When I moved from America to South Africa, cars were the most difficult adjustment. Everything about cars and driving is different here: Cars drive on the opposite side of the road, car parts have different names (windshield vs. windscreen, horn vs. hooter, trunk vs. boot, AC vs. aircon), all the cars are manual (which Americans call stick-shift), etc. And don’t even get me started about registering a car in South Africa.
The same goes for car hire, which Americans call car rental. I worked for a car rental company in America, way back in the day, and I thought I had all the rules figured out. But the car hire rules are different in South Africa, and I learned many valuable lessons last year when Ray and I took a big road trip from Joburg to the Wild Coast and back.
I’ve been meaning write a car hire advice post ever since I got back from that epic Wild Coast trip. Finally, it is time. Here are my tips:
Car Hire Tip #1: Hire the right car.
South Africa has great roads overall, and most of them can be driven easily in small, two-wheel-drive cars. Nonetheless, if you plan to drive in rural South Africa, and especially if you are not an experienced driver or not used to driving in rural South Africa, then then I recommend hiring a small SUV.
Ray and I hired a mid-sized sedan for our Wild Coast trip, as friends advised us a small car would work fine for where we were going. (We visited the Dwesa Nature Reserve in the southern part of the Wild Coast, which I highly recommend.) And perhaps a sedan would have been fine, had we not gotten hopelessly lost and wound up on some of the most treacherous roads in Africa.
As luck would have it, we were upgraded to a small SUV. We were eternally grateful for this stroke of luck in the following days. We never would have made it in a sedan.
I normally drive the tiniest car I can find, but sometimes bigger is better and sometimes more is more. Consider your route carefully and don’t be afraid to shell out a few extra rand for some ground clearance.
Car Hire Tip #2: Buy all the insurance.
I can’t believe I’m writing this because I never used to buy the insurance on rental cars in the U.S. But that’s because in the U.S., my regular auto insurance policy also covered rental cars. Not so in South Africa: In South Africa, auto insurance policies do not carry over to hire cars (at least mine doesn’t). And if you’re driving to a place like the Wild Coast, there is a good chance the car will sustain some damage and you’ll be stuck paying.
Before our Wild Coast trip, I did some research and concluded I would buy all the coverage. I even paid extra for windscreen and undercarriage coverage, which for some reason is not included in the standard collision coverage. I’m glad I did. We got a flat tire (read the dramatic story here) and it would have been expensive to pay for that tire ourselves.
Some South African hire car companies actually include the cost of full insurance in their regular rate, meaning that you can’t hire a car without it. You might still be responsible for the excess (what we call a deductible in the U.S.) though. Ask lots of questions.
Car Hire Tip #3: Pay attention to kilometre limits.
In America most standard car rental agreements come with unlimited mileage, assuming the driver stays within the country. This is not the case in South Africa. I made a huge mistake with our Wild Coast rental, and failed to notice the tiny print stating that we only received 100 free kilometers (about 66 miles!) per day and after that we would be charged a per-kilometer rate. I actually cried when the final bill came and I’d been charged three times more than expected due to this kilometer limit. I managed to whine my way into a partial discount, but the truth is I had no one to blame but myself. I didn’t pay attention.
So, check the small print and don’t hire a car with limited kilometers when you’re planning to drive 300 kilometers a day.
Car Hire Tip #4: Go straight to the source.
One of the reasons I didn’t notice the small print about the kilometer limit was because I booked my car-hire on a third-party site that didn’t do a good job of communicating terms and conditions. After the trip, I did some research and discovered that the hire car companies’ own websites are usually more up-front about hidden costs. It’s also easier to book hire car insurance directly through the company website; I booked my insurance with the third-party site and then had to go through a big rigamarole to get reimbursed for the flat tire.
So keep it simple: Use third-party sites to compare prices, but go right to the company’s website to make your booking.
Then have a great time on your trip.
This post is sponsored by Around About Cars. Opinions expressed are mine. To rent a car with Around About Cars and explore South Africa’s Wild Coast (Around About Cars offers unlimited kilometers – yay!), click here: Car Rental South Africa.