Car hire mishaps – to insure or not to insure?

Two women driving in a car

Hiring a car abroad can be expensive, but should you get excess insurance to prevent any more financial burdens if you have an accident?

By Remy Maisel

Last month, I found myself stuck in the mud on a dirt road in France, in an expensive hire car, on the morning of a friend’s wedding. My friend Michelle, in the passenger seat, had promised to navigate if I agreed to drive on the basis that, being American, I had more experience driving on the left side of the car.

She was the one who told me to turn down this very wet dirt road, and I had expressed some doubt, but we’d been ‘upgraded’ to a hybrid sport utility vehicle that was the biggest car I’d ever driven in my life – a liability on the tiny roads for the most part, but maybe, in this case, it would be handy? “Go!” Michelle said.

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We were definitely in the right place, as we could see people setting tables for the party later that night. This morning we would be doing a 5k run – since it was the wedding of a friend from our running club – but it had been pouring for two days straight.

We made it about two-thirds of the way down the lane, sliding around a bit, and then I was well and truly stuck. After “I’m going to kill Michelle,” my second thought was, “Oh God, we didn’t get the insurance.”

Eventually, the groom (oh dear) turned up and pushed us onto some grass, getting splattered with mud in the process, but without apparent bodily damage to himself or the car. ‘Happy wedding day to me,’ he said good-naturedly. (We still had to do the run.)

When we returned to the car, we found another car lodged even further down the road – a small sedan. “I didn’t get any insurance!” the driver said to us. We found out later, during the wedding speeches, that the bride was apparently touched to see her new husband pushing a car out of the mud on her wedding day, and that the other car ended up needing to be towed. So I wondered – just how lucky were we?

Knowing I had a travel insurance policy, I had hesitantly resisted the pushy offer of additional cover when we collected the keys from the company at Bordeaux airport a day before The Incident. I was pretty sure I had excess cover, but my conviction fizzled out a little when the agent printed off a receipt and circled a number that made me dizzy; that’s what I’d have to pay if anything happened to the car we had yet to even see.

No agent came outside to inspect the car with us either, as the rain was apocalyptic, verging on biblical and when I saw the truck they had given us, I had serious doubts about returning it unscathed. Michelle, though, was dismissive of their threats. ‘I’m sure you have insurance already,’ she said at the counter. “You’ll be fine,” she said, when I couldn’t figure out how to adjust the wing mirrors in the super-heavy tank, which had buttons where there should be keyholes, and joysticks where there should be buttons.

To exit the farm after The Incident without getting stuck again or knocking over the party tent, we drove on a grassy bit of ground, which was between some trees – and I winced with every scrape of plum-laden branches. Would they scratch it? No way of knowing until the mud-slathered car was put through a bizarre, automated car wash a couple of days later. We held our breath as the machine barked at us in computerised French while we stood a few feet away and watched a considerable amount of mud slough off. Sheer perfection in the end, just like the wedding.

There was no inspection upon return either, so there were a few anxious days after returning the keys, but no charges have since appeared on my credit card. I have since confirmed that I do indeed have excess cover through my travel insurance, so I was right not to be bullied into buying it again at a high price through the hire company. But regardless, Michelle is driving next time.

What you need to know about car hire insurance

I spoke to Martin Smith, Motor Technical Claims Manager, about some of the questions we had – and some we thought of later. Here’s his best advice if you’re planning a trip abroad by car (which I will not be in any rush to do again):

Should I get insurance through the car hire company?

“No – it’s very expensive, compared to the alternatives. Hire firms do their best to upsell, as it’s a significant revenue stream for them,” says Martin. This tracks with the experience Michelle and I had – we felt pressured to pay extra for insurance when we got there. On top of about £300 for four days, it would have been a very significant cost.

What is covered as standard under a hire agreement?

Your car hire agreement will usually include basic cover, which may be called a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW). This means that you’ll be covered in the event of damage or theft, and you’ll have third party liability insurance – which is usually required – but things vary from country to country. However, if you look closely at the agreement, you’ll note that certain parts of the car are often excluded. These are likely to be the roof, windscreen, tyres, and undercarriage.

Though you are ‘covered’ for the value of the car by a CDW or LDW, you’ll need to pay the excess if anything happens to the car, or if you damage a part of the vehicle that isn’t covered (note that these are parts that seem pretty likely to be damaged if you do get into a scrape!) 1. As I mentioned above, you’ll probably be told the excess is fairly significant.

Should I get excess insurance?

“Unless you are comfortable in bearing the risk of a large excess yourself, it’s prudent to have excess cover,” says Martin.

Remember, the excess insurance car hire companies offer is often very expensive, and you’ll probably get pressured into buying it, like I was 2.

Excess protection policies have existed for years, and many companies provide them. If you search for ‘hire car excess protection insurance’ online, you will find plenty of examples.

What other sources of cover might you have?

If you have travel insurance, you may already be covered – some policies include rental vehicle excess cover, but you should check the amount you’re covered for is as much or more than the excess the hire car company will charge you.

“You would need to check any travel insurance carefully, likewise added benefits that come with some credit cards and ‘premier’ banking services,” Martin says.  

It’s also important to note that typically, your domestic car insurance policy offers you no protection at all. Some policies may offer car hire excess protection so if you get charged an excess, the policy will reimburse you.

What happens if I’m in an accident abroad?

Here’s what Martin advises you to do:

1.       Stop immediately

2.       Call the police (if the rules of the country require you to)

3.       Exchange details with any other party

4.       Report the event to the hire car company (if you’re driving a rental vehicle) or your own insurer (if you’re driving your own car abroad) as soon as possible for help and guidance as to what to do next.

What else do I need to know about driving abroad?

It’s important that you familiarise yourself with the rules of the road wherever you’ll be going, particularly not forgetting which side of the road you’ll be on! I don’t care how silly I sound, as an American living in the UK, whenever I switch between righty and lefty driving, I whisper things like left lane, left lane, left lane to myself – especially making turns, in roundabouts, or at weird junctions for the first few minutes.

There also may be different requirements for documentation or equipment in different countries. “Make sure you have your driving licence, that it is valid, and – depending on which country you are driving in – you have any additional documents required (such as an International Driving Permit),” says Martin.

You may want to read the UK government’s guidance, or you can read more about driving abroad here.

“Accident frequency varies country to country,” says Martin. “Driving in unfamiliar territory, with different road markings, speed limits, and possibly on the opposite side to which you are familiar might increase the risk of being involved in an accident.”