By Rick Steves
For longer car trips, leasing (or even buying) a car can be more affordable than renting; for short jaunts, you could consider a car-share program. Neither is as widely available as rentals.
Leasing and Buying
Leasing (technically, buying the car and selling it back) gets around many tax and insurance costs and is a great deal for people needing a car for three weeks or more.
Leases are available for periods of up to five and a half months. Prices include all taxes, as well as zero-deductible theft and collision insurance — comparable to a CDW supplement — valid all over Europe, including eastern countries. You won’t pay extra for additional drivers or for venturing too far east, and you get to use a shiny new car. Leased cars can most easily be picked up and returned in France, but for an additional fee you can also lease cars in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Great Britain.
Auto Europe, for example, leases no-frills Peugeot 208s for as few as 21 days for about $860 — about $40/day. Europe by Car, which invented leasing more than 50 years ago, and Renault Eurodrive offer similar deals. In general, the longer you lease the car, the lower the price — a 60-day lease can be as inexpensive as $30 per day.
Although Americans rarely consider buying as a budget option, it’s possible to buy a used car for your trip and sell it when you’re done. The most common places to buy cars are Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, and US military bases. In London, check Craigslist, the used-car market on Market Road (Tube: Caledonian Road), and look in London periodicals such as Loot, which lists used cars (as well as jobs, flats, cheap flights, and travel partners).
Car-sharing providers place cars throughout a city, let users rent them for just a few hours or days, and charge no enrollment or annual fees. With these programs, you book your car online (join before leaving home), pick it up at a set location, drive it, then return it to the nearest location. The fee includes insurance, fuel, and GPS, so you can avoid extra insurance charges or having to fill the tank before you return the car. There’s no extra fee for drivers ages 21–24, and prices are relatively reasonable — in London a Fiat 500 costs about $9 per hour or $70 per day. Car-sharing makes sense for day trips, but isn’t practical for daily use within big cities, where public transportation is a breeze.
Europe’s main car-sharing provider is Hertz 24/7, currently available in Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Zipcar operates in a few British cities, as well as Barcelona. Car2go, which rents the smallest Smart model, operates mostly in Germany, but has outposts in a few major cities elsewhere in Europe.