By Rick Steves
For the best deal on long-term rentals, book in advance from home. If you decide to rent a car while in Europe, try calling around to local car-rental agencies, or book through a local travel agency (though it will probably cost more than it would if you'd done it in advance). When renting a car, you'll need to make a few decisions, including whom to rent from, what kind of car to get, and where to pick it up.
Which Rental Company?
Most of the major US rental agencies (including National, Avis, Budget, Hertz, and Thrifty) have offices throughout Europe. If you have a favorite agency at home, consider using the same company in Europe, or the two major Europe-based agencies, Europcar and Sixt. To comparison-shop, you can request a quote from each company or search on a travel-booking site such as Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak, or AAA. After you determine which companies offer the best combination of rates, service, and pickup/drop-off locations (with long office hours) for your trip, visit their individual websites or call for more details.
Consolidators, such as Auto Europe and Europe by Car, compare rates among various companies (including many of the big-name firms), find the best deal, and — because they're wholesalers — pass the savings on to you. You pay the consolidator, and they issue you a voucher to pick up your car in Europe. While this can be cheaper than booking direct, my readers have reported problems with consolidators, ranging from misinformation to unexpected fees. Because you're working with a middleman, ask ahead of time about add-on fees and restrictions or you might not learn this critical information until you pick up the car. If any dispute arises when you show up at the rental desk, call the consolidator's toll-free line to try to resolve the issue. Once you sign off on something with the vendor, it's difficult for the consolidator (or anyone else) to reverse what you agreed to. If you have a problem with the rental agency, the consolidator may not be able to intervene to your satisfaction.
Choosing a Car
Most rental cars in Europe have manual transmissions. Automatics are more expensive and may only be available if you upgrade to a bigger, pricier car. However, some people find automatics worthwhile in Great Britain and Ireland, where it can be enough of a challenge just to learn to drive on the left. Since supplies are limited, if you must have an automatic, you'll need to arrange it further in advance. Ideally, skip the automatic and brush up on your shifting skills. It's worth doing some lurching through your hometown parking lot to save the expense or to be prepared in case your reserved automatic doesn't materialize.
I normally rent the smallest, least-expensive model with a stick shift — not just to save money, but because larger cars are not as maneuverable on narrow, winding roads found throughout Europe.
It's best and less stressful to begin your driving experience away from big cities, so try picking up your car away from major destinations. A pleasant scenario for a trip to England would be to start your trip in the small town of Bath, rent a car when leaving Bath, explore Britain at your leisure by car, then drop off the car in York and take the train into London, where you can rely on the excellent public transportation system. (That way you'd enjoy the three major city stops on your England itinerary — where the last thing you'd want is a car — without paying for one.)
Picking up a car at an airport usually costs more than picking it up downtown. But also consider traffic — it may be easier to drive away from an airport than a parking garage in the heart of the city. Also, when choosing where to pick up your rental car, remember that a downtown branch can be on the outskirts of the city limits — a long, costly taxi ride from the center. Before choosing a rental location, find it on a map. You may find that the train-station office is handier than the downtown one.
Many central car-rental locations have shorter hours (and may close at midday) or are buried in a maze of narrow streets. Don't plan to pick up or drop off your car in a small town on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday — or anywhere on a holiday, when offices are likely to be closed.
Just as it can make sense to fly into one city and out of another, you can start and end your car rental in different cities. For maximum options, use a bigger company with offices in many cities. While dropping off in another country can incur an extra fee, there's typically no extra charge to do this within the same country — but always ask when you reserve, just in case. Also, know your options in case you change your plans en route and want to drop off your car at an office in another city or on a different date.