Renting a Car in Europe
We recommend our affiliate AutoEurope for the best rates and customer service for rental cars in Europe.
AutoEurope is a US-based broker who deals with different car rental companies in Europe (Europcar, Avis/National, Hertz, etc). They have the best prices (and if you find a lower price, they will beat it) and great customer service (if you have a problem, call their toll-free number - they are easier to deal with than the local company). If you live in the United Kingdom, go to AutoEurope.co.uk to rent a car.
What Type of Car?
Manual or Automatic?
It is significantly less expensive to rent a manual drive car, but automatic cars are available.
What Size of Car is Best?
Volkswagen Passat and Smart Car
The types of cars offered vary by country and pickup location. You get a greater selection of cars at an airport pickup location, but you are never guaranteed the exact type of car you have booked. Here are some examples of the types of cars in the size categories.
- Economy: Volkswagen Polo, Ford Fiesta, Renault Twingo or Clio, Toyota Yaris, Smart Car
- Compact: Volkswagen Golf, Vauxhall Astra, Ford Focus, Peugeot 207, Renault Megane
- Midsize: Volkswagen Passat, Vauxhall Vectra, Ford Mondeo, Peugeot 407, Renault Scenic
- Fullsize: Mercedes C, Fiat van, Seat van, Renault Espace Minivan
Compact is my favorite size for a rental car in Europe. This size of car is powerful enough for the highways and hills, but small enough for the narrow lanes and the narrow parking spots that you find in many European towns. The photo below shows that the midsize Volkswagen Passat, which was perfect for our weeks in Switzerland where they drive larger cars, was not as suitable for our week in Umbria when we were parking in the small villages. The Smart Car beside us was half the size of our car.
Car Rental Insurance
Most car rental websites show you the prices with and without insurance (inclusive or non-inclusive). Insurance can be expensive, so be sure that you need it.
Your insurance options:
- Option 1 - Rent your car with insurance included. You are responsible for the deductible, which can be high (check the fine print). When you pick up the car the local office will try to sell you insurance to cover the deductible. Take the time to work it out - if you have a longer rental, the per day extra cost may be almost the same as your deductible, so you are better off not getting the extra insurance.
- Option 2 - Decline any insurance and insure with your credit card. Some US credit cards offer car rental insurance if you pay using their credit card - check with your credit card company. Some European countries are not covered (Italy may not be covered). Most US car insurance does not cover a European rental (check with your home car insurance company).
We signed up for the "Car Rental Protection Plan" for our American Express Gold Card. When you charge a car rental to the card, you are charged a fee for insurance ($24.95). Decline the insurance when renting and you are fully covered by American Express. There is no deductible. Note that AMEX does not recognize AutoEurope as a car rental company. Phone AMEX after making your booking and tell them the transaction is for a car rental. Check your statements after your trip. If the local agency also charges you (for extra driver, daily taxes, etc.), AMEX may charge you twice in error.
Prices vary significantly by country. A manual car (stick shift) can be $100/week less than a comparable automatic. There may be a surcharge for picking up at an airport (this is not always the case).
Remember, if you find a cheaper rate with another company, AutoEurope will match that rate.
Diesel or Unleaded Gasoline (Petrol)?
Diesel cars are very common in Europe. Diesel is available at all gas stations and is almost the same price as unleaded. Most midsize and larger cars are diesel, making them very fuel efficient.
We drove a diesel Volkswagen Passat (midsize) that got about 50 miles per gallon.
Make sure you know which type of gas your rental car takes. If you put regular gas in a diesel car, or vice-versa, the car will not work and the gas tank must be drained. If the gas station is full service (they pump for you), watch to be sure they use the correct gas. I have heard many stories of travelers putting in the wrong type of gas by accident.
Many rentals come with Automobile Association (AA) coverage included for free. Your North American AA membership may cover you in Europe. Check with AAA.
We had a small accident on a recent trip to England and AA came out to the site and got the car drivable for us with no charge. They arrived within 30 minutes of calling them. They only come if the car is not drivable.
Where to Pick Up Your Rental Car?
If you are flying from North America to Europe, remember that you will be jet lagged and probably did not have a full night's sleep. Most flights arrive early to mid-morning, which is the middle of the night on your body clock. Consider spending a few nights in your arrival city, then picking up your rental car before you leave.
If you don't suffer from jet lag, pick up your car at the airport. Note that there is sometimes a surcharge applied to the whole rental period when picking up at an airport and that on Saturday airport car rental offices can be very busy.
There may also be the option of taking a train from the airport to a town closer to where you are staying and picking up your rental car there.
International Driving Permit (IDP)
The International Driving Permit (IDP) is a translation of your driving license and is needed, with your valid driving license, in many European countries. You do not show it when renting a car, but will need it if you are stopped by the police.
You do not need an IDP to drive in the United Kingdom - all you need is your valid US or Canadian driving license. If you are traveling to the UK from another country, check this Directgov Motoring page: Driving in GB on a foreign licence.
We always get an IDP if traveling in non English-speaking European countries.
When You Get Your Car
When you pick up your rental car, have the agent look over the car with you.
- What type of gas (petrol) does the car use? Unleaded or diesel?
- If it is a manual transmission, go over the gears. Sometimes reverse is not where you think it will be.
- Check the car for previous damage and if there is any, have it noted on the contract. I take photos of the car, from the front, back and each side.
If You Have a Problem With Your Car
If you have a problem with a rental car or get into an accident, first call the local company where you picked up the car. If the problem is not resolved, call AutoEurope on their toll-free number (they have one for every country) and they will deal with the local company.
When You Return Your Car
In some countries you have the option to purchase the tank of gas so you can return the car empty, but this is not always available. If you fill the car before returning it, keep the receipt from the gas station. I have heard of people being charged for a tank of gas but if you have the receipt you can dispute this charge.
I take photos of the car in the return car lot for proof that there was no damage. If there is damage, photograph that. We have rarely had problems with European car rentals and I only recommend these things as a precaution.
AutoEurope is a US-based broker for many car rental companies (Europcar, Avis/National, Hertz, etc.).
We have used AutoEurope for all our European trips in the last 15 years and have been very happy with their service.
AutoEurope has good rates, and will beat cheaper rates
Use the AutoEurope website to find the cost of the rental car. Submit your inquiry and check the final cost on the contract they send you. Sometimes it is lower than what was shown on the site.
If you find a cheaper rate with an other car rental company, send it to AutoEurope and ask them to beat the rate. Usually AutoEurope is the best rate, but if they are not, they will beat the rate.
When comparing rates, be sure you are comparing apples to apples. Do both rates include or exclude insurance? Are they for the same size and type of car?
AutoEurope lets you cancel easily or bring your car back early
When you book your rental car, you are charged either the full rental amount or a deposit (this varies by country).
- If you find a cheaper rate, or AutoEurope has a sale, they will refund the original amount and then bill you for the changed amount.
- If you cancel your rental before your trip, everything is refunded.
- If you have to cut your trip short, call AutoEurope and they will refund part of your rental. (Some people book through AutoEurope.co.uk for cheaper rates, but their policy is to not refund anything if you bring the car back early.)
AutoEurope has great customer service
There are toll free numbers for AutoEurope from all European countries - make sure to bring them with you. These numbers take you to the US customer service offices. If something goes wrong, call AutoEurope.
On one trip we got a car that had been drenched in perfume (probably to cover up the smell of cigarette smoke). We did not realize how strong it was until we had been in the car for an hour and both had a headache from it. When we reached our destination, we contacted the local office. They wanted to help us, but could not get a new car for a few days. I called AutoEurope, they called the local office, and we got a new car immediately.
AutoEurope contact numbers
From the US call AutoEurope at 888-223-5555 (Slow Europe IATA 72004243).
Slow Europe receives a commission when you book using the links on this site. If you use our click thru and have any problems with your rental car, contact me and I will get them resolved. I have been working with AutoEurope since 2002, first with SlowTrav.com and now with Cotswolder.com and SlowEurope.com, and highly recommend them.