Despite gasoline prices at double U.S. levels or higher, driving remains an attractive way to tour Europe—especially for couples or families. You can tour at your own pace, visit the places you want to see, stay in affordable country inns, and eat in inexpensive countryside restaurants. If you decide to tour that way, you obviously want the best rental deal you can find. One reader asked it this way:
"My wife, two young kids (8 and 10), and I want to tour Italy, Switzerland, and France in a rented car. Our planned 22-day trip will begin in Rome and end in Paris. What is the cheapest possible rental car for this trip?"
The answer to this particular trip is complicated by the fact that one-way international rentals in Europe are extremely expensive. Here's a look at the alternatives—options that apply not just to this trip but also to many cross-border European rentals.
I tested a 21-day rental beginning at Rome/Fumicino and ending at Paris/DeGaulle. I chose a 4-door intermediate car—the smallest, in my opinion, suitable for an extended family trip. Where possible, I specified a diesel car, which provides superior mileage on lower-cost fuel. Test dates were July 9 to 30, with quotes from late May.
The usual suspects
When you're planning a complex trip, the best place to start is on one of the big US-based online agencies.
- Hertz, which is usually competitive in Europe, quoted $2,180, inclusive of base CDW (mandatory in Italy) but with a deductible that may be covered by your credit card. Alamo, usually a price leader, was actually more expensive than Hertz. Neither company appeared to offer a diesel option.
- Expedia quoted $2,197, also inclusive of base CDW, again with no diesel guarantee.
Several European agencies specialize in what they claim are discounted rental car rates. I checked a couple of them, but none offered international one-way rentals.
Neither Hotwire nor Priceline offers "name your own price" pricing for European auto rentals—an option I've found attractive for U.S. rentals. Instead, both default to AutoEurope for European rentals. Although I've used it in the past, Priceline's European counterpart apparently no longer offers the name-your-own-price option for rental cars.
I've written before about the "French lease," where (on paper) you actually buy a factory-new car, drive it for a few weeks, and sell it back to the manufacturer for a guaranteed price. All you pay is the difference as a "lease" cost.
For the sample trip, the 21-day lease cost for a Megane 4-door diesel from Renault Eurodrive was $1,829, including full insurance. This price included a fee of $275 for pickup at Rome; there's no fee for return anywhere in France.
AutoEurope recommends the French lease for the test trip. Its deal on a Peugeot 308 diesel was $1,867, including a $375 Rome fee and no return fee.
Given the high cost of a one-way international rental, our reader could instead book three separate single-country rentals—one each in Italy, Switzerland, and France—and taking brief cross-border trips. I checked the option of renting in Rome and returning in Como, next renting in Lugano and returning in Geneva, then renting in Geneva and returning at Paris/DeGaulle. Separate rentals would reduce the total cost (AutoEurope rates) to $1,436. That figure was based on one week in each country; the fewer days in Italy, the less the cost. Rates in Switzerland and France do not include any collision insurance, but insurance isn't mandatory in those countries, so he could rely on his credit card. This arrangement would require a short train trip from Como to Lugano (about 45 minutes), but at Geneva, just take the shuttle from the Swiss side of the airport to the French side (an easy switch that would also work at the Basel airport).
Change the trip
As a minor change, our reader could knock a few hundred dollars off the lease or rental cost by not picking up the car immediately on arrival. Instead, remain in Rome a day or two without a car (which is more of a burden than a help in the city), then pick up the car at a downtown location only when he's ready to head out of Rome. That would cut a couple of days of rental or lease fees and also avoid Rome's airport charges, which are becoming the norm in Europe, as they are in the U.S.