Depending where you travel to, you may consider renting a car. Seems simple enough, go online pick a car, the number of days, decline the insurance (because you're a good driver) and off you go! Easy there Goggles Pizano. If you think that's a good plan, you might be up for a rude awakening. Here are things to know before renting a car in Europe.
Before you book, think about two important things. Where are you staying and where do you plan on driving? Driving in a major city in Europe can be very different from what you are used to back home. Parking is also a major issue in a lot of cities. You don't want to spend most of your day driving in a big city and circling around for parking.
Consider where you are staying too. At a hotel, do their charge extra for parking? If you renting an apartment, is parking even available? It would be a unpleasant surprise to show up at your apartment only to find out there is nowhere in the area to park. So make sure you consider these details before you book a vehicle. Check out my page on the Best Ways to Get Around in Europe for other valuable information.
"That wasn't there before, I swear!"
Things to Know Before Renting a Car - The Basics
The car rental business is a supply and demand business. Location and time of year determines the price much like any other part of your trip. The summer months will be more expensive than the winter months. Weekends are generally cheaper to rent than during the week pretty much all year round. Popular places will be in high demand, meaning less cars available, therefore higher prices. This means book early and check back regularly on the pricing. Generally there are no cancellation fees (always double check). So you could find a better price, cancel the old reservation and book at the better price.
Regardless of which company you rent a car from, many things will be similar. When you start your booking process, one of the first few things you will have to consider are:
Pick Up Your Car Rental at the Airport or Not?
You will have to choose a place to pick up and drop off the car. Airports and train stations will be more expensive than other locations. Most city rental locations will charge you an additional fee to drop the car off back at the airport or even another location than the one you picked up at. Renting at an airport/train station could be as much as 20% higher. That being said, there are advantages to renting at the airport. They have extended hours. Most rental locations are open to pick up a car during all flight times so you don't have to be worried about the location being closed. You don't have to deal with the hassle and cost of getting a cab to an offsite location that isn't nearly as close as you think.
Returning the Car Rental to Another Location
Before you decide that you want to return the car to another location, check the cost of doing that. When renting a car in Europe, returning it to a different location especially, in another country, can cost hundreds of extra Euros. So make sure ask that question.
Speaking of other countries, make sure you are allowed to take the car across borders to other countries. Some companies may not let you take it to some Eastern European countries. So always ask in advance.
Here's an example. The Munich Airport is not right in Munich, much like most airports in Europe. It will cost about €63 for a cab from the airport to Munich and take 30 minutes. A train will cost €10.50 per person and take 45 minutes.
I did this in Frankfurt. Luckily I was travelling with a friend, so I left the poor guy at the airport with all our luggage to hop on a train that I had calculated would only take 20 minutes to the offsite location. One thing I didn't account for was that it was Sunday. When I got off the train I had to find the rental office. I thought the apocalypse had happened. There was not a car moving or person walking anywhere. Only pigeons and the scrolling of the advertising sign. (check out the video)
There was no apocalypse. But I did not have one person to ask where the rental place was, because no one was around and I couldn't find it. I had the address and was standing in front of the building, but I couldn't see it. It took me forever to find it.
Don't be late!
When I got into the office, the employee was not pleased with me. I was an hour late and he was there just for me. He said he almost left. That would have been disastrous. The other issue was now navigating back to the airport. My original plan was to get a SIM card at the airport and use my phone GPS to guide me. Well it was Sunday and none of the kiosks were open yet.
So I grabbed my GPS from home that I brought "just in case". Thankfully I did. I never would have found my way back to the airport. I could have saved myself all that stress and time, just picking up the car at the airport. Imagine if I were by myself or we both would have gone with all our luggage? Sweet merciful no. If you are going to be late try and let them know. When you are renting at the airport, they should ask for your flight number. If not, give it to them. That way they will know if your flight is running behind.
First of all, you have to decide, what is more important. Are you on a budget and every dollar counts? Or is time and piece of mind more important. Take the extra costs into account before discounting the airport/train station office based solely on price.
Choosing a Time to Pick up and Drop off Your Car Rental
This seems pretty simple. Just know that if you book from 10 am to 10 am you will be charged the daily rate. If you bring it back at 12pm instead of 10am, well you can see the price different below, double. The top one is 10am, the bottom one is 12pm. Play around with the times and you will see.
What Size and Type of Car Should You Book?
Size matters. But bigger isn't alwaysfirst thought will be what size do I need? If you book a smaller car you’ll often be asked if you’d like to upgrade for a small fee. That small fee is usually less than you would have paid if you booked it online originally. Also, if you decline to pay for the upgrade you’ll possibly be able to get that upgrade for free, just by being nice to the rental rep.
Small cars are costly to operate so there are often less of them available. I have never gotten the car I booked, when I went to pick up. I have always gotten something bigger. If you don’t mind ending up with a small car you should book a smaller car and hope for the free upgrade. Unless you NEED a large car, book the smallest car that would possibly work for you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you leave the lot with.
Automatic or Manual
When you are renting a car in Europe, Automatics aren't common there. They do exist, but I'm pretty sure only North American tourist drive them. Choosing an automatic will limit your options and consequently, can increase the price 20% to 205% more! I'm not saying you have to learn to drive a standard, but just be aware. Make sure you know what you are getting. You don't want to hop in your car and then realize your first stick shift lessons start now.
Diesel or Regular Gas
Most European cars run on diesel currently. Unleaded cars are available for rent and often are cheaper. In some countries, the cost of unleaded gas can be more expensive than diesel. Diesel vehicles are also way more efficient than unleaded gas, so you will get more km (miles) out of a tank, saving you money. So the savings in the cheaper rental may not balance out. Always fill up before you bring it back! Some rental companies have been known to charge over double the cost that you would at the pump.
"Do you want to be paying for your vacation for the next 10 years?"
Should I Get The Insurance When Renting a Car in Europe?
Insurance. That damn insurance. Those greedy rental companies are just out to get our hard earned dollars! Or are they.... Certainly they want the income from the sale of their coverage, but they also really just want you to be covered in the event of an accident or damages to a car. They will collect from someone in the event a car gets damaged while it's being rented. Now what you have to ask yourself is, do you want it to be you? I know, I know, you are a great driver. Yeah, maybe back home. Have you driven in some of the massive European traffic circles? What about on the left side in the U.K.? Or the Autobahn in Germany where traffic moves faster than you have ever seen?
Driving in Europe is different, don't kid yourself. Even if you are the safest driver in the world that doesn't mean those around you are. Also, European drivers are known to be aggressive drivers. Do you want to be paying for your vacation probably, for the next 10 year because, some aggressive driver smashed into your rental car? Think about it, they are recovering the $25,000 value of the car rental from someone.
Credit Card Insurance Coverage
Ah but your credit card that you paid with has free damage waiver! Problem solved! Well......maybe.
Make sure you know exactly how that credit card insurance works. Often they don't cover a truck or SUV, and almost never a moving van. That credit card also has to be valid at the time of rental. You also can't reserve with one card that has insurance and then pay when you get there with a different one, or even cash. There are lots of rules with the credit card companies, make sure you know them.
You may have personal insurance, that's okay too, as long as you know what you are covered for. Accidents and damages happen, and in the end it's on you to make sure you are covered.
Don't leave the lot without proper coverage, whether it's from the rental company, credit card company or your own personal insurance.
What Extras Do You Need For Your Car Rental?
Besides the insurance we just talked about, there are other things you may need. Prices will vary from company to company.
These are all approximates.
Learn about International Road Signs Here!
A Portable GPS
I will say one thing, having a GPS in Europe saved me numerous times. It kept me focused on driving, not street signs and maps. If you have a GPS you use at home, and you can load European maps on it, do it. As a result, my Garmin saved me time and time again in traffic circles. Between all the towns in rural areas, they have them, and they are everywhere. The biggest problem was knowing which exit to take out of the circle. If you take the wrong one, you won't know until you are at the next town. They are even harder to navigate at night. The GPS showed me clearly which exit to take, first, second, or third. It was a game changer.
My first time renting a car in Europe, it came with a GPS built in (lucky upgrade!) I sat at the side of the road just outside the airport, trying to figure it out for 20 minutes. The internal car language was defaulted to the local language so even figuring out how to just pick English was a nightmare. So in the end I got out my portable GPS from my luggage. I had preprogrammed all my accommodations and destinations into it in advance back home. Powered it up, and away we went. Using something you are familiar with, is a time saver and much safer.
If you don't have one, consider getting one. It will make all the difference. Even at the maximum charge out per week, if you were there for two weeks, you can buy one for the same cost and then you also have it for back home and other trips. Hence, it's just a worth while investment.
Personally I have always used Garmin. This one here has only North American maps. So you would have to get a European map for it. It also has lane assist which is super helpful, especially for those traffic circles.
The other thing I would highly recommend is this Adjustable Portable Phone Holder (get it here at Amazon). If you are planning on using your cell phone and Google Maps when you are there, this little holder is perfect. It fits in your hand therefore, it's not bulky and can pack anywhere. It can handle phones that are 3.5" - 6.3". So even your GPS may fit. It just attaches to the air vent of any car. I've had $40 phone and GPS holders, you know those suction cup ones? They eventually always fall off the window as a result, always while I'm driving. It. Drives. Me. Crazy. The last thing I want, is it to come flying off when I'm doing 150km/h on the Autobahn. At under $5, this little thing has been amazing. It's my go-to holder at home now too.
Don't Forget to do This Before Leaving the Lot
First of all, ALWAYS do a thorough walk around of the vehicle. It’s your responsibility as the renter to take that extra two minutes and do a really good check of the car when you pick it up. Check the bumpers for damages, look at the front windshield for stone chips and inspect the roof to make sure there isn’t a dent or hail damage. If you can, take a short video of your walk around. Document everything. The rental company has likely already done an inspection on the vehicle, but don’t leave anything to chance. BEFORE you leave the lot, report any unmentioned damages to the rental company. Rental companies are not trying to get you with damages from previous customers, but damages happen often and are occasionally missed.
Do the same inspection upon return of the vehicle, including taking a short video again. Better to be safe than sorry. "That was there before, I swear!" won't cut it.
If You Had Problems with Renting a Car
Above all, if you are not completely happy with how something went with the rental, let the rental company know. Leaving a bad review after the fact won't make the situation better for you. Most companies want their customers to be happy, repeat customers, so give them the chance to make it right. The rental company will more than likely go out of their way to get your nod of approval. Be nice and be fair, and ask for what you think your issue is worth in compensation. If you are reasonable, you’ll likely not be refused.