What You Need to Know About Renting a Car in Europe

Jun 13, 2019

No matter where you fall on the Bond-to-Griswold scale, road-tripping through Europe has obvious appeal: going at your own pace, wherever the moment takes you, whether that’s a string of medieval hill towns, Alpine villages or the Côte D’Azure with the top down.

Still, European car rental comes with its own set of questions and considerations. Like, remember how to drive a stick? And if not, what are the odds that you’d think to ask your rental company for an upgrade (because automatic cars are, ironically, anything but the automatic choice in Europe)? For help navigating these and other issues at the continental rental counter, read on.  

The companies

You’ll find plenty of familiar names—Avis, Budget, Hertz—and if you’re a member of one, or it’s offering amazing rates, great. But don’t write off rental companies you’re less familiar with either: Europcar and Sixt have serious local name recognition (and actually, Sixt’s been making major inroads in the US, too). Either way, the idea is to go with a company with enough locations and resources that any…bumps in the road won’t leave you far from help and/or replacement wheels.

The pricing

Though you’re accustomed to sneaky add-on fees if you’ve rented anywhere on earth, some may still surprise you in Europe. For example, you may be charged €15-€50 just for driving into certain countries (typically non-EU countries). You may also be charged a fee—and require an upgrade—if you want an automatic transmission, still noticeably rarer than manual. In fact, paying 50% more for the former isn’t unusual. Point is, rates may be subject to more variables than you’re used to, so prepare to dig a bit deeper into the rental equation, plug in a few more specifics—and do a fair bit of shopping around. One good starting point: Auto Europe, which compares rates from a number of North American brands plus Europcar for your dates, pickup and drop-off points. And though you may get lucky with on-the-spot discounts, conventional wisdom holds that the best rates come from booking well in advance from home. Also, if you need an automatic and wait until you arrive to look for one, you may well be up to a crique.

The international driving permit

Not all countries require this document, but it may be worth the $20 just for the peace of mind and bonus ID (the permit—which supplements but doesn’t replace your own license—includes your name, photo, and info in 10 languages). Find out the license requirements along your route, and if you need (or just want) to, apply for the international driving permit from CAA.

The perennial insurance question

Ah, car rental insurance. Is it a scam or not? The answer can be confusing enough even in your native country, let alone on the road. In many cases, your credit card will cover both collision and theft insurance, in which case you can politely decline those options at the rental desk. But some credit cards won’t cover you in certain countries—and Italy requires every renter to purchase additional collision coverage. So again, make sure you check the policies and credit card coverage along your route before you leave home.

The vignettes you’ve never heard of

The term “vignette” comes up a lot in conversations about European road trips. Simply put, a vignette is Europe’s answer to an EZ Pass—a sticker you can buy for around €10 at most border crossings and highway-side gas stations that show you’ve paid the highway tolls. Get caught without one in the nine European countries that require them so far—Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland—and you could face fines that start at €120.

The cars themselves

It’s not just the dearth or pricing of automatics that may surprise you. What passes for a midrange car in Europe also requires a bit of a paradigm shift (away from roomy interiors and trunks). Of course, there’s a lot to be said for renting a comically compact car here—from smaller gas bills to greater maneuverability on the famously narrow, winding streets. Or, you know, just having a solid exit plan for when you’re boxed in.

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