Europe Car Rental 101
What to know before you hit the road in Europe.
Choose an agency. Large companies, such as Hertz and Enterprise or Europe-based Sixt, are best equipped to handle special requests (automatic transmission; GPS devices; children’s car seats). Local agencies often have lower prices but may not offer 24-hour service if something goes wrong.
Book in advance. When reserving online, check hours of operation for rental locations. Airports are usually open every day, but city-center sites may have limited hours, often closing for a few hours at midday and all day Sunday.
Get in gear. Most rental cars in Europe come with a manual transmission. When you’re booking, assume that if a car isn’t specified as automatic, it isn’t. Big agencies usually have automatics, but expect to pay a premium of 10 to 50 percent.
Insure yourself. It’s not a given that your credit card or travel insurance will automatically cover you; many policies don’t extend to expensive vehicles or rentals in certain countries, such as Italy and Ireland. You may have to buy a collision damage waiver (CDW) from the rental agency.
Traffic Violations to Watch Out For
Limited Traffic Zones: Look for circular red signs indicating areas restricted to registered vehicles (common in Italy’s historic centers). Some zones are always off-limits, while others are affected only during certain seasons or times of day. Cameras record your car, and your ticket will arrive in your mailbox months later.
Proper Equipment: Some countries require every car to contain specific items, such as a warning triangle and a reflective vest, or snow chains during winter (regardless of actual weather conditions). Ask the agency what you’ll need and make sure nothing is missing.
Speed Traps: Beware of cameras that tag speeding cars on highways and secondary roads. You might see signs depicting a police officer or a camera when entering a monitored area. If you’re pulled over, be prepared to pay your fine on the spot (cash or credit).
Congestion Fees: Certain big cities, including Stockholm and London, levy congestion charges for driving in certain zones during peak hours (typically between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays).
Road Tax: If you plan to visit Central Europe (including Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland), you will need a “vignette” sticker on your car as proof of road-tax payment. Ask your rental-car company for one, or buy one at the border.
Getting Around the City
Taxis: Prebook a ride on cabforce.com in 71 European cities or use apps MyTaxi and Hailo. Fans of Uber with cell service abroad can use the app in 14 cities, including Milan and Munich, but foreign-transaction fees may apply.
Car Sharing: Zipcar members can now unlock vehicles in London and Barcelona. In Germany, choose between a BMW or a Mini Cooper with DriveNow, or try an eco-friendly Smart car with Car2Go (sign up in participating U.S. cities). In France, try the Buzzcar, a peer-to-peer car-sharing app.
Public Transportation: The free Metro app offers preloaded guides for local transport in 400 cities.
Bike Sharing: Programs are ubiquitous and affordable in Europe: a day pass for Antwerp’s Velo bikes costs less than $5.