By Rick Steves
Renting a car in Europe tends to be more expensive and more complicated than in the US, due to byzantine insurance options and other additional fees. But making informed choices can help you avoid hassles and save money. Once you’re free and easy behind the wheel of a European car, it’s all worth it.
Across Europe, basic rental rates vary from company to company, month to month, and country to country (rentals in Germany tend to be cheaper than average; rentals in Italy tend to be more expensive). 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.
The basic rates you’ll see quoted nearly always include unlimited mileage, value-added tax, and legally required third-party liability insurance. When comparing your options, be sure to factor in the costs of any extras (another driver, a child seat, automatic transmission), especially because they can vary so much across companies and countries.
Here’s what to look for:
Tax: The value-added tax (VAT), clear and consistent within each country, generally runs 18–25 percent. Although it’s usually included in any rental price you’re quoted, it’s smart to double-check. Other nonnegotiable fees, such as a “road tax” or “eco tax,” also differ per country (road tax is usually less than $5 per day; expect about $5–10 per day for environmental fees, most commonly applied to automatic-transmission cars); if it’s not clear whether these taxes are included in a price, ask.
Insurance: Your biggest potential extra cost when renting a car is insurance, even if the rental price supposedly includes insurance. Your credit card may already cover the extra insurance you need, but don’t assume it. If you go with the insurance offered by the rental company, figure on paying roughly 30 percent extra, or about $10–30 a day, for a collision damage waiver supplement.
Theft Protection: This charge, about $20/day, is required in Italy; most companies include this in their advertised rates for Italy.
Extra Driver(s): Expect to pay about $5–25/day to add another driver. This is worthwhile if you really plan to share the driving duties; if you let an unlisted driver take the wheel and an accident occurs, your insurance won’t cover it.
Child-Safety Seats: Every country has different legal requirements for child-safety seats, and they don’t always align with the latest US laws. Ask when booking, and expect to pay about $15–70 per day if you’re not bringing a child seat from home.
Other Add-Ons: You’ll pay extra for a car with automatic transmission (about 50 percent more than the same car with stick shift), GPS (about $10–30 per day, though often included in more expensive models), winter tires (required in snowy conditions by some countries; often included in basic rental rates), and ski racks. Some companies, such as Avis and Hertz, have started offering Wi-Fi in some cars (roughly $10/day). Emergency roadside assistance is often included in the cost of your rental, but be sure to clarify this, especially if you aren’t comfortable changing a tire.
Airport Pickup: In some countries, you’ll pay more to pick up a car at the airport or train station than in the town center (10–25 percent extra, or a flat fee of $40–80).
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.
Other Fees: Rental companies usually charge extra if you plan to take the car to certain points in eastern Europe (a line that generally follows old Iron Curtain borders). Wintertime driving can carry extra costs beyond the required snow tires. Agencies may tack on vaguely worded extras like “contract fees” or “credit-card fees” that weren’t included in your quote. You may not be able to avoid these, but you can at least make sure they don’t come as a surprise: Read every bit of fine print, and talk to an agent over the phone before you book if you have questions. Of course, some fees are easily avoided: Return your car on time to avoid late drop-off fees (don’t assume you’ve got a grace period), fill ’er up shortly before returning to avoid refueling fees, and return your car in good shape to sidestep a cleaning fee.
Other Driving Costs
When budgeting for your trip, remember that renting a car involves some significant costs beyond what you’ll pay the rental agency for the car itself.
Fuel: Paying about $140 a week will get you roughly 700 miles; most rental agencies offer hybrid or diesel cars with better fuel efficiency — ask. Avoid overpaying for gas at the start or finish of your trip.
Tolls: You’ll pay tolls figured on the distance you drive (about 12 cents per mile) for expressways in certain countries. Some countries, mostly in central Europe, require drivers to buy a sticker (“vignette”) for their window. And in a few countries, freeways really are free (like Germany’s autobahn system).
Parking: Estimate $35 a day in big cities (more like $40–55/day in London and Paris — don’t park there), otherwise it’s usually free, or at least fairly cheap.