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One-way car rentals in Europe

On many European vacations, a one-way car rental is the most efficient way to cover a multi-country area without retracing your steps. The airline side of the deal is easy: Get an “open-jaw” ticket with the “going” portion from your home airport to the starting point of your trip and the “return” portion from the endpoint of your trip back home. The fare is usually the sum of half of the round-trip fares between your home and the open-jaw points. Then, you fill in the open-jaw gap by driving a rented car, one-way. I’ve done it many times, and a reader is interested. He asked: “If you rent a car in Scotland, can you return it to a location in Rome?”

The short answer is, yes, you “can” do it. But using a single rented car for the entire trip is likely to be a lot more expensive than separate rentals in the U.K. and on the Continent.

The Continental formula

The standard approach to rentals in Europe is that you pay no drop-off or extra one-way fee as long as the pickup and drop-off points are in the same country. Thus, in France, when you start a rental in Paris, you pay essentially the same whether you return it in Paris, Nice, Bordeaux, or any other place where your rental company has an office—except, possibly, for varying airport fees. However, if the pickup and drop-off points are in different countries, you pay extra. I made a quick check with Hertz for a sample nine-day trip in March with an economy car:

  • Pickup and return in Paris or anywhere else in France, €354 (about $521 US; check for current exchange rates).
  • Pickup in Paris and return in either Amsterdam or Munich, €540; return in Milan, €599 (the difference due, I presume, to local fees and extras).
  • Pickup in Milan and return in Rome, €407.

Those rates exclude some airport fees, taxes, and optional insurance, but are comparable. In my experience, the other multinational rental companies use the same basic formula.

For longer periods, the French lease also permits no-charge pickup and drop-off anywhere in France. Outside France, you pay an extra $125 to $250 for either a pickup or drop-off, depending on the proximity to France.

The Channel barrier

Starting a one-way rental in the U.K. and ending it on the Continent poses two additional problems:

  • Most rental cars in the U.K. have the controls on the “wrong” side for driving on the Continent.
  • You have to pay to transport the car over or under the Channel, at a cost starting at £25 (about $52 US) for a car plus two adults.

Moreoever, even the base rental rates for such rentals are very stiff. For my test nine-day trip, starting in Glasgow and ending in Rome, Hertz quoted £1,620 plus taxes for an economy car.

For this trip, our reader would be better off with a French lease, starting at about $1,000 for up to 17 days in a compact car, plus pickup and drop-off fees of $275 at each end of the trip, for a total of around $1,550.

Renting separate cars in the U.K. and on the Continent would be even better. Our reader could get a one-week one-way car rental from Glasgow to Dover for £153 (about $312), take the ferry across, and rent a one-way car from Calais to Rome for around $900 a week. Also, if the reader didn’t want to spend a lot of time in France, he could take trains from France to Italy and rent in Italy at the one-country rate.

Arranging It

Clearly, one-way rentals are more complicated than conventional rentals. And some rental companies may offer special one-way deals that don’t appear on all the websites. My suggestion is that the reader contact an agency that specializes in European car rentals, such as Auto Europe, which might well have access to better one-way rates. Auto Europe also handles the French lease, should that be the best approach.

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