In Europe, the majority of Gemütlichkeit subscribers travel by auto. For two or more persons traveling together, a rental car is usually the most economical form of transport and also the most flexible.

We'll save the train vs. automobile argument for a later issue. In the meantime, here are some tips on European car rental.

General Advice: The place to start the rental is Germany. Rates there are the cheapest in Europe and the airport pickup fee is still about $12 except for Sixt and Alamo which charge, respectively, 6% and 10% of the total rental cost. Airport charges in Switzerland are 12% and in Austria 11%. Italy is the most expensive country in which to rent a car. There, you'll pay slightly more than $300 per week for a subcompact including mandatory CDW and theft insurance versus about $98 (including 16% German value added tax and using a credit card for CDW and theft insurance) for the same car in Germany.

  • Virtually every European rental car is equipped with a radio and cassette tape player. Bigger, more expensive cars may come with CD changer and/or telephone. Sunroofs can be found in all categories but requesting one at the time of booking is a waste of time. Ask when you pick up the car.
  • More and more cars in Germany are air-conditioned. Nearly all rental cars have it in Italy.
  • You'll pay substantially more for a car with automatic transmission; in some countries, Germany, for example, nearly twice as much.
  • Children must be strapped into a child's seat (even up to 12 years of age in some cases). Take your own or rent them from the rental company for about $30/rental.

Book Early: Prices are low this time of year and likely to rise April 1. In some countries and in some car categories, upgrades are available if booked prior to April 1. Don't worry if you have to change dates or cancel, the credit card chargeback laws in this country prevent you being charged for a travel service not received. Thus, if you pay a deposit or even the full rental price, you'll get it all back when you cancel.

Insurance: By law, car rental companies in Europe must provide third-party liability insurance, which is included in the basic rental charge. The renter, however, is responsible for the car. Rental companies sell CDW (collision damage waiver) and theft insurance for from about $12 to $30 per day (plus tax, of course). However, some credit cards offer this coverage free if you use the card to pay for the car. Find out from your credit card issuer whether your account carries such coverage and, if so, what the rules are for making a successful claim.

One unfortunate Gemütlichkeit reader incurred about $4,000 damage to his own rental car in Germany. He paid for the rental with a Visa card which provides the necessary coverage. However, Visa requires a claim be filed within 20 days of the accident and this our reader did not do. He is stuck with the bill.

You should also be sure the term of your rental is not longer than the coverage provided by your credit card. For example, MasterCard gold covers rentals up to 15 days. If your contract is 16 days or longer you have no collision or theft coverage. Visa gold, American Express (except most corporate cards) and Diner's Club cover rentals up to 30 days.

Gemütlichkeit recommends you decline the car rental company's offer of insurance and rely on your credit card for CDW and theft insurance, but only after first determining that you are in fact covered by your credit card for the specific rental you have in mind.

Eastern Travel: Not a big problem from Germany to Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic or Slovakia with most car rental companies (though Hertz doesn't allow such travel). However, only certain cars—usually Opels—are allowed to travel East.

If Romania, Slovenia or countries of the former Soviet Union are your destination you'll pay a somewhat higher rate.

Be sure to state your intention to visit Eastern countries at the time of booking. Those who try to take a non-authorized car into an Eastern country may find big trouble. It is illegal to even attempt to do so. Special documentation is required, even with Opels.

Last December, an unsuspecting Gemütlichkeit reader tried to take a rented Citroen ZX into the Czech Republic for a day's skiing. When told at the border that such was not possible, he, of course, realized he would have to stay in Austria. But when he asked for his car papers and passport back our reader was told the documents would not be returned and his car would be impounded.

To make a long, sad story short, after more than four hours at the border station, our man was allowed to leave with his passport but without the car, which he never saw again. Fortunately, he was accompanied by German friends who took him back into Austria where he rented another car.

In addition, he was in violation of his contract with the car rental company and his credit card was charged for the impound costs and the cost of returning the vehicle to the original pickup location.

Choosing a Car: First, understand that no car rental company will guarantee a specific make and/or model. The words "or similar" are always used in the rental confirmation and the renter is promised only a category. Here are some of the principal car categories and some info on each:

• Subcompact. Typical cars: Opel Corsa, VW Polo, Fiat Punto. O.k. for two persons who aren't interested in burning up the Autobahn. Limited trunk space. Cost: about $85* per week.

• Compact. Typical cars: Opel Astra, VW Golf, Ford Escort, Fiat Brava. Comfortable at 80 to 90 mph. Good trunk—figure one big suitcase, two small ones and maybe a garment bag and/or a soft duffel or two. Both two-door and four-door models, occasionally with a sunroof. Fine for three adults who go easy on the luggage. Cost: about $95* per week.

• Midsize. Typical cars: Opel Vectra, Ford Mondeo, Renault Laguna, Audi A4. Our recommended category for two couples. The Vectra has a particularly spacious trunk. O.k. on the Autobahn but underpowered with four people and luggage. Cost: about $120* per week.

• Fullsize. Typical cars: Opel Omega, Renault Safrane. A bit more passenger room and sometimes more luggage space. Some companies put the BMW 316i in this category, a midsize car not suitable for four persons. The Mercedes 180 C is better but still not as large as the Omega or Safrane. Cost: about $200* per week.

• Wagons. Come in three sizes: compact (Astra), midsize (Vectra, VW Passat) and fullsize (Volvo 850, Omega). You pay more for a wagon than for the comparable sedan. Holds more luggage but it is often exposed. For four people we like the midsize sedan better than the compact wagon; more passenger comfort and almost as much luggage room. In a pinch, the midsize and fullsize wagons can carry five people but someone has to ride in the rear center seat.

No European sedans and wagons we know of have a front bench seat, so carrying six passengers is not an option in these vehicles. Costs: range from about $120 to $240* per week.

• Vans: Most in Europe are seven or nine-passenger and, with three rows of seating, similar to what is found in the U.S. The nine passenger assumes three persons per seat—three in front, three in the center seat and three in back. Seven-passenger vans have front buckets, a shorter center bench seat and a rear bench. Minivans are great for four or five people, but beyond that luggage space can be a problem. Beware of relying on a credit card for CDW and theft insurance when renting a nine-passenger van. Most credit card companies claim these vehicles are on a truck chassis and thus exclude them from their insurance coverage.

Vans become scarce every summer. Book early. It's much cheaper to rent two midsize sedans. Van cost: starting about $500* per week.

• Luxury Cars: Power and engineering make them somewhat safer than the run-of-the-mill Opels and Fords, but at a hefty price. Expect to pay about $330 per week, not including taxes or airport fees, in Germany for a Mercedes C200 or BMW 520i. Prices go to about $570 for a Mercedes E230 and over $800 for Mercedes S320. RHB

(* In Germany and exclusive of taxes, CDW or theft insurance or airport surcharges.)

February 1998