Renting a car is now easier and more affordable than ever before. Whether you need a set of wheels for a business trip, a holiday or simply to get around, the number of outlets competing for your business can make the experience a little confusing. These top tips however will make it easier.

1. Choose your car

Finding your nearest rental firm couldn't be easier than picking up the Yellow Pages or clicking a search engine. Look for firms with a good reputation, smart appearance and cars that seem well maintained.

If landing at an airport, don't just walk up to the first car hire desk you see. Get quotes from a selection in the arrivals hall before you decide. If nothing else, it will give you a quick impression of which companies are the most efficient and helpful.

Most of the big name rental companies offer a wide selection of vehicles ranging from city cars up to plush executive motors and spacious people carriers. Prices will, obviously, reflect the step up in quality.

With weekends and school holidays traditionally two of the busiest times of the year, it pays to book early to secure you preferred class of car. It's sometimes possible to be able to request a specific model, but as cars are often grouped according to size and class, making a more general selection should usually suffice.

2. Ask about deals

Don't forget to ask about any promotions that may be running, as it's likely that hiring over a weekend, bank holiday or for an extended period could result in a discount.

Weekend rates are some of the most popular, and companies often extend their collection policies to allow you to pick up a car on a Friday afternoon and return it on the following Monday.

3. Check your dates

Whatever dates you choose, make sure the financial penalty for returning a car late is explained, as a regular 'day' is usually 24 hours and strictly adhered to. Stray over that period and it's likely that you'll be charged a significant sum for turning up late.

4. Don't forget insurance

The other cost to bear in mind is that of insurance. Just like conventional car insurance there are often restrictions and variations in price depending upon a driver's age and type of car. Ask for a fully inclusive price to find out precisely how much you'll end up paying and, most importantly, the size of the excess payment in the event of a bump.

Most large companies will quote an all-inclusive price as standard, but others still insist on doing it all separately as the lower price is guaranteed to grab your attention. If you see a price that looks too good to be true - it probably is.

5. Time to pay!

Paying for a rental car is simple - assuming you have a credit card plus a utility bill and driving licence for identification purposes.

Plastic is the preferred method of payment as, like with most hire agreements, a refundable deposit is required. Failure to bring the car back in an acceptable condition will cause you to forfeit some - if not all - of a deposit that usually runs to a few hundred pounds. And you don't want to be carrying around that amount in hard cash, do you?

6. Get a guided tour

This is especially important if the controls look unfamiliar. Before you drive off, it's also a good time to take a good look around for any damage. Unless you point it out now you could be liable for it at the end of the loan period.

7. Double check the small print

One final point before you motor off into the distance; don't forget to find out what the company's policy on refuelling is. It's common these days to be presented with a full tank of juice, which means the car must also be full when it's returned. Failure to comply will land you with a hefty bill as rental companies charge more for fuel than your average filling station.