Imagine the rolling hills covered in cypresses, tiny villages clinging to rocky promontories, adorable ancient wineries. Driving through the countryside, stopping as you like to take pictures or sample a roadside food stand. Aahhhh, the allure of the open road. I love to drive. No, that won’t do. There are actually not words adequate to express my affection for driving, especially in Europe. You may be wondering if you should stick to public transit or to try your hand at car rental in Europe. Won’t the driving be scary? Parking impossible? Won’t I get lost or confused? Yes. Should you do it anyway? Depends, but probably yes.
To Rent or Not to Rent
Car rental is fun and can be efficient, freeing and easy for small groups. It’s not the right fit for every trip, however. The first thing to look at is where you are going. Having a car in large cities in Europe just doesn’t make sense. Aside from parking expenses and intimidating city streets, cars are often not allowed in the center of big cities. Many European cities have restricted driving zones that are monitored by cameras, and you simply are not allowed to drive in. I like to arrange my trips so that I arrive and depart from big cities where there is great public transit, and connect in between with a car, allowing for a little exploration. Even a day or two can be fun. So that’s where to start, if you plan to just see big cities you can stop reading here! If you want a little countryside time, read on…
Where to Rent a Car
By far, the easiest way to go about renting a car is to do it at an airport. Airport rental stations tend to be more efficient and speak English. There are usually more companies to choose from so the prices are often better. The exits from airport lots are usually easy and attached to a well-signed major highway. If you need to take a few practice laps before heading out into the wild blue yonder, an airport is a great place to do it, or at least a much better place than a big city with traffic.
Most of the big rental companies that we have in the US can be found in Europe. I haven’t found one that I like better than the others, honestly. I am usually looking for the best deal for what I need. You can use all of the big rental websites if you like, such as Kayak.com or Expedia.com to compare prices. I typically end up renting from AutoEurope. Their prices tend to be the best and they have good deals with inclusive insurance that you buy ahead of time.
AutoEurope is not a car rental company, actually, but a clearinghouse for companies who offer car rental in Europe. You won’t know who the car provider will be until after you book, but you can choose the type of car. I have found that most companies are fairly similar in Europe so the lack of being sure of which company is not an issue for me. After you book and pay, you are sent a voucher with the address of the rental company, which you print and present at the desk. That’s pretty much all you need to do. You can get a quote from them here.
Some years ago, the line at the rental company that AutoEurope sent me to was long. I decided to try taking my voucher to another provider and see if they could match the price. They just laughed at me and said that AutoEurope has prices that are much less than the price at the desk and could not be matched. Lesson learned.
I always rent the smallest car possible. Not because I’m frugal (which I am) but more because you will definitely encounter some tight spaces while driving. We like big cars and bigger roads in the US, but Euro cities were built for horses and carts, not SUVs! Even with the smallest car available, there have been some tight squeezes, most recently in Ragusa. My tiny car was rolling through the historic center with a tire mere inches from either curb, making crazy hairpin turns between buildings. And I loved it!
Do note that the default for rental cars in Europe is a manual transmission. Can’t drive a stick? Request and solidly confirm that you are getting an automatic. Some companies may not offer it and it will definitely be more expensive, but you can find it if you look around.
I usually opt for the adorable Fiat 500 (with sunroof) if I can get it. I’m a very large woman, but even with my loooong legs, that car is comfy. It is perfect for a couple and a few pieces of luggage. Last year I got a zippy one in sky blue. The guy at the desk winked at me as he handed over the keys and said “You’re going to look cute in this one.” Did I mention that being nice to the people at the desk is a good idea?
Just like in the US, car rental in Europe is straightforward. Once you arrive at the rental office you will hand over your voucher, credit card and driver’s license. For most major European countries, you just need your normal state-issued driver’s license to rent a car, not the International License that is offered by AAA. After your paperwork is settled (I’ll touch on insurance in a separate post) you will receive either keys and a lot space number, or just the papers which you’ll exchange for keys in the garage. By keys, I mean whatever functions as keys these days. I’ve gotten a little fob on a keychain or, most recently, a thick card that slid in the dashboard. Many cars in Europe are now push button, rather than turn-key.
I like to sit in my car for a good long time before leaving. I will check every button and make sure I know where things are. The release for the hood, trunk and gas can be mysterious, so it’s better to figure that out while there is someone around to assist you. A piece of sound advice– ask which kind of gas the car uses and have the attendant write it down in the local language on your paperwork. You will find that there are several kinds of gas at stations and it may not be clear which you will use, ask before you go!
I don’t bring a GPS with me as I don’t own one, but you can rent one and have it installed in the car if you want it. I use my iPhone and Google maps with vocal directions. More on that later, but if you’re using a phone, see if you can get a car with a USB plug in the dash. It’s pretty standard these days to have that and some cars will display the map on your phone on the dashboard monitor, which is a great help.
Car rental in Europe is the easy part. What’s left? Time to hit the road and have your adventure! But wait, those road signs look funny. And the markings on the road are different. Geez, they drive fast! How does parking work? All this and more coming up next!