London car hire

Image by Mundus Gregorius via Flickr

Although public transport in London is generally recognised as being of an acceptable standard, there are occasions when thoughts of hiring a car become necessary. It may be that the service provided by trains and buses are inadequate for the required journey and the only available option is car rental. Hiring a car in the UK is usually fairly straightforward but as with any purchase there are steps to be followed to ensure that it is a rewarding experience.

Basic requirements

With many car rental firms the minimum age for a prospective client is 25 years old (but it depends on the type of car you hire) and in possession of a full driving license for at least a year. For non UK citizens, a license from the country of origin will be needed or if there is a degree of difficulty in reading this, an international driving license may be required. It may even be necessary to obtain documentation from the relevant embassy.

Some firms will even insist on a UK driving license when a foreign worker has lived in the country for more than a year. Another prerequisite for expats may be the provision of two examples of proof of address identification for which household bills will suffice.

A credit card is also required for the deposit, and it is worth noting that according to the Consumer Credit Act, the credit card company can be liable for any misadventures on transactions over £100.

Points to consider when hiring a car

  • Insurance –  A firm may provide its own policy and include an excess waiver, but you should check exactly what their standard insurance covers and make sure to read the small print. It may even be worth completing a private insurance policy with companies such as Direct Line.com and Churchill.
  • Is a free tank of fuel part of the deal?
  • Should you fill up with diesel or petrol?
  • Are children’s seats inside the car?
  • Are a range of vehicles available?
  • Do you need to pay the the congestion charge?
  • Check for any additional charges such a late delivery, especially when a planned journey in heavy traffic is expected.
  • Is the car fitted with an easily workable sat nav?
  • Ensure that a full inspection of the car is completed with the salesman before driving the car and any visible defaults agreed upon.
  • Check for any surcharges that may be applied above a certain mileage.
  • Is there any cover for mechanical breakdown, as some firm may charge a nominal fee (eg) £5 for tyre cover, in the event of a puncture?

Driving in London

The most important aspect of motoring in the UK is driving on the left side of the road. It can appear strange at first especially when hiring a British car with controls on the right of the interior. Although automatic cars can be hired, most vehicles will be fitted with a gear stick which is operable by the left hand and a clutch via the left foot. The handbrake will be next to the gear stick.

Other rules to consider include…

  • Speed – 30 miles per hour (48 km per hour) is the basic driving speed in the UK unless otherwise stated. In some housing estates and near to schools, this limit may be reduced even further to 20 mph. On motorways a 70 mph (112 km per hour) is imposed and on single carriageways there is a 60mph (96 km per hour) limit. There are usually round signs with a number to indicate the appropriate limit for an area
  • Speed cameras – By law, fixed speed cameras are only fitted at accident black-spots, but there are moveable speed cameras and specially adapted cameras used by police. There will normally be a sign indicating their presence, so slowing down to the limit speed is essential. A £60 fine and 3 penalty points is usually applicable for offences, but speed awareness courses have been introduced as an alternative and for the same charge but with no points incurred.
  • Roundabouts – These can assume many different sizes including mini-roundabouts, but the basic rule is to give way to traffic from the right at the approach, and then it is right of way once driving on the roundabout. Indicating to leave the roundabout is accepted as general practice. Generally speaking, give way to oncoming vehicles from the right.
  • Road signs – These will be in English, although when in Wales there is dual signage in English and Welsh. All distance indicators are in miles and not kilometres.
  • Flashing lights – If an approaching car slows and the driver is flashing the car lights in your direction, it is usually a signal that you can have right of way. When there is no clear understanding of the right of way, flashing lights are a sign of courtesy and manners. This often happens at motorway or dual carriage way slip roads when a car driver invites you join the main road by flashing the headlights. A returning thank you gesture with a wave of the hand is considered an appropriate response.
  • Overtaking – All overtaking manoeuvres should be to the right of the relevant car. Overtaking on the left is considered as undertaking and is actually illegal in the UK. This is a point to consider when driving on a 3 lane motorway.
  • Car horn – Remember that the use of a car horn is prohibited in built-up areas from 23:30 to 07:00.
  • Parking – Any roadside with double yellow lines is a prohibited parking area. A single yellow line or broken line will have time restrictions displayed nearby. Don’t park in restricted parking zones, because the fine can be very expensive. There may also be marked bays in the street which means that this parking area is metered. If you see the “Pay & Display” sign, get a ticket for the amount of parking time you need from the machine (note that often the paying machines do not give change so put in the correct amount) and display that ticket on your car’s dashboard or windscreen. It is generally considered good manners to leave a reasonable gap between the front and rear cars when resorting to on-street parking.
  • Bus lanes – Avoid drivig in bus lanes during restricted hours. Check carefully signs on poles or lampposts by the side of the road for times when the bus lanes are available.
  • Mobile phone – Don’t use a mobile phone when driving. It’s considered to be illegal in the UK.
  • Box junctions – You must not enter the box junction (criss-cross yellow lines painted on the road ) until your exit road or lane is clear.
  • Highway Code – An essential ingredient for a full understanding of driving in the UK is a thorough read of the Highway Code.

For further information on driving in the UK and car hire in general, BVRLA and Advice Guide are worth checking. UKCISA is a very informative website for international students with emphasis on more general motoring issues. AA ( Automobile Association) is a helpful resource for directions and road rescue information. To stay informed about the traffic conditions, visit The High­ways Agency website or download their free iPhone/iPad app “Live Traf­fic Info” here.

Car rental firms

Any London airport will have a selection of the multi-national car hire firms competing against each other and offering a selection of deals and discounts. Hertz, Europcar, Avis Budget, Alamo, National Car Rental and Enterprise Rent-A-Car are typical examples but they are by no means confined to the airports.

However, most of their business is conducted on-line or by telephone and most will offer a rewards-based scheme and other promotions to encourage business.

Local garages may also offer a car hire service and may be more convenient yet they will rarely allow a one way hire unlike the multi-nationals. It will also be worth checking if the prospective car hire firm provides a delivery service to the clients address at no extra charge.

Although it may be advantageous to stay loyal to one firm to accumulate reward points and any additional benefits, it may still be advisable to obtain several quotes to secure the best deal. Several broker firms do exist using the firms mentioned above and others to find the best packages. Comparecarehire.co.uk, Carrentals.co.uk and Travelsupermarket.com received favourable reports in a Daily Telegraph survey while others worth mentioning include Rentalcars.com, AutoEurope.co.uk, Expedia.co.uk and Carhiresearch.co.uk.

Generally speaking, before delving into the process of hiring a car it is worth considering the purpose, estimated mileage and affordability of the venture. There will be some very cost-effective deals available, but it’s recommended to undertake sufficient research to allow for a rewarding experience while driving London.