Renting a Car in Europe

Renting in Europe is different than in the USA - here are some points to consider and decisions to make

by and - last updated on 3/27/2024

Choosing a Rental Company 

Having a car available can provide you with a lot of freedom and convenience when traveling through Europe. Travel at your own pace, stop whenever you want to take in the view, and get to some places that are difficult to reach via public transportation. However, there are some things to know about Renting a Car in Europe - points to consider. Knowing these differences in advance can save you some money and maybe even a big travel headache.

The major rental car companies in Europe are Avis, Europcar, Sixt, Budget, AutoEurope. We have utilized AutoEurope often and have never had any problems - note though that AutoEurope is an agency that arranges less expensive rentals with the major companies.

NOTE: You may have noted that Hertz is not in the above list, since their bankruptcy action, they have reduced their fleet size and rental locations to the point where they are no longer competitive.

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Rental Prices will vary based upon your selected options
  • Manual vs. Automatic - an automatic transmission car will always be more expensive.
  • Different Pick-Up and Drop-Off Locations - this can be very expensive so plan ahead ! The rental car company is actually passing on the cost of returning the car to where you rented it, to you. Do not make the assumption that they will pay for this, ask to be sure.
  • Picking up a Rental Car at an Airport or Train Station Adds an Extra Fee. Generally speaking, a rental car will less expensive if rented from a facility in town rather than the airport.
  • Cross Border Fees - not always the case, but something you should be aware of.
  • Adding a second driver - rental price goes up.
Rental Duration

It’s most cost-efficient to rent a car for a week or more. The cost per day goes down drastically the longer the rental period. For example, Auto Europe recently quoted me $795 for a 3 week VW Golf rental, but when we decided to use more train travel and wanted to adjust the car rental time duration to a week, the rental price was nearly $400.

Avoid the Airport Rental Location

Off-airport locations are generally cheaper than airport locations, which tend to tack on fees that can raise the price by 30 percent or more. This is not always the case, so you need to take some due diligence in your research. City rental car companies may not have as wide a selection of vehicles to choose from as airport rental car companies. However, you should still be able to find a vehicle that meets your needs.

Ask your Rental Company if they have or will provide a Toll RFID Device

European toll RFID devices are electronic toll collection (ETC) systems that use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to collect tolls from drivers. These devices are becoming increasingly popular in Europe, as they offer a number of advantages over traditional toll collection methods, such as cash and tickets.

In some European Countries (Portugal for example) the Toll RFID device is read from a structure above each highway lane. This allows vehicles to not have to stop at a Toll Booth. In other European Countries (France for example) you have to drive through the Toll Booth lane that is marked with a green arrow. Note that any French highway that is a Toll Road will always have a sign stating "Péage" as you enter the highway.

Countries that require a Vignette

Vignettes are just "windshield RFID stickers" and Countries that require vignettes include Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Switzerland, Hungary, Slovenia, and Bulgaria.

Vignettes are sold at border crossings and gas stations (not all, but most). You can purchase a vignette for €3 to €10, depending on the country. If you fail to purchase a vignette, you could be fined 60€ or more. We have observed Swiss Highway Police monitoring cars as they enter tunnels, and pulling people out of traffic and fining them on the spot for lack of a vignette.

Some countries like Portugal for example, collect highway taxes via another type of RFID device installed on each car. Rental car companies in Portugal typically have those devices installed, but you should inquire to be sure before you depart the rental car facility.

"Green Card" Insurance

A green card is a cross-border insurance card that proves that your car has at least the minimum level of insurance required. Most countries in the EU do not require you to have a green card, however, it’s required in a handful of countries, including Bosnia & Herzegovina, Albania, and Montenegro, just to name a few.

This card is issued by your rental car company when you make your reservation.

Figure Out Which Side of the Road You Need to Be On

This might sound obvious, but many travelers overlook this simple detail. Most countries around the world drive on the right side of the road, but if you're traveling to Australia, the U.K., British overseas territories, Japan, India, or some countries in Africa, you might want to double-check where that steering wheel is.

You can prepare yourself mentally for how it might feel to drive on the other side of the road and avoid becoming one of those viral dashcam videos of unlucky tourists who end up in car accidents because they were unfamiliar with the rules of the road.

Make Sure You're Allowed to Drive

If you're headed to an English-speaking country, chances are you'll be able to get by with just your driver's license, but you may want to consider getting an International Driving Permit (IDP) in case you run across a car rental company that requires one. You can apply at your local American Automobile Association (AAA) office with a valid driver's license, two passport photos, and a completed IDP application.

Essentially, an IDP translates the information on your driver's license into 10 different languages, so if you get pulled over, the law enforcement officer will be able to see that you're legit.

Rick Steves says an IDP is no longer an issue, and I agree from personal experience.

Also, make sure to check the minimum and maximum car rental age in the country you're planning to visit. Ireland, for instance, doesn't rent cars to customers over 70 and most European Countries require you to be at least 25.

Book in Advance

Book your rental ahead of time! It's easy to put it off because it might be the last thing on your mind after booking your flight and hotel. However, it's almost always going to cost you more money if you walk up to the counter when you arrive at your destination rather than reserving a car before you leave. Advance preparation also means you'll potentially avoid problems with exchange rates or language barriers.

Depending on where you book your trip, you can often add a rental car to a hotel and flight reservation and save big in the process. In addition, Auto Europe will display their competitor pricing on their website, saving you the necessity of looking yourself.

Get Adequate Insurance Coverage

Figuring out insurance coverage for rental cars can be a bit of a sticky situation since your existing car insurance company isn't likely to cover your car rental in a foreign country - it might - but you need to know before you rent a vehicle.

The easiest method is to get basic insurance coverage with your rental car and make sure you know exactly what that covers including the deductible, how many passengers, and whether it includes liability coverage, etc. Other options might include insurance coverage through your travel credit card or an add-on to your travel insurance plan.

Note: If you rent with a Visa card, decline the renting company's Collision Damage Waiver because Visa will cover damage due to collision or theft. You may need to check with your Visa card issuer to insure that this coverage is in effect with them.

The "post rental car inspection" is almost always performed in a rigorous manner when you return a vehicle. Be certain that you inspected the car yourself before you departed with it, and walk around the car for the return inspection to avoid any claims.

Use a GPS App or Make Sure Your Rental Includes One

We have utilized Tom-Tom map devices, but now rely primarily on our cell phones. Our carrier has a $10 per day roaming plan for Europe that allows us to utilize Google or Apple maps to navigate by. Therefore, we do not generally utilize rental car company GPS devices, but you could consider such an option if your cellular carrier does not offer an inexpensive roaming plan. Having access to an accurate map while driving in Europe is a "must have" as streets can be one way and then turn into two way & back again, the streets can change names as they enter different districts, etc. Driving and parking in Europe can be a challenge !!

It's never a bad idea to have a back-up plan, so consider taking along an old-fashioned paper road map just in case you find yourself in an area where cellular coverage is spotty or your smartphone battery dies at an inopportune time (ps - don't forget a cell phone charger that will work in a car).

Don't forget these items
  • Phone Mount - if you use any type of mapping service via your cell phone like we do, then this is a must so that your "navigator" can take a break.
  • Car Charger - for all the obvious reasons!
  • Charging Cable - ditto
  • Paper maps? - very useful in areas where cellular reception is not good enough for a mapping application.

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