What you need to know about renting and driving a car in Europe

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So you have decided to come to Europe. You’ve booked your flights, you’ve booked your hotel and now you want to rent a vehicle.

If you’re going to rent and drive a car in Europe, the rules are different, and you need to know now, before you even book the car.

We also often receive car rental complaints — not just booking issues but also damage claims, including clutch problems.

Of course we can advocate after something has gone wrong. It’s what we do. But we like also to try and help keep things from going wrong in the first place. And at the very least, if something does go wrong, we want to ensure you’re in the best position to fight your case.

So let’s take a road trip through the European car rental experience. I’m a U.K. resident, so I will show you around.

On the way, we’ll take a tour of driving tips, stop at the petrol station (sorry, gas station) to look at prices and then we will finish up back at the branch to return the car.

Car booking

We need to start by booking our car. I know what you are thinking: that’s easy! A quick search on a price comparison website, couple of clicks through to the provider and you’re done. Well, it is easy — sort of.

Price comparison websites can be a useful tool to compare prices — sometimes. On this trip, we are going to avoid them though. Why? For the same reasons as we always advise you to avoid booking airline tickets using an online travel agency — which is a misnomer.

When something goes wrong, it’s harder to deal with two companies, and it makes it easier for them to blame each other.

To avoid the blame game, book direct. Here in Europe, we have many of the big companies such as Hertz, Enterprise and Avis, along with some aimed at European car rentals such as EuropCar. I am obviously not going to recommend a specific company, but my tip is to book with one of the larger companies, rather than a small company with a limited fleet.

Rental extras

So you have arrived (hope you had a safe flight) and want to collect the car, which means of course it is upsell time. Do you want more insurance? Do you want a satellite navigation system?

Did I not mention satellite navigation? Most rental companies will not guarantee the car has sat nav built in, but they will let you rent a separate sat nav unit. The cost is at least $15 per day.

My advice? If you can bring your own, then do. You can buy one cheaply in the U.S. or even rent one and pick it up when you get to your hotel.

Phew — we’ve dodged that extra cost, so now we need to consider insurance. Which insurance you get as standard with the car rental varies significantly from country to country. Nearly all will include liability insurance, but the question is whether it includes Collision Damage Waiver (CDW).

In the U.K., CDW is standard, but there will be a deductible (called “excess” in British English). The excess works the same way as other insurance polices and simply means you will have to pay the first part of any claim before the insurance pays out.

In the rest of Europe, whether CDW is included as standard varies from country to country — and even if CDW is included, you may not be covered for theft of the vehicle or for any damage to the tires or windshield. For more details take a look at this article.

You can upgrade the insurance to give you more coverage, but before you do, check your credit card to see what protection it offers. Otherwise look into buying a policy in advance. I rent cars a lot, and I have an annual European policy; it covers for CDW, any excess, theft and damage for tires and windshield, as well as misfueling (i.e., putting gasoline in a car with a Diesel engine). The cost of the annual policy is cheaper than paying for excess insurance for a two-week rental!

Oh, another upsell. Do you need an extra driver? That will be an extra $15 per day. OK, that is less of an upsell and more just a practical, “Do we need an extra driver or not?” Some companies may allow a spouse as an additional driver for no charge, but make you sure that you have that in writing.

One last thing before we get into the car. Let’s do a walk around the vehicle and look for any damage. I know the agent said there is no need, but we must check. If the car is parked in a dark corner, we will move it into the light before we check it. That way we are less likely to miss any damage. We’ll also take some pictures just to be on the safe side.

Ok, I think that is it; if you’re ready, hop in the passenger seat, buckle up, and let’s start this journey.


Before we can set off, I do need to check if you are old enough. For most countries in Europe you have to be at least 21 to rent a car. In some countries, such as Spain and the U.K., if you are under 25, you will pay a “young driver surcharge.” That can cost at least $40 per day, so think carefully about who you designate as a driver.

Right, off we go — you will see we are driving on the left side of the road (which is the correct side). Most of Europe drives on the right-hand side, but the U.K., Ireland, Malta and Cyprus all drive on the left, so watch out.

That does of course mean that the gear stick (sorry, gearshift) is on the left, not the right. Did you notice it? Yes, it means we have a manual car, not an automatic. Manual cars are very common in Europe. You can rent an automatic, but make sure you check the company carefully. For some it only adds about $10 a day — for others it means they double the price.

If you can avoid the companies that charge double for renting an automatic, then you should; if you are not used to a manual, I would recommend renting the automatic. You only have to look at some of the issues our readers have had with clutch damage, such as this case and this case, to see the issues driving a manual causes if you are not used to one.

Now I know what you are wondering: how do you know we are going the right way? That is easy. As well as having your own map, there are many useful route planners: Michelin, for example, has an excellent route planner for Europe, so just remember to print off your route before you come (you don’t want to have to find a printer when you get to your hotel).

After doing quite a bit of driving, it must be time to fill up. In Europe, we fill up with petrol or diesel — gas is, well, gas.

This is when you are truly in for a shock. Petrol can easily cost $1.50 a liter (about $5.50 a gallon).

Not surprisingly our cars tend be smaller — a lot smaller. However, when you do rent a car, don’t automatically go for the smallest one if you are going on a long journey. A larger car will give you more room for luggage, and the total cost including petrol may not be much more if you are going to be using fast roads with a lot of accelerating.

If you want to know current prices, this website has them.

Sadly, our trip is almost over and there is still so much to tell you — too much information to include here. So, for more information on driving in Europe, go to the U.K. Automobile Association website or follow this link to the U.S. State Department.

We must hurry; we don’t want to be late returning the car. Most European car rental companies charge in 24-hour blocks. Just being 15 minutes late means you get charged an extra day’s rental — so it is important to be on time.

When we return the car we have one last thing to do. We must get the agent to check the car for damage, and make sure they do it properly. Then we will take photos of the car so we can prove there isn’t any damage that isn’t already recorded.

That is it — our little tour around car rental is over, but before we finish I have one last tip. If you are coming to London and thinking about renting a car: don’t. It isn’t worth the hassle — it really isn’t. Instead use the Underground; it is much cheaper, quicker, and better for your sanity.

To work out which stops you need on the Underground use this simple journey planner on the Transport for London site. Besides planning your journey, you can check prices, the latest travel information and obtain maps of the Underground.

And if you want to travel farther afield by public transport, both in the U.K. and in the rest of Europe? Well, that is a story for another day.

For now if you are planning on coming to Europe, safe travels — and we look forward to seeing you soon.

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