By Jim Ferri
While it’s usually relatively easy for an American or Canadian to decide on a car rental in North America, doing the same in Europe can sometimes be quite challenging.
This is because many of us are unfamiliar with the European car models offered by rental companies and pricing and fees charged can differ greatly from country to country.
In addition, other restrictions are also placed on rentals in some countries. For example, if you rent a high-value car some companies will not allow you to drive it out of the country. And there are also age and insurance issues you need to be aware of (for a review of car-rental insurance see Should You Buy Insurance When Renting a Car?)
So if you’re thinking about renting a car in Europe this summer, as many of us are, it’s well worth your while to begin your planning now. Here’s a primer to help you plan your summer drive.
Choose the Right Company
It’s one of the first issues you’ll encounter: is it best to save on rental costs by going with a small local agency or stick with one of the larger companies whose name you know?
For travelers it’s often wisest to choose a large well-known company such as Avis, Hertz, Enterprise, Auto Europe or European-based Sixt. They’ll usually have longer opening hours than a local agency (often 24 hours per day at the larger facilities such as airports), have a wider selection of vehicles and be better able to handle any special requests you may have.
You’ll also often find that their staffs are more fluent in English and they’ll also provide you with a copy of the contract in English (you always want a copy of a contract in English), which is not always the case with a small local agency.
While with the larger companies you’ll find European versions of Fords and Chevys, they also rent other models you may be unfamiliar with such as Renault, Skoda, Citroen, Lancia, etc..
Do your homework and Google the name of the car you’re being offered to ensure you’re comfortable with it and that suits your purpose. For example, to keep your luggage safe while your car is parked you don’t want a hatchback, which leaves all of your belongings lying there in plain sight. And never assume that you’ll be given an automatic since in Europe automatic transmissions are a rarity and you’ll usually pay a surcharge for them.
Also find out in advance whether the car uses gasoline or diesel fuel. Adding the wrong fuel to your tank could wind up costing you plenty in repairs.
Be Aware of Age (and Other) Restrictions
As in North America, drivers under 25 years old will normally be charged a surcharge or be required to purchase extra insurance on car rentals in Europe.
But there are restrictions at the other end of the spectrum as well. If you’re 70 years or older, you can be precluded from renting a car in the Czech Republic, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Turkey. In Northern Ireland some car companies charge an additional fee if you’re over the age of 70.
In some countries including Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Spain you’re technically required to carry an International Drivers Permit (oftentimes mistakenly referred to as an International Drivers License). It’s not really a license, just a translation of your state license, that assures the police that your state license is real and valid. You can acquire it in person or via mail through the American Automobile Association, National Automobile Club or Canadian Automobile Association. You’ll also need to have your American or Canadian’s driver’s license with you at all times, as well.
While it’s likely that you’ll never be asked for your IDP when you rent a car, if you get into an accident or are ever stopped by the police in a country where it’s required, you may be glad you have along with you.
Plan Your Insurance Coverage Before You Leave Home
You expose yourself to considerable financial risk if you don’t have insurance when renting a car. An accident could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even more.
While in the USA and Canada the collision insurance we carry on our private vehicles usually covers cars we rent, it normally does not in Europe so you need to check with your insurance agent before leaving home. If you do not have European coverage it’s wise to buy coverage through the rental agency or another company.
American Express offers one of the better insurance programs. Its Premium Car Rental Protection program provides primary insurance protection on a rental car up to $75,000 coverage ($100,000 with its Platinum card) for damage or theft. The cost is also comparatively low – a flat rate of $24.95 per rental for a period of up to 42 consecutive days, which is much lower than that charged by most rental agencies.
Enroll in the program and you’re automatically insured anytime you use any of your Amex cards for a rental. Be aware, however, that this program does not cover vehicles that are rented in Ireland and Italy.
Be Careful of These Violations
In some European cities, such as historic centers in some of Italy’s larger cities, you’ll see a sign with a red circle with a slash through it. It’s an indication that only a registered vehicle (usually a local resident or merchant) is allowed to drive in the area.
Check the sign to see if it’s a permanent embargo or only restricts traffic during specific hours. Although you may not always be stopped if you drive through at a time not allowed, a camera my photograph your car and you’ll be getting a ticket when you return home.
Be careful where you park, as well. In many places officials are quite strict about enforcing parking regulations so read all posted signs carefully. You don’t want to return to your car and find it ticketed or booted.
And one last thing about violations: if you’re stopped for speeding in some countries, be prepared to pay a fine on the spot. Credit cards are usually accepted.