Driving Vacations in Europe

Nine nifty notions to help cut car-rental costs.

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.

Yoga time

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.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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