Motoring in Europe can be a challenge for the American psyche: the narrow lanes, the aggressive steering, the irritating tendency to drive on the “wrong” side in the UK, the complexity of dealing with different languages and … cue the screeching sound of fingernails on a blackboard … the horror of being on the road in ITALY.
Yes, driving in Europe does require a different set of muscles but with careful preparation you will only have to admire the Carabinieri from a distance.
Let’s be straight with each other. A car rental is great for some routes round Europe – in particular exploring little towns and hamlets ill-served by public transport – but not a great idea for really major cities. The key, as so often, is planning; know where you are going, establish your itinerary and sort out your transport accordingly. Here are five tips in the run-up to your journey.
Prepare proper documentation
You will need travel insurance, a driver’s license and guidebook. Start packing at least a week before your trip and check that your phone provider allows you international access. And, yes, you will need a passport, the thing that Europeans always joke that Americans don’t need because they never travel. Prove them wrong! Retrieve it from the recesses of your cupboard, open it so you get used to the texture and feel of it and check the expiry date. Remember that ordering a new passport can take between 4 and 6 weeks.
Is your destination really car-friendly?
London is a case in point. What with gridlocked roads and the congestion charge and the relative ease of public transport, a car rental would be folly. Of course, that doesn’t mean we are recommending you travel on the tube at rush hour. But, for example, the Thames River cruise from Westminster pier to Greenwich would be far more enjoyable than being caught in traffic in the City of London. Driving around other busy European capitals is not necessarily the best option either.
Likewise, you would do better on two wheels in bike-friendly Amsterdam, or taking the tram in hilly Lisbon. If you do plan to hire a car in the UK, it would be advisable to pick up in a smaller city like Bristol or Bath. Steer clear of major destinations at the start and end of your trip and also avoid picking up at an airport. In Germany, for example, if you start your hire car at an airport or station, you will play an extra 20 per cent. Learn the rules of the road of the country you are visiting. Go to the US State Department site and click on your destination for more information.
Book everything from the US
Always book the air fare before anything else. Then think about accommodation and the car rental. But every step of your journey should be pre-booked. This not only gives you peace of mind, it is also considerably cheaper than paying on a case by case basis in Europe where you don’t know what hidden expenses you may incur. If you get all your credit card fees out of the way in the US, then you know exactly what you have paid beforehand.
You will always have to beware of hidden extras. Bring back a near empty tank to the drop-off point and you may find yourself with a 200 dollar fee for fuel plus a refilling charge. So fill up the tank and make sure you keep the receipt. Return the car early to avoid incurring late payments. Sometimes you are made to pay an extra day if you return your vehicle late.
If you want an automatic vehicle, order it well in advance but remember that in Europe it can cost an extra 100 to 200 dollars a week. Cars bound for Eastern European countries like Romania and Bulgaria, as well as the Soviet Union, will also cost more because rental companies are wary of such trips. Hopping between countries will also add to your bill. It’s as well to bear in mind that Italy has the highest car rental rates and Germany the lowest.
Finally…choose a reputable company
Although many companies are available to you, it’s best to avoid very small ones. What happens if you break down in an isolated area and need help from your car rental firm? Avis, for example, has more than 350 locations in Germany alone. When you know you have a back-up in the case of an emergency you will drive more calmly.