If you’re planning to rent a car in Europe this summer—or even just considering renting—take a look at the excellent report, What you should know about renting a car in Europe in 2012, by two senior writers for Gemutlichkeit. I can’t repeat the entire 16-page report here, but a few recommendations and warnings—some theirs, some mine—warrant highlighting.
Warning: Beware premium station fees. These days, picking up a rental car at a major airport or train station can substantially inflate the total cost. "Premium station" fees amount to 15 to 20 percent of the total rental bill in Austria, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, and to flat charges between $35 and $80 in France, Ireland, Spain, and the U.K. You can avoid premium station fees by picking up the car in a downtown office, and if you do, you can return it at an airport without extra charge. Keep in mind that downtown offices are often closed on Sundays.
Recommendation: Cross a border. Rental rates are generally lower in Germany than in any other Western European country, which is great if you’re touring Germany. But even if you plan most of your driving in France, Benelux, or Switzerland, renting across a nearby German border can cut your costs substantially. Also, rental rates are enough lower in France than in Switzerland that you’re better off renting on the French side of the Geneva or Basel-Mulhouse airports. If you’re heading for northern Italy, also consider a French rental at Geneva. Warning: If you plan to drive in Switzerland, make sure the car has a Swiss autobahn tax sticker.
Recommendation: Use plastic protection. Gemutlichkeit supports my standard recommendation that you shun the rental company’s very expensive collision insurance and instead use the insurance your credit card probably provides. Warning: Verify whether your credit card does, in fact provide this insurance—most premium cards do—and, if so, make sure you don’t "accidentally" accept the rental company’s insurance.
Recommendation: Be shiftless. Unless you’re really mechanically challenged, rent a manual-shift vehicle. That will cut your rental cost and also your fuel costs. The only place I ever rent an automatic is in Britain, where driving on the wrong side of the road and controls on the wrong side of the driver’s seat demand my full attention.
Recommendation: Try for a diesel. Diesels get better mileage and fuel may cost less than gasoline—a win-win argument for diesel. Unfortunately, these days most rental companies won’t guarantee a diesel, but you can at least ask.
Warning: Avoid international one-way rentals. Time was, you could cover a lot of Europe without doubling back at reasonable cost by buying an "open jaw" air ticket to one European gateway, driving a one-way rental through two or more countries, and returning the car at the airport in your departure country. No more; international one-way rentals are now extremely expensive, running up to $1,500 extra, and some companies don’t offer them at any price. One-way rentals within same country still generally do not assess a surcharge, although that, too, is changing.
Warning: Full size isn’t. What European rental companies advertise as "full size" cars may be more upscale, but they generally aren’t any bigger than "midsize" models. Recommendation: If you need more room than a midsize car offers, go for a station wagon or van.
Recommendation: Rely on GPS and maps, not GPS or maps. GPS is truly useful these days, especially in and around big cities where one-way streets and restricted entry are commonplace. But GPS can’t compare maps when you’re laying out a touring itinerary—especially if, like me, you like to wander through Europe on byways rather than superhighways.
Warning: Watch where you go. Western European rentals often include prohibitions against driving in many Eastern countries. Let your rental agency know in advance where you plan to go and make sure those areas are OK.
Recommendation: Get an International Driving Permit (IDP). Yes, I know some countries don’t require it, but it’s a good idea anywhere other than the U.K.
Recommendation: Don’t stop with this summary. Get online at Gemutlichkeit and download the full report. It’s free, and a great resource. And, for that matter, full membership in Gemutlichkeit is a great resource if you’re visiting Austria, Germany, Switzerland, or other German-speaking areas.