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.
But the biggest cost cut would be to rearrange the trip to rent and return the car in France or Switzerland, where rentals are a lot less expensive than in Italy. In general, the big rental companies charge no one-way or drop-off fees for rentals that begin and end in the same country. I checked the option of flying into Nice or Lyon—both relatively convenient to Northern Italy—renting a car there and returning it in Paris. That would cut the rental cost to as little as $878 base rate for a Megane. Our reader could also pick up a car on the French side of the Geneva airport and return it in Paris, or rearrange both legs of the air trip to begin and end in Switzerland, paying as little as $829 (for a city pickup in Zurich).
Our reader’s choices
If our reader keeps to the initial plan—and rents just one car for the full trip time—the French lease is clearly the best deal. It’s less expensive than any conventional rental I could find. It guarantees a diesel, and the base lease rate includes full zero-deductible insurance.
Although a hassle, three separate rentals would cost substantially less than the French lease. However, the nominal reduction of roughly $400 would be offset somewhat by the need to buy train tickets from Como to Lugano, and the extra schlepping and paperwork would certainly add to the hassle.
Only our reader can decide whether cutting the rental cost by as much as $1,000 justifies replanning his entire itinerary—including the air trips—to rent and return the car in France or Switzerland. But the reduction is there if a new itinerary can work.
This exercise illustrated several general conclusions about multicountry driving in Europe:
- International one-way rentals are extremely expensive in Europe, with drop-off charges often exceeding $500.
- For in-country rentals, including one-way, local discounters’ rates are often a bit lower than those of the big US-based agencies. But they don’t do international one-way.
- The French lease is often an attractive alternative to a conventional rental for international one-way trips of three weeks and more. The deal works best when both pickup and return are in France, but it can be reasonably good if either pickup or return is in France.
- Breaking a multicountry one-way driving trip into two or more separate in-country rentals is often far less expensive than a single rental, especially if (1) each rental is for at least a week and (2) cross-border trips between rentals are short and easy.
(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com and Hotwire.com.)