While most European travel dreams come with a clickety-clack soundtrack, and most first trips are best by rail, you should at least consider the convenience of driving. Behind the wheel you’re totally free, going where you want, when you want.
Driving runs circles around trains on countryside-focused trips. The super mobility of a car saves you time in locating budget accommodations in small towns and away from the train lines. This savings helps to rationalize the “splurge” of a car rental. You can also play it riskier in peak season, arriving in a town late with no reservation. If the hotels are full, you simply drive to the next town. And driving is a godsend for those who don’t believe in packing light … you can even rent a trailer.
Every year, as train prices go up, car rental becomes a better option for budget travelers in Europe. While solo car travel is expensive, three or four people sharing a rented car will usually travel cheaper than the same group using rail passes.
Renting a Car
Renting a car in Europe tends to be more expensive and more complicated than in the United States, thanks to Byzantine insurance options and other additional fees. But once you’re free and easy behind the wheel of a European car, it’s worth the hassle.
European cars are rented for a 24-hour period, usually with a 59-minute grace period. Cars are most economical when rented by the week with unlimited mileage (sometimes five or six days cost the same as a week). Daily rates are generally quite high; typically, the longer you rent for, the less it’ll cost per day. For the best deal on long-term rentals, book in advance from home (easy to do online, or through your travel agent). Various rail-and-drive passes, which allow you to rent a car one day at a time at one-seventh the reasonable weekly rate, can be a good option. If you decide to rent a car on the spot, try calling around to local car-rental agencies (get a list of phone numbers from the tourist information office), or book through a travel agency.
There’s no way to chart the best car-rental deals. Rates vary from company to company, month to month, and country to country. The cheapest company for rental in one country might be the most expensive in the next. You’ll need to do some comparison-shopping to figure out which one is best for your trip.
Most of the major U.S. rental agencies (including Alamo/National, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz, and Thrifty) have offices throughout Europe. You can request a quote from each company, or to narrow it down more quickly, start by searching on a travel-booking site, like Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak or AAA.
It can be cheaper to use a consolidator, like Auto Europe or Europe by Car. Consolidators compare rates among various companies (including many of the big-name firms), find the best deal, and — because they’re wholesalers — pass the savings on to you. You pay the consolidator, and they issue you a voucher to pick up your car in Europe. There is a trade-off for lower prices: With a consolidator, you’re working with a middleman rather than directly with the vendor. This can make it more challenging to modify your reservation or register a complaint. Some readers have reported that consolidators can be of little assistance in the event of a problem with the rental company.
After you determine which companies seem to offer the best combination of rates, service and office locations for your trip, visit their individual websites or talk with their representatives to compare. Be warned that it can be difficult for you to easily determine a total cost for comparison. Read everything carefully; the fine print can conceal a host of common add-on charges, like one-way drop-off fees or airport charges. You may need to query rental agents pointedly to find out your actual cost.
Just as it can make sense to fly into one city and out of another, you can start and end your car rental in different cities. For maximum options, use a bigger company with offices in many cities. While dropping off in another country can incur an extra fee, there’s typically no extra charge to do this within the same country — but always ask when you reserve, just in case.
When picking up your car, always check the entire vehicle for scratches, dings and the gas level. If anything is not noted on the rental agreement, return to the counter to make adjustments. When you drop off the car, walk around the car again with the attendant to be sure there are no new problems. Otherwise, unexpected charges might show up on your credit-card statement. These are easier to dispute when the information is documented. Ask for a copy of the final condition report and keep it until you’ve seen your credit card statement. On that same note, try to avoid dropping off your car after hours (at a drop box); it’s best to finalize the rental and receive the paperwork in person.
Red Tape and Restrictions
Driver’s Licenses and International Driving Permits: Your American or Canadian driver’s license is all you need in most European countries, but some countries also require you to have an International Driving Permit (IDP), which provides a translation of your license — making it easier for the cop to write out the ticket. You can get an IDP at your local American Automobile Association or Canadian Automobile Association office ($15 plus the cost of two passport-type photos). The AAA is authorized by the U.S. State Department to issue the permits; avoid scam artists peddling overpriced, fake international licenses.
Exactly where you need an IDP depends on who you talk to. People who sell them say you should have them almost everywhere. People who rent cars say you need them almost nowhere (though in some countries — like Spain and Italy — it’s possible you may be asked to show the permit to pick up your car). People who drive rental cars say the IDP is overrated, but can come in handy as a complement to your passport and driver’s license. Those driving in Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Spain are technically required to carry a permit and could be fined if found without one. While that’s the letter of the law, I’ve rented cars in dozens of countries without an IDP — and have never been asked to show one. Even if you have an IDP, remember that you must carry your American or Canadian driver’s license as well.
Age Limits: Minimum and maximum age limits for renting a car vary by country, type of car and rental company. Younger renters can get stuck with extra costs, like being required to buy extra insurance or pay a surcharge of $14 to $39 a day (fortunately, there are usually maximum surcharge limits). Most companies will not rent a car to someone under 21 (there are exceptions — depending on the country and type of car — and a surcharge may apply), but those who are at least 25 years old should have no problem. Drivers over 70 may have trouble renting in the Czech Republic, Great Britain, Greece, Northern Ireland, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey. If you’re over 69, you may pay extra to rent a car in the Republic of Ireland, where the official age limit is 75 (but people 75-79 can rent if they provide extensive proof of good health and safe driving). If you’re considered too young or too old, look into leasing (explained later), which has less stringent age restrictions. (If you’re traveling to Ireland, the closest leasing option is in London.) The student-oriented STA Travel is a good option for young renters (tel. (800) 781-4040).
Crossing Borders: As Europe’s internal borders fade, your car comes with the paperwork you need to drive wherever you like in Western and much of Eastern Europe (always check when booking). But if you’re heading to a country in far eastern or southeastern Europe that still has closed borders (like Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Montenegro), state your travel plans up front to the rental company when making your reservation. Some companies may have limits on eastward excursions (for example, you can only take cheaper cars, and you may have to pay extra insurance fees). When you cross these borders, you may be asked to show proof of insurance (called a “green card”). Ask your car-rental company if you need any other documentation for crossing the borders on your itinerary.
Some rental companies allow you to take a rental car from Britain to the Continent or to Ireland, but be prepared to pay high surcharges and extra drop-off fees. If you want to drive in Britain, Ireland and on the Continent, it’s usually cheaper to rent three separate cars than one, thanks to the high cost of taking cars on ferries (between Ireland and Britain) and crossing under the English Channel via the pricey Eurotunnel.
Leasing and Buying
Leasing (technically, buying the car and selling it back) gets around many tax and insurance costs and is a great deal for people needing a car for three weeks or more. For trips eight weeks and longer, leasing can even be more economical than rail passes. Leases are available for periods up to six months. Prices include all taxes, as well as zero-deductible theft and collision insurance (comparable to CDW) — and you get to use a new car. Leased cars can most easily be picked up and returned in France, but for an additional fee you can also lease cars in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Great Britain.
Europe by Car, which invented leasing more than 50 years ago, still offers good deals (for example, you can lease a Citroen C3 in France for as few as 17 days for about $1,050, about $61 a day; tel. (800) 223-1516). Renault Eurodrive offers similar deals. In general, the longer you lease the car, the lower the price (a 60-day lease can be as inexpensive as $35 per day).
Although Americans rarely consider this budget option, Aussies and New Zealanders routinely buy used cars for their trips and sell them when they’re done. The most common places to buy cars are Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London and U.S. military bases. In London, check Craigslist, the used-car market on Market Road (Tube: Caledonian Road) and look in London periodicals, like Loot, which lists used cars as well as jobs, flats, cheap flights and travel partners.
Campers: Consider the advantage of a van or motor home, which gives you the flexibility to drive late and just pull over and camp for free. Fairly cheap to run, these vehicles use diesel — about two-thirds the cost of gasoline, but much better mileage (24–30 mpg average). For tips on camping and camper-van rentals, see Camping European Style.
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