cold climates

Winter Car Hire

For ski trips, rough terrain and cold climates

If you’re looking to travel to colder climates, make sure you equip yourself with the means to do so properly. Hiring a 4×4 for your trip will help ease the process, so make sure you read why in the below.

Do I need a 4×4 car for rough terrain and cold climate?

When you’re hiring a car for unusual terrain or you know you’ll be facing extreme conditions, it pays to know more about certain car types and accessories. For example, you may be gearing up for a ski trip, so you may need four wheel drive or a ski rack, or even winter tyres and snow chains. Hiring a car for a ski trip or any winter road trip that requires special planning doesn’t have to be complicated as long as you know the basics.

Road rental Reykjavik iceland; Shutterstock ID 704630515

4×4 car hire: a four wheel drive or all wheel drive car

The first car you might think of for a trip like this is a rugged SUV, pick-up truck, station wagon with four wheel drive (4WD) or all wheel drive (AWD). After all, you want to be as prepared as possible for the elements, and your worst case scenario is being stuck on the side of the road in the cold. These vehicles can handle deep snow and off-pavement scenarios so you can drive comfortably in all conditions. If you’re committed to hiring a 4WD car, book well in advance and prepare to pay more than what you would for a comparable front wheel drive car. Start by searching for standard or full-size SUVs and trucks because many car hire companies and search engines won’t have a 4WD or AWD filter. It’s also best to look for a car from an airport location that serves a ski resort in the winter because the demand is highest there, and the fleet is likely to have multiple Jeeps or Audis, which are known for their 4WD and AWD cars.

Once you’ve booked your 4WD car, you must keep in mind that car hire companies strictly forbid off-road driving and towing to limit the potential for damages. You’ll find this communicated clearly in your hire contract. If you violate this condition and damage the car or get caught, you risk getting banned from hiring in the future. Your car hire insurance, your personal auto insurance, and whatever damage waiver you purchased upon booking will not cover damages from off-roading or towing.

Hiring a front wheel drive car

Although your first instinct may be to hire a rugged four wheel drive car, you’ll be fine with a front wheel drive car (FWD) with all-season tyres for most trips. Untreated ice and snow on the road will make conditions dangerous, but most well-travelled ski holiday destinations have well-maintained roads that make it safe for as many cars as possible. Car hire companies generally don’t offer 4WD or AWD cars outside of special markets like areas near ski resorts anyway, and prefer to hire out smaller cars with all-season tyres because they have a higher inventory of these cars. Hiring one of these cars works is straightforward, and you won’t have any trouble booking last minute.

Two women packed up and ready to head out on a snowshoe adventure.

What type of rental car works best for a ski trip?

Four wheel drive and all wheel drive cars are safe car hire choices for your ski trip, but smaller two wheel drive cars will also suit most trips.

When travelling in a different climate to the one you’re used to, it makes sense to drive a car that is suited to that climate. With that in mind, you are probably going to want a car that is able to tackle tough winter terrain while offering optimal space for your sports equipment all at the same time. The Volvo XC70 is one such car and can be found using the “Large” car type filter on KAYAK. Other options include the Jeep Renegade or Mazda CX5, both of which can be found under KAYAK’s “SUV” car type filter.

Adding winter options like winter tyres and snow chains to your rental car

Most car hire companies offer ski racks at locations near major ski resorts at your holiday destination. Depending on the resort you visit, prices will differ, so bear that in mind when you run your search. Adding winter tyres, or Mud & Snow (M&S) tyres, is more difficult as most car hire companies do not offer these tyres, and they definitely don’t offer snow chains. You can’t attach your own chains to a hire car either, as they can cause damage to tyres, rims, wheel covers, and wings if they break or aren’t attached properly.

Many European ski destinations impose specific driving regulations such as snow tyres during the winter months, and, depending on where you are, these will typically vary between October and April of the following year. Hire cars are not exempt from this requirement, even if they have all-season tyres, and hire car companies don’t offer chains. Trips with these constraints require extra planning, so we have put together a table for you below with all the information you need to bear in mind for popular European countries.

*If you hire a car with winter tyres outside the enforcement period, you may be required to pay in some countries.
**Despite local laws and regulations, we highly recommend using winter tyres/snow chains in the winter months.
***Region-specific. Please ensure you are informed prior to booking in Italy.

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When is the cheapest time to book a car for your ski trip

When is the cheapest time to book a car for your ski trip?

One way to save money when hiring a car out for your trip is to book in advance. This is pretty much the rule of thumb regardless of your destination, as many ski resorts tend to get very busy during the ski season. If you consider any added extras you may need for your trip, for example ski racks to house your sports equipment while travelling, you are certainly going to want to save money on the vehicle price per day, so make sure you get in early.

Read our full-length article about when is the best time to book a car hire to learn more.

Rules for winter options in different countries

As you clearly see in the table above, many European countries actually require winter tyres on all cars by law, with pre-defined winter months where the law applies, and rules on whether the cars come pre-equipped with winter tyres. In some countries, you have to request the tires and pay for them yourself and in other countries, it depends on the car hire company as well as the region within which you are travelling. Bear in mind that, regardless of the extent to which your car is “winterised”, there may be other very specific regulations in place that you should read up on before you set off on your trip.

Rules for winter options in different countries

In Iceland, for example, the “F-roads” often sought out by tourists are only open during a specified period (June – September), and you are only allowed to drive on them in a suitably equipped 4×4 vehicle. It’s important to stay safe on your ski trip, regardless of the car you hire, so always practice safe and slow driving, especially if it’s a car type you’re not familiar with.

Because the rules vary across so many countries, check the rules in advance, and review the terms and conditions when booking so you know exactly what’s standard, and what’s extra. In some countries, winter tyres are required by law, but you may be required by certain hire companies to pay for the winterisation of your vehicle separately upon pick-up.

Which car hire insurance to choose for tough and winter conditions?

Car insurance options will differ depending on the country you are travelling to. While conventional ski destinations may only require standard insurance, some countries require added protections due to its specific terrain. Below you will find a few car insurance options best suited for cars tackling colder temperatures and harsher terrains, along with a few added extras for countries with slightly more rigorous obligations for those travelling in a hire car.

Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)


A CDW covers damage to the hire car’s bodywork, which is most of the car’s exterior, including the bumpers, wings, doors, etc. Keep in mind that this doesn’t include the windows, wheels, or the interior. The most you’d have to pay in the event of damage sustained is called an excess and is usually specified in your policy, so be sure to look there. Note that you can also take out a Super Collision Damage Waiver (SCDW) which reduces further the excess payable by the policyholder and is, in a country such as Iceland for example, advisable considering the likelihood of sustaining damage en route.

Third Party Liability (TPL)


Third Party Liability insurance ensures you are covered for death, damage or injury of a third party in an accident you are liable for. There’s usually a maximum amount that this policy would pay out to the third party, so make sure you check your policy.

Those are two basic types of coverage, but there are several things that additional policies would also cover. Taking Iceland as an example, there are some policies specific to the country that you may want to consider as an added precaution when hiring out your hire car, so keep an eye out for these online or ask the hiring company before booking or upon pick up.

Gravel Protection


Outside of the city of Reykjavík, Iceland’s roads can contain large amounts of loose gravel, meaning the likelihood that your car will sustain some scratches when driving through it is high. F-roads are, as previously mentioned in the “Rules for winter options in different countries” section of this article, difficult to navigate at the best of times, so make sure you seriously consider this type of insurance when booking.

Sand and Ash Protection


Again specific to Iceland, this type of insurance will ensure that you are protected when travelling on roads that are laden with sand and/or volcanic ash from an eruption. Depending on where you go, it is certainly worth taking out this type of insurance between February and April, where the conditions are most likely going to warrant Sand and Ash Protection.

Learn more

Collision Damage Waiver
Choosing Collision Damage Waiver for car hire
Do I need car hire excess insurance?
Do you need a car hire Excess Insurance?
Car hire damage: What to do if you get into an accident?
Asian woman traveler with car on a beautiful road.
Crossing borders with a car hire