By Rick Steves
Renting a car in Europe tends to be more expensive and more complicated than in the US, thanks to byzantine insurance options and other additional fees. But once you're free and easy behind the wheel of a European car, it's worth the hassle.
European cars are rented for a 24-hour period, usually with a 30- to 59-minute grace period. Cars are most economical when rented by the week with unlimited mileage (sometimes five or six days cost the same as a week). Daily rates are generally quite high; typically, the longer you rent for, the less it'll cost per day. You'll get the best deal on long-term rentals by booking a car in advance (either online or through a travel agent). Another option is a rail-and-drive pass, which combines a certain number of days of train travel with a few days of car rental within a certain region.
There's no way to chart the best car-rental deals. Rates vary from company to company, month to month, and country to country. The cheapest company for rental in one country might be the most expensive in the next. You'll need to do some comparison-shopping to figure out which one is best for your trip.
Be aware that the true cost of the rental far exceeds the weekly unlimited-mileage rate. Some extras are predictable, like gas and parking, but others, like airport fees, can be a rude shock. Most problems I hear about from readers relate to add-on charges concealed in the fine print. Car-rental companies — including the biggies — have various quasi-legitimate ways to pad their profits, so it pays to be informed, ask a lot of questions when arranging your rental, and read everything carefully before finalizing your reservation.
Tax: The tax, clear and consistent within each country, generally runs 18–25 percent (while tax is only 8 percent in Switzerland, Swiss rental rates are that much higher).
Insurance: Your biggest potential extra cost when renting a car is insurance, even if the rental price supposedly "includes" insurance. Figure on paying roughly 30 percent extra, or about $15–35 a day, for a collision damage waiver supplement.
The cost of fuel in Europe ($7–8 a gallon) sounds worse than it is. Distances are short, the petite cars get great mileage, and, when compared to costly train tickets (for the price of a two-hour train ride, you can fill your tank), expensive gas is less of a factor. You'll be impressed by how few miles you need to travel to enjoy Europe's diversity. To minimize fuel costs, consider renting a car that takes diesel, which costs slightly less per liter and gets much better mileage.
Tolls: It's free to drive on expressways in some countries, such as most roads in Great Britain or Germany's famous autobahn. In other countries, you'll pay for the privilege. In much of Mediterranean Europe — including Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Croatia — you'll pay tolls figured on the distance you drive on expressways (about $4–9 per hour). In other countries you'll have to buy a toll sticker (usually called a "vignette") to display in your window. You'll pay about $44 for the highway permit decal as you enter Switzerland; about $11 apiece for Austria and the Czech Republic; $14 each for Hungary and Slovakia; and $21 for Slovenia. You can usually buy the toll sticker at border crossings, gas stations, and post offices (check to see if your rental car already has one that hasn't yet expired). If you don't have one, you'll soon meet your first local...in uniform.
Although tolls can add up (for example, it's about $90 to get from Paris to the French Riviera), the fuel and time saved on European expressways justifies the expense. Note that in any country, if you're skipping the expressways and sticking to secondary roads, you don't need to buy a toll sticker or otherwise pay for road use.
Parking: Estimate $25–40 a day in big cities; otherwise it's usually free, or at least very cheap.
Theft Protection: This charge, about $20/day, is required in Italy (most companies include this in their advertised rates for Italy).
Airport Fees: In some countries, you'll pay more to pick up a car at the airport or train station than in the town center (10–20 percent extra, or a flat fee of $30–50). When you're calling about prices, rental agents usually quote you this pricier airport pickup rate. Ask if they have a cheaper, downtown-pickup price. Some companies deliver the car to your hotel for free.
Refueling Fees: In Britain, National requires renters to prepay for a full tank of fuel at the start of the rental, which means you can return the vehicle on empty. In other countries (as in the US), this charge is usually optional. If you decide to pass on the prepaid option and then forget to fill your tank before returning the car, you will be charged for a full tank no matter how much gas is actually left. If you wait until you're almost at the rental office to look for a gas station, it can be stressful; since fuel gauges are very forgiving, I start watching for a convenient fill-up point miles before I reach my final stop.
International Drop-Off Fees: It will generally cost an extra $100–300 to drop the car in a different country. You'll find exceptions, some happy (free) and some outrageous ($1,000+). The farther the distance between your start and end points, the higher the fee. While there's usually no fee to drop the car at a different location in the same country, it's always smart to double-check.