Renting a car anywhere exposes you to a laundry list of gotchas, but tourist-frequented Europe has its own traps for unwary renters. Gemut.com just updated their very useful guide to renting a car in Europe in 2018, and identified a handful of gotchas plus how to avoid them.
Gotchas of Renting a Car in Europe
In addition to the locale-specific gotchas, renting a car in Europe can also mean facing the usual range of gotchas they face at home: extra-driver fees, other fees, and taxes. Europe throws you a few unique challenges. Still, if you like to tour the countryside, cope with the gotchas and drive a rented car. Here’s what to remember when renting a car in Europe.
‘Premium Station’ Fees
If you pick up your car at an airport or rail station, you’ll pay an extra 17 to 23.5 percent in Austria, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, or $50 per rental in France and $75 in Belgium. Other countries pose the same problem, and that’s an expensive gotcha.
You can avoid these charges by renting at an off-airport location, typically downtown. Airport surcharges aren’t unique to Europe: You also see higher fees at many U.S. airports, but in Europe they’re standardized and the cost is generally higher than in the U.S. Although you’ll pay extra when you pick your car up at a premium station, you can rent at a cheaper downtown location and return the car to a premium location at no extra cost.
If you’ve ever looked into renting a car in Europe you’re probably aware that when you rent a car outside the U.S., almost all American Express, MasterCard, and Visa cards, plus some Discover cards, offer no-charge collision coverage when you pay with your card. Just about everybody recommends relying on your credit card, which avoids charges up to $40 a day for waivers from the rental companies. But the fine print on most cards says that the card’s coverage applies only if you do not buy collision coverage from the rental company, and many European rentals include high-deductible collision coverage in the base rate, which are unavoidable. Learning that your credit card insurance doesn’t work could be an expensive gotcha.
Some card policies now say that if you can’t refuse to buy minimal collision coverage, the card program will still work and pick up whatever the base rate doesn’t cover, but you need to check your card to be sure. And you may need a print-out of your card’s collision coverage to show to an agent who is aggressively pushing the rental company’s outrageously priced “full coverage.”
In most European countries, and with most rental companies, you can pick up your car in one city and return it at another with no extra charge. A no-cost one-way rental allows you to use an open-jaw air ticket and avoid the time and cost of doubling back to a single arrival/departure airport. That works fine for Milan and Rome or Nice and Paris, for example, but returning in a different country can easily cost $500 to $1500 extra. That’s potentially a big gotcha.
Although you can occasionally find a rental company that has a car to be returned to a different country, your best bet is to avoid a two-country air ticket, and arrive and return at the same airport.
You can drive a car rented in Western Europe from most companies into nearby eastern countries such as the Czech Republic, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia without paying extra. But go any farther east and you may be violating the contract—a real gotcha if you need mechanical assistance.
If you plan to rent in the west and drive through Eastern Europe, just check with the rental company when you reserve.
As in the U.S., almost all European rental companies charge stiff premiums to rent to young drivers, typically age 25 or less. But in a few European countries, some suppliers have maximum ages, ranging from 70 years in Bulgaria and Croatia, to 85 in Hungary, and 97 in Finland. If you’re 70 or over, you don’t want to arrive at a rental counter only to be told that you’re too old. Having no car when you planned to drive away from the airport can be a major gotcha.
Seniors over the nominal age maximum but with a clean driving record can usually find a way to score a rental car. But you’re probably better off dealing directly with a large multinational company or a European rental specialist such as AutoEurope or Gemut. Just entering your age on a website does not guarantee you’ll get a car.
Automatic Price Gouge
In some European countries, automatic transmissions cost only a few dollars a day more than a manual, but in others, the cheapest automatic costs up to twice the stick shift rate. It all depends on the used car resale market in that country. France adds an environmental fee of €8 a day for automatics, even though today’s automatics essentially match manual shift in mileage. This isn’t a classic gotcha, in that you find this out quickly when you compare prices, but it can be an unpleasant surprise when you book.
When Full Size Isn’t
If you’re traveling in a group of four or more adults, you might be tempted to rent a “full size” car. What U.S. drivers consider a full-size car are models like a Chevrolet Impala, Ford Taurus, and such. But in Europe, “full size” translates into “upscale intermediate,” with more pizzazz but no more interior room. This can be a gotcha if you’re expecting a rear seat with plenty of room for two adults and luggage.
You can get the room you need with a seven-passenger minivan, but you may pay more than you’d pay for two intermediates.
Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland require a vignette, or window sticker, for driving on an autobahn, or motorways similar to U.S. highways. If you’re caught by one of the many highway cameras, a fine upwards of $125 can be a pricey gotcha.
Cars rented in a vignette-requiring country always have that country’s sticker, but only for that one country. You can drive through other vignette countries without worry by avoiding the motorways, or you can buy the necessary vignette. That’s not a problem in countries that sell inexpensive short-duration (one or two week) versions such as Austria, but Switzerland sells only an annual vignette for $50. And while you’re at it, consider a vignette in most other countries for automatic toll collection on the many toll highways, bridges, and tunnels: You can find all the information here.
Several major European visitor centers, including London, Florence, and Rome, assess a stiff charge for driving into the congested central area during business hours. The charge is enforced by cameras, and the fines are typically around $125 for each detected violation, and you could unknowingly accrue several during a single trip. Clearly, fines for several hundred dollars worth of unexpected violations are a serious gotcha.
More from SmarterTravel:
- The One Word You Must Know When Driving Abroad
- The Best Country for a Scenic Train Trip
- The 9 Best European Tours of 2018
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.