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Seven Rental Car Problems and What to Do About Them

When you plan driving in Europe, most of you probably arrange a conventional car rental—pick it up at your arrival airport, return it there after a week or two. But some travelers’ needs aren’t that easy. Over the last month, I’ve received questions from several travelers with special requirements: buying an open jaw ticket to Europe, arriving in one city and departing from another and renting a car to fill in the “open” air trip, or renting a car for the entire summer:

“We are a family of four who want to rent a car on Lisbon, tour Portugal and Spain, and return from Madrid, but we hear cross-border rentals are excessive. Are they really?

“Are there any car rental companies that permit a one way rental from Paris to Istanbul?”

“I need a car for a full summer tour, and even a long-term lease gets expensive for three months – can I buy a used car, drive it for three months, then resell it?”

The short answers are (1) “yes, those fees are excessive,” (2) “no way to do Paris-Istanbul,” and (3) “only in a few cases.”

Sky-High International One-Way Rental Rates

International drop-off charges have become extreme, even on relatively short distances. When I looked into the first reader’s question, I was amazed to see that for even such an easy dropoff as Portugal to Spain, Hertz asked for a charge of $900 in addition to the rental rate.

For more detail, I raised the issue with Robert Bestor, publisher of Gemutlichkeit, a print-plus-online newsletter covering travel to German-speaking European areas. Gemutlichkeit also arranges good car rental rates for his readers, and his experiences certainly verified my one-way checks:

“International one-ways are priced virtually on a case by case basis, depending on vehicle and cities involved. The cheapest international one-ways are city pairs like Frankfurt-Paris, Munich-Vienna, Zürich-Paris, Brussels-Amsterdam, and they range from about $135 to about $300. Any one-way involving Italy is expensive—usually $350 to $600, though we just did a Munich-Milan drop for $275 plus 19% German VAT. A couple of years ago we got a call from a guy who had booked and paid for a Rome-Copenhagen open jaw for his family of five, thinking they would meander north seeing Europe by car. The one-way quote was more than $2,000, and since the car would be rented in Italy (most expensive country in Europe to rent) the rental charge as I recall was another $2,000.”

“Our car rental guy just spoke to a woman who wanted to take a van ($1,160 for a week) from Barcelona to Rome. No company would allow that vehicle category to go one-way. She then asked for two midsize cars. Europcar had a good price of $355 per car but wanted a $2,041 drop fee on each car.

Generally speaking, Europcar’s fees are the lowest, followed by Avis and Hertz. Budget, Thrifty and Enterprise seldom do one-ways.

If you’re going to drive in Europe for a month or so, a French lease can guarantee that you’ll never pay more than about $550 in dropoff charges, even on the longest trips, and never more than $275 if you either pick up or return the car in France. However, the lease program offers only a limited range of locations outside of France and none in the East

You Can’t Get There From Here

Some kinds of rentals are impossible or priced so highly as to be impossible. Among them:

  • Specialty car models. Again from Bestor: “We just booked a woman who got roped in to taking a group of seven from Rome to Amsterdam before she figured the cost of a van to transport them. The drop charge was $1,600 in addition to the rental rate. Two weeks ago, Hertz, Avis, and Europcar all passed on all one-waying a van from Amsterdam to Paris.”
  • West-East. “If they do it at all, rental companies impose stiff charges on one-way rentals between Western and Eastern Europe. People are always surprised when they are quoted a one-way fee of $750 for Munch to Prague or $1,500 for Frankfurt to Warsaw. We’ve had several quotes over $2,000 for just the one-way. Someone with one of the rental companies told me a $2,500 one-way quote is the rental companies’ way of saying they really don’t want to do it.”
  • Really long-haul. “Quotes we’re seeing for big distance one-ways are astronomical, even if a supplier can be found that will do it. I doubt any company will allow one-way France-Istanbul at all.”

New One-Country Drop-Off Charges

Traditionally, you’ve been able to rent a car anywhere in one country and return it anywhere else in the same country with no one-way charge. However, Bestor reports that some dropoff charges are creeping into even those one-country rentals: “Most companies in France now charge a fee for one-ways involving French mountain towns. Domestic one-way charges are common in Scandinavia, and Hertz is now charging 20 euros plus tax for any car in Germany dropped at a different location than the pickup location, even when both pickup and return offices are in the same city, such as Frankfurt Airport to Frankfurt downtown.”

Can You Buy, Then Sell, a Used Car?

Usually, the French lease is the best deal for extended rentals. But for a period as long as, say, 90 days, even a compact lease starts at almost $3,000—more than the total cost of many a used car.

Years ago, if you needed a car for the whole summer, you could buy one at any of the several thriving European markets—especially in London and Amsterdam—and resell it when you were ready to return home. Naturally, at the end of the season, you got a lot less when you sold than when you bought, but the net difference was still less than an extended rental or lease.

That option, however, has been just about wiped out by new Europe-wide rules requiring that owner registrations and mandatory liability insurance are available only to people with resident addresses in Europe. The main exception appears to be on the new-car factory delivery programs available through U.S. auto dealers on a few European makes.

I could identify only one other exception to the general prohibition. Turner Cars & Campers in Utrecht, Holland, operates a program for travelers who want to buy camper vans for extended European travel. It sells used vans and handles all the registration and insurance requirements. It also accepts at least some returned vans on consignment for resale. Although the company has dealt only sparingly with other sorts of cars, a representative indicated possible interest in exploring more car options. If you’re interested, you can at least inquire.

More Information

If you’re considering driving in Europe, I can recommend two outstanding online sources of detailed information:

  • Auto Europe, the largest US agency specializing in European car rentals, posts all sorts of details on driving in each European country. This agency arranges both conventional rentals and French leases, and I often recommend it for people with complicated rental problems.

  • IdeaMerge specializes in French leases and European motorhome/RV rentals, with extremely competitive rates. It’s also the only US-based agency I know that arranges French leases on Citroen models—although you can see the cars and prices quote only if you indicate that you live in Australia. And its website includes the online version of MotoEuropa, one of the best overall guides I’ve ever seen to driving in Europe.

Multiple Single-Country Rentals

In previous answers, I’ve suggested that one way to avoid high one-way rental charges is to do individual rentals in each country, crossing the border by train or bus. Bestor concurs, and helps make such arrangements. Some cross-border trips are easy, as in Geneva, but not all: I found, for example, no easy cross-border return-rent options for Portugal to Spain.

Shut That Open Jaw?

Over the years, other travel writers and I have often suggested open jaw air tickets, coupled with one-way car rentals or rail tickets, to avoid having to backtrack to your arrival airport to return home. Given today’s high one-way charges, however, we all might want to re-think that strategy. At the very least check out all the options before you decide.

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