How to Rent a Car in Europe

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Although Europe has an excellent series of rail networks (which I recently wrote about in this post about Eurail Passes), to really get out in the wilderness and explore the continent you’re going to need to rent a car.

Having your own car and not being restricted by train timetables gives you and immense amount of freedom as you’ll be able to go where you want, when you want. This means that you can travel at your own pace and visit all of those out-of-the-way villages that would be impossible to reach otherwise.

As you would expect, the road networks in Europe are excellent making driving a breeze (as long as you remember which side of the road to stay on!) In addition to this, countries such as Italy and Switzerland boast some of the most breathtaking roads you’re ever likely to see (particularly around the Alps).

Cheap car rentals in Europe are now easier to find than ever thanks to websites such as Kayak.com.

Alps

Things You Need to Consider Before Renting a Car

Do You Have the Right Driving License?

Note that to rent car in Europe having an American or Canadian driving license is usually sufficient, although it can be beneficial to also have an International Driving Permit.

Are Your Old Enough?

In most countries the legal driving is a lot lower than the age you have to be to rent a car. For example, in most places in Europe you have to be at least 21 years of age before you’re allowed to rent a car, although it’s preferable to be 25+ years of age as drivers under 25 will be charged extra (usually $15-35 extra per day).

How Long Do You Need the Car For?

Car rental in Europe can be extremely expensive, so it’s best to work out exactly how long you’ll need the car for beforehand (if possible). Saying that, the cost of rental usually drops pretty drastically after the first week or two.

The Price of Gas/Petrol

It’s important to remember that gas/petrol is much more expensive in Europe than it is in the USA (despite most European cars being more fuel efficient), so be sure to budget accordingly.

Additional Fees to Watch Out For

Similar to some airlines, car rental companies have a habit of adding on all sorts of extra fees after they’ve got you through the door. Here’s a examples of some extras fees to watch out for (both from car rental companies and from driving in Europe).

  • Insurance – There are several different levels of insurance and optional extras that you can get. Getting collision damage is highly recommended. Insurance will usually add on an extra $15 to $25 per day on to the overall price.
  • Unlimited mileage – Most basic prices don’t include unlimited mileage (meaning you’re restricted to how far you’re allowed to drive). In my opinion, unlimited mileage is a MUST.
  • Registering additional drivers – Each driver that’s registered will need their own insurance, so naturally you’re going to have to pay extra for this.
  • Being under 25 years of age – This will result in an added premium per day – usually $15 to $35.
  • Dropping the car off in a different place to where you picked it up – Dropping the car off somewhere else usually means the car rental company will have to drive it back themselves, so you’ll be charged a hefty premium for this privilege – usually $200 to $300.
  • Toll roads – You’ll have to pay a toll to drive on some European roads (usually highways or large bridges) – most of which cost between $3 and $30.
  • Automatic transmission – Most European cars have manual (i.e. stick) transmission, so if you want an automatic car you’ll have to pay extra (usually $100 to $250 per week).
  • GPS/Sat Nav – Having a satellite navigation system fitted to the car will cost you extra. I’m personally against these (unless you’re in a real rush) as I find it takes the fun out of driving. Getting lost occasionally and finding places you’d never normally see is half the fun.
  • Tax – This differs everywhere you go, but can be an extra 10% to 30%+ onto the total price.

How to Find Cheap Car Rental in Europe

When looking for the best cheap car rentals Europe has to offer, start by looking on the travel search engines (Kayak, Travelocity and Expedia) to get some kind of an idea as to how much you can expect to pay for your car rental. As with most things, booking in advance will often result in you getting a better deal.

Colosseum in RomeThe major European car rental companies are Auto Europe and Europcar, although most of the top American companies (such as Dollar, Hertz, Thrifty, etc.) have also made their way over and firmly planted their flag.

While most countries have their own independent car rental companies, if you intend to drop off your rental car in a different country to where you picked it up it’s best to go with an international company who will have drop-off locations all around Europe.

Note that renting a stick-shift (i.e. manual transmission) car is generally a lot cheaper than renting an automatic, due to their availability. In addition to this, if you want to rent an automatic you’ll have to give them at least a week’s notice so that they can make sure they’ve got one ready for you when you arrive.

Never pick your car up at the airport (if possible), as it’s FAR more expensive than picking it up in the city. Pay special attention to this when booking.

When the time comes to pick up the car, make sure to inspect the bodywork thoroughly for dents and any sign of damage. Rental companies won’t hold back on charging you for even the tiniest scratch, so carry out a thorough inspection and alert them to any scratches/dents that were there before you got in the car.

The Best Places to Look for Car Rentals

To summarise, here’s a list of the best places to start looking:

  • Kayak
  • Auto Europe
  • Europcar
  • Alamo
  • Avis
  • Dollar
  • Thrifty
  • Hertz

Renting a Car vs. Leasing a Car

People often use the words ‘renting’ and ‘leasing’ interchangeably – as if they mean the same thing.

In actual fact, leasing and renting are quite different. How? When you rent something it can be for as little as one day, whereas leasing implies a longer-term contract (usually the minimum short-term car lease in Europe is usually 17-21 days and the minimum long-term lease contract is 24 months).

The Advantages of Leasing a Car

  • Much cheaper than renting a car.
  • Most of the time you’ll be driving a brand new car.
  • There’s no additional fee for registering extra drivers.
  • You’ll have unlimited mileage.

The Disadvantages of Leasing a Car

  • You’ll typically have to pick up and drop off your car in France, as that’s where most short-term leasing programs operate. Dropping your car off somewhere else will result in an extra cost.
  • There’s a minimum contract length (usually 17-21+ days).
  • Leasing a car appears on your credit report (much like a loan).
  • You’re unable to swap the lease car you’re driving midway through the rental period (unlike rental cars).
  • It’s easy to end a rental early – all you have to do is return the car, whereas returning a leased car early (thus ending the contract) can be an expensive decision.

At the end of the day it’s going to come down to the price. At cost per day, renting a car is MUCH more expensive than leasing a car, but if you only need a car for the short-term you don’t have much of a choice.

The Best European Short-Term Lease Companies

  • Europe by Car
  • IdeaMerge
  • AutoEurope Peugeot Program

For more information about the difference between car rental and car leasing, check out this article.


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