Readers often ask me about renting cars in Europe.
For the last ten years I’ve only been renting cars in Italy, so my experience is more Italo-centric, but the same principles apply all over Europe, and were I to find myself renting a car in Spain or in France or anywhere else that I travel to, this is how I would tackle it.
Tips For Renting Cars In Europe
Before you book your rental car do some research on the places you are planning on going. Europe has a really fantastic rail system with networks of fast trains than run between cities and also from country to country, and they also have small regional trains. If you are staying in big cities cars may not only be unnecessary, but also a complete hassle.
Get An International Drivers License Before You Leave Home.
If you will be renting a car you normally will need an International Drivers License/Permit. You can get one at your local AAA office.
*** If you want to rent scooters while you are on vacation make sure that your International Drivers License specifies that you are permitted to drive one. Scooter rental places often won’t rent to you without this on your permit.
Rent Directly From The Company
Be careful not to unwittingly book your car through a third party company. A couple of years ago I thought I had rented from Hertz because I had rented a Hertz rental car. When I arrived at the Hertz office in Milazzo, Sicily to pick up my car, there were none. Cars hadn’t been returned, and it was high season, so none of the rental companies in any of the surrounding towns had cars available. When I called the Hertz customer service number they said they couldn’t help me because I hadn’t booked through them, but instead had booked through a third party company.
Luckily for me there were other travelers in the office, yelling and screaming at the poor boys working there (it wasn’t the employees’ fault that there were no cars!) and I have a personal policy of always being really nice, even when things are going horribly wrong, so the boys at Hertz tried to help me and managed to get me the last available car at Catania Airport, and helped me to get to Catania.
Always, always be nice to people, no matter what is going on!
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Don’t Pay In Advance
In the situation in Milazzo I noticed that the other travelers who were stranded had all paid in advance for their cars. This put them all in a space where they had to try and recoup their money when they got home, as well as not having a car while away. If you are paying at the counter and for some reason there is no car for you, you at least still have your money intact.
The discount for paying in advance is tiny anyway, so you’re not really saving anything much.
Pick Up And Return Your Car At the Airport
You have easier access to the freeways, and the non airport locations often close for the day if they don’t have many bookings, which can leave you stranded! (which happened to us once in Florence)
Airport car rental offices tend to both be open and have cars. This is also a benefit when returning your car. You don’t want to be leaving a car in the street outside the rental office if it’s closed.
Rent A Diesel
Diesel cars in Europe are amazing! They get brilliant gas mileage and cost much less to run. Gas in Europe is very expensive, often as much as $7 per gallon. (although they measure in liters).
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Rent A Small Car
Rent a small vehicle, not a U.S. sized bigger one. Cities, towns and villages over there have smaller, narrower roads and tiny parking spaces. On my last trip we rented Fiat 500 XLs, Fiat 500s and little Citroens which were so fun to drive and you can park them anywhere! The year before I had an Alpha Romeo that was faster than the devil.
Buy The Super-Cover Insurance
Seriously, buy the maximum insurance. I’ve read about people having their passports withheld until they come up with €3000 deductibles. The locals aren’t necessarily likely to crash into you, but other travelers are!
Don’t Trust Siri
Don’t rely on Siri for GPS. She is relatively good, but misses some big stuff. The highway exits over there are miles apart, so missing your exit can take an hour out of your trip.
If you do use Siri read the next instruction ahead of time – they have shorter distances and more cars, so you need to know which direction you are turning a while before you get there, or it can be a mess! Also, street signs over there can be tiny and very hard to find/read/decipher. I always use the “in 400 feet turn left” rather than “turn left on via Scandacci” option.
Keep Coins On Hand
Keep lots of coins on hand. You go through many toll booths on the highways there, and they sometimes only take change not cards. Also the exchange rate fees and international fees on your credit cards make it totally not worth while.
Don’t Leave Anything In The Car
When you park your car and go exploring town or head into a cafe or restaurant, or any time you are leaving your car, keep everything out of sight. Put all bags, phones, sweaters, shoes – anything and everything, in the trunk. Depending on where you are in Europe there are gypsies, tramps and thieves who will break into your car for the stupidest things. You may think a sweater and a hat is nothing worth stealing, but it is if you have nothing. The same with food and drink – if someone is hungry or can’t feed their family and there’s food inside a car, chances are they may break in to get it. It doesn’t hurt to be careful just in case!
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Rent A Stick Shift
In Italy they seem to automatically give Americans cars with automatic transmissions. I always get a manual/stick because they are far more fun to drive over there. Here in the US I drive an automatic, but when I’m in Italy I love buzzing around in a stick shift!
If you have any extra tips for renting cars in Europe or if you have any experiences you’d like to share, please leave me a comment!