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Whens the best time to book your hire car?

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Knowing when and where to book a hire car is not an exact science by any means, and there are pros and cons all along the way. So how do you avoid wondering whether or not youve made the right decision?

Lets take the timing first of all. Do you book well in advance, or leave it until the last minute in the hope of picking up a bargain? Well, these days theres no such thing as a last minute bargain, in fact youre far more likely to end up missing out altogether if youre not careful.

Due to the recession, over the past 18 months or so, car rental firms have struggled to obtain the finance to replenish their fleets. As a consequence, they are operating with fewer vehicles than in the past, hence you may find it hard to get the car you want, or even one at all, if you leave it to the last minute.

Plus, prices will increase between now and the summer, so dont think youll be able to get it cheaper in a few weeks or months time. It also makes sense to pay up front as well and not wait until you arrive. If there is a shortage of vehicles, the fact that the hire company has already taken your money will give you a lot more bargaining power.

The next question is where do you book? Do you use a comparison site such as carrentals.co.uk, or do you go straight to the hire firms?

Comparison sites take most of the hard work out of looking for a hire car, but you cant always guarantee to find the cheapest option. Listings on sites such as carrentals.co.uk include prices both direct from car hire companies and through brokers as well, but bear in mind, youre never going to get every car hire firm on them. Its usually the bigger players who feature on these sites and you might be able to find other, cheaper alternatives by shopping around if youve got the time.

Some companies keep their prices down by not going on comparison websites and by basing themselves away from airports. One option is to use personal recommendation from someone you know who has already visited the place you are going, or lives in the country. You can also try searching yourself for local hire companies on the web.

Dont necessarily go for the cheapest option though. As with so many things in life, you often get what you pay for. Read the small print to make sure youre comparing like against like and that there arent any hidden charges for second drivers and other extras or high excesses to pay.

You could leave just leave it all until you arrive at your destination in the hope of finding a cheap, local firm, but then those companies will know that youve got few options left open to you and drive a hard bargain, if youll pardon the pun. Theyll also try to sell you a lot of unnecessary extras or an upgrade, and the chances are that, after a long flight, youll probably agree just to be able to get away.

So shop around, compare prices and terms, talk to other people, and make a judgement which you are most comfortable with.