Renting a car in Europe? T+L's Andrea Bennett can save you money and more than a few headaches
If you rent cars in the united states with any frequency, not much can catch you off guard. But with different driving regulations, rental requirements that vary by country, and unexpected costs, renting a car in Europe can vary drastically from what you might be used to. Factor these considerations in to your next trip, whether following an itinerary in "Four Great European Drives" or your own route.
How to Save
The cardinal rule of renting a car in Europe: Book ahead from the United States. Rates for U.S. travelers who book stateside can be as much as 50 percent lower than local prices. This is important since you may pay for extras that would likely be included at home, such as an automatic transmission and air-conditioning. At press time, the least expensive automatic at Charles de Gaulle was Alamo Rent A Car's Citroën C3, at $480.74 for seven days (a manual was $398.62). An economy car with air conditioning at Dollar Rent A Car was $43 more per week than a car without it. Also, try to reserve a diesel car—you'll save around 20 percent on fuel (now upwards of $6.65 per gallon).
Driving a rental car across country borders carries some restrictions. (Even in the United States, you may be charged if you travel out of an agency's allowed region; it's tracked by the vehicle's GPS system.) Most car-rental companies will limit your coverage when traveling from Western to Eastern Europe, allow you to take only cheaper cars, and may require supplemental insurance. If you're driving from Britain to the Continent, you'll likely pay high surcharges and drop-off fees. Be sure to get written permission on-site from the rental location to drive the car out of the U.K.
Licenses and Permits
Your American driver's license is all you need in most Western European countries, though if you're driving in Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, and much of Eastern Europe, you risk being fined for driving without an international permit. Even if a country doesn't require it, consider getting one ($15 from AAA).
You already know to check the coverage from your auto insurance and credit card companies before taking optional insurance from a rental agency. But read the fine print in your credit card agreement: Visa's policy excludes Ireland, Israel, and Jamaica; MasterCard and American Express also don't cover those countries, adding Italy, Australia, and New Zealand.
Country-Specific Driving Laws
Each nation has its own rules. French police, for instance, can confiscate your car if you are driving 18 mph or more over the speed limit. Last year, National Car Rental launched a Web site, Nationaldrivesafe.com, that outlines the rules of the road in 43 countries worldwide. ✚
While major rental agencies like National, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Avis Rent A Car, and Hertz say that they'll locate a car or upgrade you at no charge if the model you reserved isn't available, no contract binds them to it. If they run out, you could be on your own. Exceptions: Hertz, who now issues a special guarantee that your car will be there ($100 hold placed on your credit card); and Travelocity.
Reserve as far in advance as possible. Car rentals, much like airline ticket prices, work on a yield-management model, where decreas–ing availability increases prices. Walk-up prices can be as much as 30 percent higher than reserved prices.
Avis renters can order a complimentary 32-page driving guide to Europe (800/698-5674; order 21 days prior to departure).
For around $13, you can subscribe to the European Speed Camera Database (scdb.info), which provides plug-ins to navigation systems (like TomTom and Magellan). It will warn you of speed traps.
Worried about the environment, and spending extra money on fuel?Compare the miles per gallon and carbon emissions for cars at Fueleconomy.gov