Money and Markets

Car rentals: How not to get ripped off in South Africa

Business Insider SA
  • You have to keep your wits about you if you want to book a car through an online comparison website.
  • Often these sites use tricks - so-called "dark patterns" - to get you to pay more.
  • But they are useful departure points to get a good deal elsewhere.
  • Booking a car via your airline could be a good option.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA.

Renting a car is often a process fraught with complexities, misdirection, and unnecessary ad-ons and up-sells. Especially if you’re booking that car online via a rental comparison website.

These sites compare dozens of options from a variety of providers. But they are seldom the cheapest, and many use a series of techniques to bamboozle customers into making rash decisions.

In some cases, the “deals" that these aggregators reveal are significantly more than if you book directly with the car rental company. And many local airlines also offer better deals with their partner car rental agencies.

Suspicious deal hunters have also claimed that these websites use sophisticated ways inflate prices based on your location and search history.

However, they do serve as a good starting point for finding the cheapest company for your dates. 

That’s because they showcase several vehicles from a variety of rental company across the industry. You can then take your knowledge of the cheapest company directly to that site, and there’s a good chance you’ll pay less.

For example, the best deal available on for two days in August was a Kia Picanto from Bidvest Car Rental. The total cost, including full protection and an “administration charge”, came out at R1,684.83.

The same vehicle booked directly through the Bidvest website, with the same cover and over the same dates, cost just R785.

A Hyundai i10 from Tempest Car Hire is advertised at R1,693.49 by The same vehicle, on the same dates with all possible insurance cover, costs just R836.

Here are some other tips to keep in mind when booking a car:

Ignore 'urgency' tricks

One of the most common tactics on travel booking sites is to create a sense of urgency.

For a booking at Cape Town International, outside of peak tourism months, places a bold red warning, adjacent to an alarm clock, at the top of the page, that reads: “It's busy in Cape Town Airport on your dates, prices are likely to rise.”

It also includes a “tip” that reads: “Don't wait until it's too late! Book now so you don't miss out on today's price.”

An automatic pop-up notification follows this: “New Booking! A customer from South Africa has booked a car in Cape Town.”

A popular car rental website uses prompts to create a sense of urgency. continues this trend amongst the returned results, suggesting that the car you’re looking at is “in high demand”.

Travel comparison giant Kayak takes a different approach. Their popup call to action, for the same dates, suggests you’re your dates are actually a good time to book, and that you’re in for a good deal - provided you “Book your car now”.

These notifications are classic tricks - or so-called "dark patterns" - used to manipulate users into making rash booking decisions.

Unless you’re travelling on a particularly busy day, during peak tourist season, or picking up your car at a remote destination, it’s unlikely that the prompts urging you to book are anything other than sales tactics.

Filter by 'cheapest' - not 'recommended' 

Another technique common across most travel booking sites is selective deal filtering.

After clicking “Search” on almost any car rental website there’s a good chance you’ll be confronted with a long list of options. These are almost always automatically sorted by something called “Recommended”. 

Recommend deals claim to be the best deals according to terms and conditions, features, prices, and customer rankings. But they are entirely open to manipulation by the booking website.

Instead, if cost is your primary concern, it’s better to filter these results by cheapest first.

Be careful with add-ons 

After you've chosen a specific vehicle - next, you have to decide what else needs to be included, including additional drivers and baby seats.

Note: For an off-season two-day rental from Cape Town International, charges more for the baby seat and an additional driver than the daily rental price of the entire vehicle.


It’s possible to book your car without added protection from potholes, theft, and other accidental damage. But once you’ve gone through the painstaking process of whittling down your selection, choosing your extras, and clicking "book", the website presents you with a barrage of insurance scaremongering.

Although you’d be brave not to include this additional insurance, it will often double the advertised rate. And car rental companies are loath to tell you this until the very last step of the process. 

Instead, they inform you of the potential excess payable if you don’t add their super waivers - which can easily run into the tens of thousands per vehicle. 

In the case of the two-day rental in Cape Town, the insurance on is R567.61 per day - a staggering amount considering the total rental price advertised up until that point was just R226.50 per day.

Even if you upgrade to full protection, the final step of the process doesn’t reflect this amount. Instead, still claims that “this car is costing you just ZAR453.85”. 

And if you want to see your the total you’re in for, you’ll need to enter your contact details and actually book the vehicle.

Book in advance 

It pays to book as far as possible in advance, and then keep an eye on the price. Most car rental companies offer free cancellation - some right up until the day before the booking.

If you’re worried prices might go up as your booking date approaches, you can secure one or more vehicles at a specific rate long in advance. If the price goes down within the cancellation period, simply cancel your bookings and make a new one.

Book via your airline

If you’re looking for a discount in South Africa, your best bet may be to turn to your airline. Most have partnered up with car rental agencies to offer some kind of discounts to passengers. Although you should treat these with caution - it’s possible that rates are cheaper with other companies, even at full price - your air ticket can help you save around 15%. 

Read your contract

Ultimately, though, the best car rental money saving tip is to read the fine print carefully. It’s not going to save you money up front, but might save you thousands in the event of an accident.

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