By Rick Steves
Renting a car in Europe isn't all that different from renting one in in the US — but given that you're more likely to be dealing with jet lag, a possible language barrier, and/or an unfamiliar car model, it pays to be on your toes when you pick up and drop off your car in Europe.
When Picking Up Your Car
When picking up your car, be sure to check the entire vehicle for scratches, dings, and the gas level. If anything is not noted on the rental agreement, return to the counter to make adjustments.
Before you drive off, get to know your car. This is tough when you're aching to get out on the road — but take a few minutes, while you're still in the rental agency's parking lot, to try out all the features and gadgets: Turn on the radio, run the front and rear windshield wipers and sprayers, figure out whether the headlights come on automatically with the engine, switch the headlights to high-beam, get comfortable with the gearshift, and so on.
This is also a good time to quiz the rental agent on a few things, including:
- local laws you might not be aware of (for example, whether headlights must be on at all times, where and how kids ride, etc.)
- length of the grace period for drop-off (can be 30–59 minutes)
- how to use anything you can't figure out, such as the wipers, alarm system, lights, radio, GPS (including how to set the language to English), etc.
- what type of fuel the car takes (diesel vs. unleaded), the local term for that fuel type, and how to release the gas cap
- location of proof-of-insurance "green card" and other paperwork
- info on making repairs and any included emergency roadside services
- how to change the tire
Before leaving, get instructions for driving to your next stop (or at least to the expressway). Then drive around the parking lot for a few minutes to test rearview mirrors, the gearshift and clutch, and the lights and signals.
When Dropping Off Your Car
When you drop off the car, walk around the car again with the attendant to be sure there are no new problems. Some drivers take pictures of the returned vehicle as proof of its condition. Otherwise, unexpected charges might show up on your credit-card statement. These are easier to dispute when the information is documented. Ask for a copy of the final condition report and keep it until you've seen your credit-card statement. On that same note, try to avoid dropping off your car after hours (at a drop box); it's best to finalize the rental and receive the paperwork in person. If you are bringing the car back with a full tank, keep your fuel receipt from the final fill-up.