Here are a dozen suggestions every traveler to Europe should consider when making car rental decisions.
Avoid Automatic Transmission
A compact cars with automatic transmission in Germany can be as much as 80 percent more than standard transmission. Germany is a fairly extreme case but cars with automatic transmissions command a higher price everywhere in Europe.
Avoid Airport Pickups
Commence your rental at a European airport and you're likely to pay a tax of 14% to 20%. Notable exceptions are France, Spain, Ireland, the U.K. and Holland where the airport and rail station charges are about $35 to $80. In Germany, on the other hand, the midsize VW Passat you can get at an off-airport location in Germany for $275 costs $330 at an airport or rail station, thanks to a 20% tax. This so-called "premium station" fee also often applies to rail stations. It's worth noting there is no extra charge for dropping off a car at a "premium station."
Avoid Sunday Rentals
The vast majority of off-airport rental car locations in Europe are closed on Sundays, making it likely you have to pay an expensive airport pickup charge if you plan to start a rental on that day.
Avoid Small Towns
Fewer cars to choose from and less savvy agents make renting a car in a small town a bit more adventurous than in Europe's major cities. For example, the small-town rental agent is less likely to be familiar with your Auto Europe voucher and, as a result, you may find charges on your credit car bill you didn't plan on (nothing, however, that can't easily be resolved back in the U.S.). A bigger problem is the skimpy selection of cars. You may have a confirmed reservation for a car with automatic transmission but some smaller stations don't have them in their fleets; they are brought in on as-needed basis. Occasionally the system breaks down and when the renter arrives there simply is no automatic available. When that happens, the customer is left with what's on hand and if there's no automatic....
Avoid Small Companies
Most of the rental cars in Europe belong to the "big" 3: Europcar, Avis, and Hertz. Sixt is big in Germany and growing rapidly elsewhere. National is mostly limited to major towns and airports. We recommend sticking with these five. If your car breaks down, you want to be as close to help—and a replacement car—as possible. Avis, for example, has more than 350 locations in Germany alone. Thrifty, on the other hand, has offices that the company says "serve airports in Munich, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt" and "20 other suburban locations." Suppose you're somewhere up around the Baltic and the transmission in your Opel starts making noises like a wounded cat. Would you rather it be an Avis or a Thrifty rental car?
Make sure, too, that if you're picking up a car at an airport, your chosen company really is at the airport. In Germany, for example, smaller suppliers such as Thrifty and Dollar require you to phone from the airport and request a shuttle ride to their off-airport location. That means you'll ride the shuttle both ways, the start of the rental and at the end. For the most part, the major companies mentioned above all have rental counters and vehicles right at the airport; you'll sign the contract and walk to your car.
Think Twice Before Booking a Full-Size Category Car
If it's a nicer car you want, then go for it, spend the money. But if it's space you're after, think twice before renting a full-size, luxury and premium category car. The price increase from midsize to full size is substantial. In Germany, the base price for a midsize station wagon is $219 without tax and $477 for a full size wagon. And, though most rental companies slot the BMW 320 wagon into the "full size" category, it has slightly less luggage space than the midsize Opel Vectra wagon. Read the myth of the full-size car.
Stick With One Driver
Most, but not all, rental companies charge a fairly substantial fee if you want to list more than one driver on the rental contract. My foregoing "best deal" price of $230 is not so good if there will be more than one driver. Avis in Germany, for example, charges $20 a day to a max of $140 for additional drivers. Europcar in Germany allows immediate family members to drive free, and Sixt doesn't charge at all in Germany for extra drivers.
Be Careful About International One-Way Rentals
Two problems with a one-way rental between countries: it can be expensive and sometimes is simply not possible. The one-way charge is always in addition to other rental charges and can range from around $70 to $4,000. At the lower end of the scale are one-ways between such cities as Munich and Zürich, Paris and Frankfurt. Figure anything involving Italy, former eastern-bloc countries, and Scandinavian countries will be expensive. If you decide to do an international one-way, stick to major cities. One-ways involving small cities are frequently not possible or much more expensive. Recently a customer slated to drop a Frankfurt car in Paris decided to instead leave it in Tours. The one-way fee went from $125 to $350. One-way rentals within the same country, however, are almost always free.
Request a Diesel
Diesel engines are no longer noisy, smelly and underpowered and they get great mileage. The fuel is cheaper than gas in Europe and available at every service station. For the most part, you can't guarantee a diesel but you lose nothing by asking and, depending on the country and vehicle, you have about a 50-50 chance of getting one. Important Tip: Be sure to fill up with fuel just before turning in the car. Rental companies in Europe are currently charging about double the gas station rate if they have to refuel returned vehicles.
Forget Having the Rental Car Delivered to Your Hotel
Yes, in past years this was a nice convenience that some rental companies offered as a free service. Now, however, you'll pay at least $35 and what if the delivered car isn't what you want? If you go yourself to the rental car station, you'll likely have a choice of cars.
Remember, Germany Has the Best Rental Car Deals
Though your itinerary may limit your choice, it's still useful to know which countries have the best rental car rates. Generally speaking, Italy has the highest prices and Germany the lowest. Recently we had a customer who was flying to Florence via Munich. The car he wanted in Italy was going to cost him almost double what it would cost in Germany. He decided to ditch his Munich-Florence flights and drive to Italy from Munich.
Rely on a Credit Card for Collision & Theft Insurance
This is old advice we've been handing out ever since credit card companies started insuring car renters who use their cards to pay for rental cars. The car rental company covers third-party liability and fire, but the renter is responsible for the car itself. You can purchase insurance offered by the rental company, but it's expensive and has a high deductible, typically in the $750 to $2000 range. Your credit card is free and there is no deductible. You are simply reimbursed for any damage or loss—but be sure to check that your card offers CDW and theft coverage and that you decline the rental company's offer of insurance. There is no choice, however, in Italy. You must purchase the insurance and most credit cards will not cover cars rented in Ireland.
For the Internet's best advice on European car rental, see our FREE special report “What You Should Know About Renting a Car in Europe.”
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