Advice for renting a car in Europe?
March 24, 2010 7:52 PM   Subscribe

Renting a car in Europe for a few days -- what are some things we should keep in mind?

Next month, my wife and I will be in the Netherlands, and are planning to drive to Germany for a couple days to visit with friends. We've been to Europe a number of times, but never rented a car (but we are dead-set on doing it this time!).

We know a couple of basic things: gas is expensive, manual shift is cheaper.

We seek the advice of seasoned euro-car-renters on a few fronts:

1. Are there any particularly good/bad rental companies? For example, AutoEurope looks like a reasonable place, but we aren't sure of their reputation. (I imagine even US companies in Europe could easily differ from their US counterparts.)

2. Are there any tricky things we should keep in mind? Unexpected charges, difficulties? (We are renting in one city in Holland and eventually returning it to a different city in Holland.)

3. If we have insurance coverage in the US for renting, will that apply to us in Europe, or are we better off just getting the insurance at the rental place this time?
posted by kosmonaut to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: 3. Go to your credit card (visa/mc/amex) to see how their coverage works in Europe. Sometimes I'd spring for the full cover insurance, sometimes I'd just take the basic cover and use my credit card's policy. Since I never had a problem, I don't know how it would work out if I had to use it.

2. I found renting from Sixt in europe to be similar to renting a car in the US. The difference was since I was a member of their club like I am with Avis and Hertz, I had to stand in line. At least in Germany, Sixt didn't charge extra for dropping off in another city. I've always booked online and never had a problem. The charges they said I'd pay were what I'd pay.

Don't rent a Smart or other micro car, you'll want the extra horsepower on the motorways. I'd always rent BMWs, VW Passats, Audis and once a Volvo SUV. I don't remember having to pay extra for an automatic, but since I wanted a stick shift, I'd actually have to ask the clerk since they thought Americans can't drive stick so they'd save time and just give out automatics.

If you don't have your own GPS, rent one. It is nice to hear the instructions in English. Even if you know the area, it is still nice to get assurance from the robot voice.

1. I liked Sixt. They had a good selection of cars and were reasonably priced. I never had a problem with the cars or the service.
posted by birdherder at 8:13 PM on March 24, 2010

Best answer: I've spent about 4 months in The Netherlands with a rental car but always with my company paying for it.

Have you actually driven in Europe? If you haven't you will find signage much different, for example you probably won't see a single stop sign. Few signs actually have words on them.

Here (english, pdf) is the official Dutch guide to traffic. I highly recommend you at least skim the signage part. Pay special attention to how yielding in intersections works and how speed limits are marked.

Highways are never marked with NSEW, always with a big town in the direction it goes, this can be confusing if your not familiar with the local geography. I recommend renting a Tomtom (or whatever brand is available).

Germany won't be different enough to be a real problem if your comfortable with The Netherlands.

As for your specific points, for #3, call you insurance agent and ask.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:16 PM on March 24, 2010

Best answer: #1: I've rented in France from Avis and Europcar. They've both been good. I rented one-way in Norway from Hertz. It was also fine.

#2: Check the one-way surcharge for the rental. Otherwise, in my experience in France and Norway, companies in western Europe are more up front about charges than in the US.

#3: The only way to answer that question is to talk to your insurance company. I signed up for the American Express optional auto insurance coverage, which is valid everywhere I travel and rent cars, so I wouldn't have to worry about it; they charge a flat fee per rental for primary insurance coverage.

You may get better rates if you book through the local company. I've found that it was much cheaper to rent from than from But that may not work if your current address is still in the US.

Have a fun trip!
posted by brianogilvie at 8:16 PM on March 24, 2010

One thing I did not see upon skimming the Dutch guide to traffic is the yield arrows that are often painted or inset into the road surface. Triangles with their points toward you - as if you are facing a particularly coarse saw blade - signify "yield".

The Dutch drive pretty aggressively and the Frisians are the worst. They are cooperative on the motorways in only one respect I viewed: if there's a speed trap ahead you will see a lot of horizontally-held palms moving down among the oncoming traffic. In cities it is a different story. My sister got away with driving on sidewalks from time to time but one does this slowly. In general the Dutch seem pretty mindful of the risks to pedestrians and cyclists.

I don't remember if Holland is particularly equipped with roundabouts but the rules there are:

Traffic in the roundabout has the right of way over traffic approaching.
You yield to the right once -inside- the roundabout.
If you're continuing more than 180 degrees in a multilane roundabout, you take the inside lane. If less than 180 degrees you take the outside one. Be aware if you change your mind, people in the inside lane may think you're leaving. Theoretically they will yield to you. Theoretically.

I've rented from Europcar in Spain and France, and in no case have I had the slightest problem. Between credit card cover and my home policy I haven't had to take any of the coverages offered by the rental company.
posted by jet_silver at 8:57 PM on March 24, 2010

nthing Sixt.

(We are renting in one city in Holland and eventually returning it to a different city in Holland.)

This is more applicable to southern Europe, where the lunchbreak is sacred, but if you pick up your car during the middle of the day, get confirmation that if you drop it off when the office is closed, you won't get charged for an extra day.

Automatics aren't expensive per se: it's just that the selection generally starts at 'American sedan' size: Sixt's smallest automatic is a Volvo S60 / Merc C-Class, when you might prefer something a bit smaller, cheaper and less thirsty since there's just the two of you -- and you get the option of a funky A-class or Megane, both of which have plenty of motorway oomph. Don't fear the diesel, if one's available: you will get better mileage (or km-age). But do remember not to put petrol in it. (Which is priced by the litre ~ 1/4 gal.) When filling up, check that your credit/debit cards work with the pumps, and have some cash handy just in case.

Dutch cities (and German ones, I'd imagine) can have pretty elaborate one-way systems. A GPS may be your friend, but don't be a slave to it, especially in the town centres.
posted by holgate at 8:59 PM on March 24, 2010

Get familiar with the Autobahn no-speed-limit sign. Autobahns are not speed-limit-free end-to-end, you don't want to get caught doing 200 in a 120 zone. Also, the "you have the right-of-way" and "you don't have the right-of-way" anymore signs, and that the light becomes red+yellow for a sec so you can shift gears before it goes green, and that in most places you can't turn right on red.

When I was there, there was a sticker you were supposed to get to drive your car in Austria. Ask what countries you can take the car to, especially if you plan to go outside the EU. There was a sticker for the Czech Republic too, I think. This was 2004, things might have changed.

At least in Czech Republic, it was MUCH cheaper to get a rental locally at the last minute than internet prices (even internet prices for local companies). Our reservation with one (small, actually kinda shady) local place didn't fall through, we asked the hostel receptionist for a number, she actually called a local place, negotiated for us, and got us a car for less than half the internet prices of Avis or Hertz (of course, we paid in cash and signed a mystery contract in Czech, so that's not for the faint of heart...)

Also, I guess you're supposed to double check if the car is Diesel or Gas. When I rented a car in Prague, the guy (with whom the only shred of common language I had was German) made a point of making me repeat several times to him "BENZIN... DIESEL NEIN... BENZIN...", so I suppose diesel cars are fairly common there, and tourists make that mistake a lot.

You can safely drive at 200km/h on the Autobahn, but (at least in our car) that chugs gas like crazy. Like half the efficiency of driving at 160. Balance how fast you want to go with how much you want to spend.

Street parking is a bitch. A double bitch in downtown places. A triple bitch in downtown Vienna. And then there are arcane rules (can't remember where, or the exact text) like "on narrow streets, parking on the odd-side of the street on odd-numbered days, and on the even-side of the street for even-numbered days". On the other hand, Parking lots are hella expensive. Renting a car (for my group) was a way cheaper alternative for traveling between cities, but a car is just useless and inconvenient once you're there. Just park and forget it, and use transit while in town. Check beforehand if the place where you're staying has parking.
posted by qvantamon at 9:28 PM on March 24, 2010

It is much harder to hit a cyclist in the Netherlands than in most other countries since they tend to be off on their own lines. But if you do hit one it is up to you prove that you took steps to avoid them. Keep a look out for them as well as for trams.

Obvious general point is that small towns and the centre of big ones tend to have been designed before the era of cars. They have much smaller clearances to allow vehicles to pass each other and it is normal to have to dodge in and out of parked cars while looking out for bikes, pedestrians, etc. It is much easier to do this if you have a typical European, rather than a typical American, sized vehicle.

Signage tends to make more of use of icons than in the US since it assumed that a pretty high proportion of people driving in a country will not be able to understand the language. It is usually standardised across Europe although each country has its eccentric examples.

Each country (and often city) has its own special techniques for separating speeding and illegally parking tourists from (lots) of their money. Watch your speed, slow down a bit and expect to pay to park.
posted by rongorongo at 9:47 PM on March 24, 2010

Just park and forget it, and use transit while in town.

Seconded: lots of Dutch cities have park-and-ride facilities, with the option to include passes for the bus/tram/light rail in the parking fee -- if you're going to Groningen, for instance, the P+R is widespread and cheap, and parking in the city isn't.
posted by holgate at 10:00 PM on March 24, 2010

Drivers on highways in western europe are pretty religious about passing on the left and staying to the right if not passing. Expect to be honked at angrily if you putter in the left lane like everyone does in the US.
posted by randomstriker at 10:31 PM on March 24, 2010

Be sure of your fuels. A coworker put "gazoil" in a gasoline-powered rental once in France. Gazoil is diesel; it ruined the motor, which was a very expensive mistake.

Generally, they use a lot of diesel fuel and turbodiesel powerplants over there, and with the price of fuel being what it is, you want one if you can get it.

Get the smallest car you can tolerate if you'll be driving in cities much. Parking is impossible, and you have more options if you fit in smaller spaces. (Though I hear this is less true of Germany than of most of Europe.)
posted by richyoung at 10:44 PM on March 24, 2010

Do not rent from Europcar. They are thieves. I tried to rent from Europcar in Spain. They informed me 1 week before I was to travel that my reservation was cancelled because they didn't have the class of car I'd requested. So I called another company, got a car, etc. When I returned to the US, there was a charge of $1600 on my debit card for the Europcar rental. I spent hours on the phone with them before calling my bank and letting them deal with it. Europcar is a scam.
posted by sanko at 10:53 PM on March 24, 2010

At least in Czech Republic, it was MUCH cheaper to get a rental locally at the last minute than internet prices...

I have a different experience - renting in Spain, it was much more expensive going to the rental place at the last moment. If we had booked through internet a few days earlier, we'd get 30% lower prices!

Some rental companies may give you unlimited mileage, others will have limits on how much you can drive in a day. Read the fine print.

Nthing the parking issue. Don't get a huge SUV or sedan if you plan on going downtown. GPS navigation is great, but check beforehand if you have the maps for all the areas you're going through.
posted by gakiko at 12:36 AM on March 25, 2010

Rent a smallish car (i.e. VW Golf size) - it'll be fine on motorways and a lot easier to park than something larger. Practice parallel parking before you leave.

Also, you're typically offered the chance to pay an additional fee to bring the insurance excess down to zero. Whether you go for this or not depends on how risk averse you are. But it is expensive. There are third party companies that you can insure with that will cover this risk alone for less money. I don't know how this works for US-ians though.

And read what you're signing. Carefully. Even among the big companies, it can be a bit scammy - are you paying their price for a full tank of fuel or do you intend to bring it back with a full tank; what is your insurance cover; are you paying for other options you don't want?
posted by MuffinMan at 1:37 AM on March 25, 2010

On the Autobahn, stay on the right lane if you plant to stick to the speed limit. If you do overtake, make sure you are 20 km/h faster Than the other guy. I mention this because US drivers have a reputation for being slow and relaxed. If there is a BMW flashing its light at you from behind, get out of the way, they are top of the food chain. In some countries you have to have light on in daytime. avoid using the car in cities. Parking is a horrible experience. Do not get a large SUV, parking spaces and lanes are often too small for comfort.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:06 AM on March 25, 2010

I've used a couple of times and received better prices than the big guys. It was originally a reco from Lonely Planet and they seem to deal more with the local, small guys. We were also able to use a different drop-off city at almost no extra charge.
posted by dripdripdrop at 5:06 AM on March 25, 2010

Echoing sanko: I rented from Europcar, and had a good experience with pickup and drop-off, etc, but when we got back to the states they had charged us ~5 times the price they had stated. Many hours on the phone to get it sorted out.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 6:56 AM on March 25, 2010

Things you didn't ask but might want to know:
- if you want an automatic, you should request it in advance and make sure it will be there when you are. They also may not be available in smaller offices/cities. They may cost you a pretty penny, and will be either very small or very fancy.
- GPS is SO AWESOME in the States, and here it is INDISPENSABLE. If you are taking a long enough trip, buy one in the states as well as the European card.
- You can park in either direction on most streets, and often on the sidewalk and even on the corner of the curb over the intersection. But do pay the meter if there is one (they are easy).
- If your route takes you through FRANCE be aware that there are police hiding EVERYWHERE and they ticket mercilessly.

I got great customer service through both Avis and National here in France. I don't know anything about insurance.
posted by whatzit at 12:34 PM on March 25, 2010

I've used to book my last two car rentals for Europe. They find the best prices for customers and then book them through whichever rental place is the cheapest. In Ireland and Italy, they booked us with two good companies (can't remember which ones they were, but we had no problems).

I had to call Nova Care Hire on a couple of occassions and they were quick to answer their phone. You can also purchase the 3rd party insurance that Muffinman mentioned on the Nova site (which is a lot cheaper than buying it through the car rental company and covers more than the insurance offered by the credit card companies.

Also worth mentioning-

-If you plan on taking the car from one country to another, check with the rental company first. They sometimes have rules against taking their cars out of the country.

-I have always rented "automatics" when in Europe, but they aren't quite the same as automatics in the US. They didn't have a " park gear," just "neutral." Be sure to use the parking brake every time you park (our car rolled across a parking lot with just a minute incline)

-Europeans use the term "car hire" instead of "rental car." This confused me at first.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:51 PM on March 25, 2010

Drivers on highways in western europe are pretty religious about passing on the left and staying to the right if not passing.

It is actually illegal in Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy and Belgium (to name just those I know for sure about) to pass on the right. Don't do it. Drivers don't usually expect to be passed on the right and you may cause an accident.

And if you are in the left lane with no cars immediately around you in the right lane, you must move to the right lane. Staying in the left lane unnecessarily will get you a fine if the police sees you.

Europe has what is called "lane discipline". Driving in the US literally drove me nuts when I first started, although it is about a billion times more relaxing to drive in the US than in Europe.

Oh, and never ever ever ever turn right on red in Europe. Even after a year of driving around in the US I still feel incredibly guilty each time I turn right on red.

(Reverse right and left above for U.K. driving, obviously.)
posted by spherical_perceptions at 2:46 PM on March 25, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the information everyone (including the general driving-in-Europe stuff I didn't ask for explicitly). Lots of great stuff to think about -- I feel much more prepared now!
posted by kosmonaut at 3:07 PM on March 25, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, and in case anyone is curious, I think we're going to try Sixt -- we hadn't heard of them until your recommendations. And the Amex tip is great -- we'll use our Amex card to get the good auto insurance they offer.
posted by kosmonaut at 3:51 PM on March 25, 2010

A little late to the party here, but I've been using AutoEurope since 2004 and never had a problem booking cars in western Europe (I'm a US resident).
posted by yorkie at 12:48 PM on January 24, 2011

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