On the Fly

Rob Gilley's tips on getting the most out of your surf travel dollar

| posted on May 23, 2013

Rental cars always end up being one of the most expensive aspects of surf travel, but there are ways to minimize the financial damage. Photo: Gilley

Chapter IV: The Rent-a-Car

In the past it might have been considered overkill to dedicate an entire chapter to renting a surf trip vehicle, but lately things have changed. Leasing companies have become aggressive and the cars themselves super-expensive. Simple sedans that used to rent for $20 a day now commonly rent for $60…and that’s without insurance. Worse yet, more companies are now back-charging for often unjustified cleaning and damage fees.

The other reason to pay so much attention to this is that on the majority of global surf trips—Australia, New Zealand, North America, Europe, South America—you’re going to spend a crap-load of time in the car. You want to make sure your chariot is as safe, fuel-efficient, roomy, and inexpensive as possible.

So with this in mind, let’s approach the process step-by-step:

1. Know Your Insurance
The principal driver on your trip should check with his or her credit card provider and car insurance company before leaving home to see if he or she is covered in a particular foreign country. This is one of the oft-overlooked perks of having a major credit card—many of them come with built-in insurance for international leasing. Also, if you have fairly comprehensive car insurance at home, you might have a certain amount of foreign coverage included. The point is to really do your homework before approaching the rent-a-car counter. Some countries require you to buy additional insurance, but much of the time the agents are trained to talk you into buying unnecessary and often redundant insurance to make more money, and they often use fear tactics to do it.

2. Reserve and Guarantee Your Rate Beforehand
This is really important because often there’s a huge disparity between a pre-arranged rate, and what they want to charge you at the airport without a reservation. The good news here is that reserving a rent-a-car is usually non-obligational, so if you do happen to find a better deal, you can pursue it without sacrificing a deposit.

3. Get the Largest Vehicle You Can Afford
It’s hard to overstate the peace of mind that comes with having your boards inside your car. Otherwise there’s fairly constant stress about boards falling off the roof, and boards being stolen while the car is unattended.

4. Don’t Pack the Car Right Away
This is where things get a little more subtle. Sadly, rent-a-car agents are on the lookout for surfers and other types who might pack a vehicle to maximum capacity and/or stack things on the roof. This sends them a red flag to inspect for potential damage and dents on the back end, consequential or not. So, even it involves you and your friends stashing your boards around the corner, try not to load the rent-a-car directly in front of the agency.

5. Refill the Gas
Just another way for rental agencies to bend you over. Put a post-it note on the windshield if you have to.

6. Get the Car Washed Before You Return it
What? Yeah, you heard right. This can be a worthwhile strategy because a clean looking car gets a quick, cursory inspection, whereas a dirty, mud-encrusted vehicle will usually get the Gestapo treatment when you return it. A savvy hedge-bet and potential time saver.

7. Split the Cost
One of the peripheral benefits of going on a surf trip with friends is financial efficiency—a $900 car rental is a hell of a lot easier to swallow if you’re splitting the bill three ways.

8. Back-End Recourse
There’s nothing worse than receiving an exorbitant, unexpected charge on your credit card when you get home—especially if it’s for some Mickey Mouse scratch or dent that you may or may not have caused. The bad news is that signing the small print on a rental car contract gives them this right. However, you also have the right to fight these charges, and the best way to do this is through your credit card company. American Express is by far the best entity to use for challenging a charge, and together with other emergency services that it offers, AMEX is likely the best credit card to travel with. If you can afford the membership fees, don’t leave home without it.

Stay Tuned.

Click here to read Chapter I: The Flexible Itinerary, here to read Chapter II: Packing, or here to read Chapter III: Getting There.

  • juan grande

    i get the pleasure of traveling quite a bit and can attest to all the above…dont get screwed…know your car insurance and even take deatail pictures of the car you are renting with your cell phone before you drive it off the rental car lot…in detail if scrathes or dents….plus the advise of not having a surfboard stacking party in front of the rent car office…do it where they cant see it…plus dont come rocking up with giant board bags on the roof when you pull back in to drop it off….drop off someone at the airport with all the stuff and two people take car back if possible…2nd person as a witness if need be….most rental companies or honest but not all of the them…i have dealt with a couple and thanks to american express…fought and won not having to things they were trying to charge me for that were false….get out there and get some waves….just cover you ass

  • colorado surfer

    Excellent advice here, which applies to ski/snowboard trips too. Definitely do not load/unload rental vehicles anywhere near the rental counter.

    And AMEX is great. I have a plan that costs only $20 per rental for supplemental insurance from them when I use the card to rent a car – cheap peace of mind and they’ll go to bat for you against the rental companies if needed.

    The only thing I’d add is to stash some very long straps in your board bag and some extra towels. Bring like 6 of the straps. Then even if you don’t have a factory roof rack on the rental car, you can use the towels to cushion your load and the straps will keep everything nice and tight. The ones that kayak and rafting companies like NRS are cheap and bombproof and come in assorted lengths. Always go longer than what you’ll think you need.

  • Michael

    I would add that you should have the most comprehensive coverage possible. Lots of rental companies have some insurance package that basically covers “all damage” which includes everything except drowning the car in a river. It saves you an hour marking up that little card with all the previous small dents/chips on arrival and saves you the dent/scratch inspection on return trip. I would also echo the AMEX bit — I had a disputed a hefty charge on my bill and it was wiped away with a simple call.

  • John E.

    We went to Portugal last year and we were looking for suitable car. The small ones wouldn’t fit our boards so we needed an estate. Most car rental companies offer sedans not estates, and you never know what you will get because they always add “SIMILAR” to every car.

    So we decided to dig deeper and find a local car rental who can offer a decent car. Man was it difficult… There are so many of them out there actually, but everyone has slightly different terms, insurance, fuel policy…

    We created a comparison table in Excel to make sure we don’t miss something. We found about 30 companies with 2-3 options from every one so the table was looong, but still many questions were not clear…

    But then my friend Alex found this web-site (first I though he was searching for p**n :D). Anyway, I didn’t knew this thing existed, but it combines many local car rental companies on one page with all the prices, car parameters, pictures and even insurances included. You had to select several cars and send a request. Then you receive offers from all those companies.

    We rented the cheapest estate – some Dacia for about 400€ per week. Worked well for us – wished it would be more powerfull, but you could get an Audi or Mercedes if You’d like ;).

    By the way the owner of this local car rental company was a surfer himself and suggested some nice spots. When we returned the car there were some sand in the saloon, but we had no problems afterwards. Surfer friendly! Suggest!