There's nothing like seeing Europe from your own set of wheels, even taking into account the manic traffic patterns and driving methods. A car grants you the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, turning up a dirt road to visit a vineyard or down a back alley to explore a medieval town.
OK, so cars do have one big drawback: they are pretty expensive, especially when compared to riding the rails, or even flying. I don't mean just the rental cost. Gasoline in Europe costs roughly four times what it does here. No joke. That's part of why they drive so many of those teensy, fuel-efficient, little Matchbox cars over there, and why they're still churning out diesel-powered sedans and wagons.
And let's not forget parking garages in cities that cost $20 a night. High daily rates, mandatory insurance, obscure vehicle drop-off fees. Yep, renting a car in Europe can be a pretty costly proposition.
We're here to help.
There's no place like home....to book your wheels
Don't wait until you're over there to rent a vehicle. It is invariably cheaper to do it from home. Also, with few exceptions (Dan Dooley in Ireland comes to mind), most major European rental agencies are now part of, or affiliated with, the big U.S. agencies (Hertz, Avis, National), so going direct to the European ones doesn't yield a better deal.
It goes without saying you should shop around. There seems to be nothing so variable as a car rental quote. Go online to each of the major company's Web sites and find a base rate for each. Then call them up--call each of them up--and see if you can do better. Sometimes just calling the same company twice will yield two different rates. It's very frustrating.
Once you know all the best prices, go to Auto Europe (autoeurope.com), which operates something like a consolidator for car rentals and usually can beat the best rate offered direct from any company.
As it is with airfares, it's important to be flexible with car rentals. Have the rental agent run the numbers for all sort of scenarios. Sometimes picking up a day earlier or later (same for drop-off) can save you big bucks. Unless you're leaving the metropolitan area directly from the airport and not even bothering to visit the major city to which it is attached, always pick up from downtown locations, not the airport, as there is invariably an usurious extra fee for airport rentals. Trade down a few models; do you really need the Ferrari convertible, or can you make do with a Fiat Punto? Even try different pick-up/drop-off cities--you never know.
Share the love, cut the cost
Renting is a particularly expensive proposition for the solo traveler, who has to shoulder the entire cost himself. For families or small groups, however, the fact that there's just one lump fee actually works in your favor, as the amount is spread across each person's costs. Sometimes the magic number of total passengers is three, sometimes four, but at some point renting a car becomes cheaper than buying three or four separate train tickets.
Still, even if it's just one or two of you and therefore renting is going to take a big bite out of your budget, there can be situations in which renting a car is worth the expense. If you are at all planning to visit the villages of Provence, the hilltowns and vineyards of Tuscany, the whitewashed pueblos of Andalucia, or any other itinerary rarely of never served by trains or buses, get the car. The truer Europe lies in the small towns, not the big cities. Don't short-change your experience by short-changing your budget.
Rent by the week, or pay the consequence$
Daily rental rates for periods less than one week are staggeringly high; it can cost almost as much to rent for two days as it does for seven. It's just one of the annoying realities of the industry. If, however, you only expect to need a vehicle for a day or two here and there, there are two loopholes.
Look into the rail-and-drive passes available from Rail Europe (raileurope.com). These get you several days of unlimited rail travel on a flexi-pass (see the Rails section for an explanation) along with several days of car rental. You can add rail days or car days as needed to customize the pass to fit your schedule.
P-lease don't rent for long periods of time
If you're spending at least 17 days in Europe, do not rent a car. Lease one instead. For periods longer than 17 days, short-term leasing a car fresh off the factory floor is almost always cheaper--often by 20 to 50 percent--than renting. And since the car is technically yours, you get full insurance coverage--no added charges for CDW or theft protection, no deductible, and no taxes (foreigners don't have to pay VAT on purchases). You also get something no rental can give you: that that new-car smell.
This is not a new phenomenon or a fly-by-night operation. These are deals set up directly by Renault, Pugeot, and other manufacturers, and they've been offering them since the 1950s--it's just never been widely advertised. It's easiest to arrange a lease through one of three agencies.
Europe By Car (800/223-1516, or 212/581-3040 in New York, europebycar.com) has the widest selection of vehicles by far, and while the cheapest are usually something French (a Renault or Pugeot), anything from a Ford to a Beemer is available.
The European car rental specialist Auto-Europe (888/223-5555, autoeurope.com), which for standard rental contracts works just like an airline consolidator, also has a leasing program with Peugeot.
If you'd prefer to go straight to the source, Renault Eurodrive (800/221-1052, or 212/532-1221 in New York, renaultusa.com) has an office set up in the U.S. that does nothing but arrange these short-term leases on its own vehicles. The big asset with Renault is that they throw in a free cell phone to use while you are there.
A few other side benefits: since you're technically buying the car (with a buy-back clause in the purchase agreement) you get exactly the make and model you want, not the "Opel Astra or similar" a rental agent promises.
You don't have to pony up the $5 per day for any additional drivers. It's your car, you can let your husband drive if you want to. Also, leasing is available to anyone over age 18 (rental firms often won't rent to people under 23 or 25 years old).
There's no extra charge for dropping off in a different location from where you picked up--though any pick up or drop-off made outside France usually tacks on $50 to $175--and, unlike with rentals, airport pick-ups are (usually) no more expensive than downtown.
A limitation: you can pick up and drop off pretty much only at major cities and airports; there is no vast network of rental offices (though you do get the usual 24-hour emergency call number).
Shifting to manual controls--now
Stick-shift models are always cheaper than ones with automatic transmission. What's more, you get better gas mileage (and Europe's high gas prices will make you thankful for that), plus you have more control over your vehicle and driving technique, which can be especially useful when navigating twisting Alpine roads or the impossibly narrow stone alleyways of medieval towns.
Be a country driver
Avoid at all costs renting a car for your time in any major city. Public transportation is efficient, cheap, and always gets you where you want to go, even on the outskirts. Driving, on the other hand, is a frightening, expensive, and pointlessly time-consuming experience.
Not only is the traffic horrendous (and local traffic laws and practices only semi-scrutable), but gas is terribly expensive, as is parking. Speaking of parking, there isn't any. Not, at least, where you want to go. Most street-side parking is time-limited and pricey. Your best bet if you end up with a car and are in a city is to find a large, cheap communal garage and stick your vehicle there for the duration.
The best overall rental strategy is to arrange to pick up your car at some downtown office on the last day you are in the first city of your trip, and to drop it off on your first day in the last city on your itinerary. Um, that may have made little sense. In other words, spend your three days in Rome, then pick up the car on the morning of the fourth day to spend a week driving leisurely northwards through Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and the Veneto, and finally drop the car off as soon as you get to Venice.
Conveniently, this technique also helps you avoid the airport pick-up/drop-off charge. Instead of driving into town and parking the thing for three days (figure on $30 to $40 a day), you can just use the high speed rail link to get downtown (usually $7 to $20). Also, it shortens you rental period and saves you some dough that way.
Don't let the man stick it to you
Treat car rental companies like the worst kind of snake oil salesmen, 'cause that's how they treat you. They'll try their hardest to hide as many fees from you as possible so that their price looks like the best deal in town.
Don't let them.
Pressure them to reveal all the fees involved, then get it all in writing and don't let the actual car office in Europe where you pick the vehicle up (or the one where you drop it off) try to tack on anything else, as they often will try to do. They will try to bamboozle you with fine print to cheat you out of more money. Sad but true. Here are some (thoroughly legal) scams to watch out for.
Except in Spain and Italy, where some kick-back local laws make purchasing theft protection and CDW (the Collision Damage Waver) from the rental agency itself mandatory, you do not have to buy this insurance. Don't let them force-feed you all these extra fees. These days, almost every credit card covers CDW if you use it to pay for your rental. Tell the rental agent that. Fax her a copy of your card agreement's fine print if you have to. Don't let the company bilk you out of money for insurance coverage you already have.
On a related note, make sure the rental agent quotes you a price for absolutely everything. Don't let her get away with leaving off the taxes and such, as they can be hugely significant. In my experience, the original price quoted--just for the rental, before they get into taxes (often, multiple taxes), drop-off fees for returning to a different location, mandatory insurance, and more--turns out to be roughly half of what the final price is.