Smart consumers know that value for your dollar is more important than low prices. It doesn’t matter how low the price is if the product isn’t what you expected. This is especially true for car rental. A few online comparison websites dominate car rental, hotel booking, and other travel services. Unfortunately, these big booking apps don’t have anything to do with actually renting cars to customers. They simply act as middlemen. This creates an incentive for car rental companies to bid against each other to seem lower than the others. But the lowest price rarely means that you’ll get great value car rental for your money. This is especially true if you’re trying to rent a car for a European trip.
Renting a Car in Europe Is Different
If you’re used to arranging transportation and lodging in the United States, you might be surprised the first time you try to book the same services in Europe. While the same travel apps might work on your phone, the information you get might not result in the same level of service you receive in the US. And while many of the countries in Europe are part of the E.U., that doesn’t mean that the rules of the road, or local laws about driving or renting a car will be the same from country to country.
Driver’s Licenses for Car Rental
In most European countries, an American or Canadian driver’s license is all you need to rent a car and drive it. However, you should consider your driver’s license as a sort of add-on to your main form of identification, your passport. While that’s all you need in most places, it’s still smart to get an International Driving Permit as well.
Getting an International Driving Permit (IDP) is a lot easier than its official name suggests. All an IDP represents is an accurate translation of your driver’s license into the format that’s familiar overseas. If you’re a member of AAA, you can go to one of their many offices with two passport-sized photos and they’ll make you an IDP for as low as $20. Even though it’s easy to get an IDP, it’s a serious form of identification while traveling. The document is ultimately regulated by the US State Department. In many ways, it’s a much better form of identification than a state-issued driver’s license when you’re abroad.
Where an IDP Is Required
It can be difficult to nail down exactly where you need an IDP to drive in Europe. There is all sorts of conflicting advice on the Internet. This advice is often made even more confusing by language barriers during translation. It’s true that you may never be asked for a copy of your IDP while renting a car or driving in Europe. That doesn’t mean you might not need it in a pinch. Some countries technically require that you carry one, even though no one seems to ask for one for day-to-day transactions. These include many Eastern European countries like Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also a few large western European countries like Spain. If you’re involved in a car accident, for instance, and you don’t have one, you might have a very hard time with the local police.
Different Countries, Different Rules
Americans travel freely from state to state, and for the most part, you can expect the same kinds of laws and customs wherever you go. While the European Union is similar, the individual countries in it are still very different, and it can be disorienting to travel from one to the next.
For instance, finding a great value car rental in one country doesn’t mean it’s a great value everywhere. If you pick up a rental car in one country, you might find that it’s nearly impossible to drop it off in another country. It doesn’t matter that the car rental company is the same in both places. Local laws apply.
Daily Rental Is More Than Just an Expression
In general, car rental contracts are charged in 24-hour periods. In Europe, the times for pickup and dropoff are closely measured. If you’re only a few minutes late, you might find yourself paying for a whole day anyway.
To guard against extra charges, never schedule your pickup any earlier than you really need it. That way, you’ll enjoy a later drop off time to go with your later pick up time. Some European car rental companies allow you to drop off your car after hours. They have a drop box for car keys for your convenience. However, be careful how this service is set up. In some places, you won’t get credit for dropping off your rental car until the business opens up in the morning and processes your return.
It’s Cheaper Away From Major Travel Hubs
If you’re trying to get value car rental for your money, avoid renting at airports and other major travel hubs. It’s cheaper to rent from car rental company locations in smaller cities and towns. Public transit is much better in Europe than in most parts of America. That makes it possible to take a bus or train from the airport to your destination, then rent a car there.
Be aware, however, that European businesses are much less likely to be open late or available seven days a week. In some countries, businesses are closed for long periods at midday. It can be hard to find open businesses on weekends as well. Many countries celebrate holidays you’ve never heard of, so it pays to phone ahead and ask.
Bigger Isn’t Always Better
In America, it’s considered an upgrade to get a bigger, fancier car for the same rate as an economy model. That’s not always true when renting a car in Europe. European roads, especially in old cities, can be very narrow. Parking is almost always harder than in the states. It can be nearly impossible to find inexpensive parking in a city center for a full-sized sedan.
Can You Drive a Stick Shift Rental Car?
Americans might also be surprised to find out how many European rental cars come with a stick shift. Fuel is more expensive in Europe, and stick shift cars get better mileage, which makes them more common overseas. If you’re not able to drive a stick shift, make sure you specify an automatic when you’re making your reservation. Automatics aren’t “automatic” over there.
One more thing about driving a stick shift. Even if you’re able to drive stick, you might find it nearly impossible in countries like Great Britain where the driver sits on the right-hand side of the car, and operates the shift with the left hand.
Fees Can Take a Big Bite
In some ways, European car rental has more options than in the United States. It’s possible to customize your rental arrangements more closely than with American car rental contracts. There are more types of cars, and more ways to pay. However, this versatility can come at a price. European car rental companies rely on fees to keep their contracts profitable than in the United States. Not all of those fees will be obvious.
To avoid big surprises, it’s smart to plan ahead. Getting true value car rental in Europe is easiest if you specify the details of your trip well in advance. Planning ahead means fewer surprises. Fewer surprises means fewer add-ons and fees that make the costs pile up. One more thing: it’s smart to pay for your car rental before you make your trip. You can avoid paying poor currency conversion rates when you try to change your American dollars for foreign currency on the spot.
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