There’s plenty to love about having a rental car in Europe. Tootling along those sun-dappled French country lanes, for example, and discovering a whitewashed Spanish village that scarcely sees a tourist. Or perhaps going off the grid in Romania or Poland.
As it happens, there are also plenty of potential headaches. Your car stuck in a gully on a rainy Sunday afternoon with not a soul around (yes, been there, done that). Or getting hefty speeding tickets and toll charges long after you arrive home.
As always, a little research goes a long way.
Do you even need a rental car?
In major and even medium-sized European cities, you’ll encounter one-way streets, foreign signs, resident-parking only, car parks that turn into street markets overnight and tow-away zones. If your hotel does have parking, you may be charged ($50 to $75 per night is not unheard of). There’s stiff competition for street parking and you may be a hike from your accommodation.
Public transport between cities in most of Europe is excellent, and using local transport lets you experience a little local life (that’s one reason you’re there, isn’t it?).
When to book
If you are going in summer or high season, the sooner you book the better. Most companies have free cancellation. In theory, the price will be lower and you’ll have a better range to choose from. In practice, when you turn up, they may not have the car you booked anyway. If they upgrade you, check that you are not paying extra.
Checking the price, choosing the company
Use aggregator sites such as Rentalcars.com or drivenow.com for comparisons. They list a range of companies, car types and what’s included in the price. Price variations can be substantial. Initial prices can look super cheap ($15 a day) but once you add all their extras (see below), not quite so cheap. And don’t forget costly fuel and tolls.
Should you book through the aggregator or direct with a hire company? Contact the rental company with the deal you’ve seen on line and ask them to price match. If you do book direct with the rental-car company you have one less layer of bureaucracy if anything goes wrong.
Ask what happens if you break down or get a flat tyre. Some companies will offer quick support and a replacement vehicle, others may charge more and be slower to assist. Some companies are charging more for insurance to cover broken windscreens or flat tyres too.
It’s tempting to go with one of the ‘big boys’ – Avis, Budget, Europcar – but some of the newer companies, such as the German Sixt, can be reliable. I’d think twice about companies such as Firefly (who?), but that’s just me.
How big, how small
If you’re 195 centimetres tall, you probably want a largish car, but a smallish car will be cheaper to hire, cheaper for petrol, cheaper if it gets a dent and – best of all – easier to park and navigate in narrow medieval streets.
Check your suitcases fit in the boot. Some European cars are tiny.
Consider whether the car has enough oomph to power along the autobahn or autostrada, or climb mountain passes, even if you have to stay in the slow lane (or the ‘shame lane’ as the Italians call it).
The big extra – the one the companies push and make their money on – is insurance, which can double the initial quote. You need insurance, but check your general travel insurance policy for the rental car excess. You may have plenty of coverage already.
Returning the vehicle to a different location? That’s extra.
How many drivers do you need? Each extra driver usually costs extra, but some companies will allow a spouse to drive for no extra charge.
Driver under 25 years, or over 75 (sometimes over 65 years) often means an extra charge.
Airport or downtown pick up? Airport pick-up costs extra (though on the plus side it’s often easier to drive away from the airport than inner-city).
A GPS or Sat-Nav? That’s extra. Or a mobile WiFi dongle so you can use your phone for Google maps or similar. Extra. A good phone internet plan will be cheaper.
Electronic toll devices
In Portugal, an electronic toll device to pay freeway tolls is essential (you can’t pay cash on the spot) and costs extra per day. In Italy, France and Spain and some other countries you have the option of hiring a toll tag, which makes using tolls easier but the tag costs extra.
Prepay or pay on pick-up
Prepay may be cheaper, but if you arrive and there is a two-hour queue (which there often can be, especially at airports or stations), or they don’t have the car you want, you are locked into the deal. Being able to walk away might be a big bonus.
Do check the car
Inspect the vehicle closely – photograph any damage and ensure it’s noted on the forms before driving away.
Check you have the legal safety requirements on board (for example, fluorescent jacket, reflective warning triangle). If you’re stopped, it’s your responsibility to have them or you face a fine. And don’t forget to pack your drivers’ licence or international driving permit (if one is required –often your home country’s licence is enough).
When you return the car, you will probably be in a rush to catch a train or plane. But allow time for someone to sign off that it all is in order.
Then heave a sigh of relief.