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7 Do's and Don'ts of Car Rentals in Europe

©istockphoto/RossHelen

©istockphoto/RossHelen

If you think domestic car rentals have gotten complicated, wait until you rent one for overseas travel. It can be downright bewildering. It’s definitely gotten a lot more difficult to simply search online for a good deal, book it, pick it up and then drop it off. There’s a lot that can wrong at any one of those stages, unless you give it the full, undivided attention it deserves.

In fact, think really carefully about even renting a car. Almost anywhere you go in Europe, you can find trains, light rail, buses and taxis. One option is to use public transit and just book a local car as needed. If you’re convinced, however, that you absolutely need one fulltime, book it before you leave the U.S. and make sure you cover all your bases when it comes to protecting yourself from surprise charges that can pop up even months later on your credit card.

Do your research
Check a variety of companies’ car rental options using online comparison tools like Orbitz, Expedia or Kayak. Keep in mind that it’s often cheaper to book an off-airport car rental. But you really need to have a good understanding of where you are traveling. For that reason, it’s sometimes a lot easier to drive off an airport car rental lot than try to locate one on a maze of streets in the core of a busy foreign city.

Also, keep in mind, cars in Europe are rented for 24-hour periods. That means if you pick up you car at 4 p.m. on arrival and drop it off at 6 p.m. your day of departure, those two hours will cost you one more full day of rental.

Sometimes it makes sense to use a one-way rental. Typically, there’s no extra charge to do so within the same country (Portugal and Germany are two exceptions). It’s usually very expensive to take a rental car rented in one country and drop it off in another. Consider looking for a drop off location as close to the border of your next destination country as you can get, and then take the train across the border to the next country.

Most U.S.-based car rental companies have locations throughout Europe. For deeper discounts, you might also check with Europcar or Sixt, two European-based agencies. If your budget is super tight, consider the wholesale consolidators in Europe, Auto Europe or Europe by Car. Just beware that they are middlemen, and may not provide you will all the details you need to make a truly informed decision, or help you out if things go sideways. Whatever you do, if there is trouble, avoid signing off on something with the vendor. Call the consolidator first. They can’t help you once you’ve agreed to something to your detriment.

Keep conversion rates in mind as well, and always double check before you leave. Use Oanda.com to check conversion rates yourself. Look for the total price or the best combination of rates (all fees and taxes, add-ons you want, pickup/drop-off times and locations). You never want to just pick up, or drop off a car and leave the keys (this applies to domestically as well, by the way). Make sure the car rental office is open when you pick up and drop off. You want and need to be present when the car is inspected at the end of the rental period. Also, read the terms of your rental agreement. Make sure you understand how many allotted miles you have (unlimited or not?).

Once you find a price that works with your budget, go directly to the car rental company’s website and book it. Even if you pay, say 5 percent more than the middleman price, you won’t have to deal with a third party if something goes wrong.

©istockphoto/gaspr13

©istockphoto/gaspr13

Skip Pre-Pay
Resist pre-paying a non-refundable car rate. Even if they ask for your flight number in the booking information section, no one is going to think you’re so special that they’ll bother to monitor your arrival. If your flight gets delayed or canceled, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to negotiate a refund.

And while you’re at it, book a backup reservation with a different car rental company if you’re flying into a small airport. That way if Car Rental Option Number 1 is out of cars, you can walk over to Number 2 and use that reservation. Since it costs nothing to reserve with most car rental companies, you have nothing to lose and a back up plan in your favor.

Do Your Due Diligence
After getting the keys, make sure you take pictures or video of every inch of the car, inside and out. Don’t miss the make and model, and the license plate number. If you notice dents or scratches or tears, point them out to the rental representative and get a signed copy of the document indicating such. Take photos. Repeat on return. That way you have documented proof that you have returned the car in the same condition you picked it up in. Do not rush this part of your rental process; the risk of getting nailed for some type of damage cannot be overstated. Keep all paperwork from your transaction for at least three months, maybe more.

Don’t Rush Either End of The Transaction
Don’t rush to sign paperwork without reading it. Be careful about what you initial. Some overseas clerks may use your excitement/enthusiasm over your trip or even your sleep deprivation to your disadvantage. Even if you told the counter rep you didn’t want insurance, nothing stops them from putting something in front of you to initial or sign that states something different. Read the paperwork carefully.

©istockphoto/gremlin

©istockphoto/gremlin

Pre-Clear Your Insurance Options
Insurance requirements vary across most countries. Make sure you check with your own car insurance company to see what they do or do not cover. Don’t own car at home? Be aware: some companies won’t even rent to you without proof of your own insurance (even if you’re signing up and buying theirs). Also check with the bank your credit card originates from to see if they offer coverage too. Some do, but they may stipulate that in order to cover you in the event of an accident, you must decline insurance offered by the car rental company.

Also note that some countries, like Ireland, absolutely require you to buy their insurance even if your own car insurance or credit card will cover accidents or damage. Know what your options are before arriving at their rental counters.

You also may want to find out if the car agency puts a pre-determined amount on your credit card as a potential “damage hold.” This is especially likely to happen if you use a debit (as opposed to a credit) card. If they do put a hold on your card, and it takes your card over its predetermined spending limit, you could end up sleeping in your car because your reserved hotel won’t take your over-its-limit card.

Also, be aware that if there is an accident, most car rental companies have a buried clause that makes you financially responsible for the “out-of-use” period for the time the car—the time the car is unavailable for them to rent and make money off of it. Not all credit cards or car owner’s insurance covers this added cost. It can be substantial. Additionally, some car rental companies put large holds on your car if you opt out of their insurance. It could be as high as $5,000. Again, make a call and find out in advance of your arrival.

Do Double Check the Car
If you notice the car misfires on start up, your legs are too short or long to make it comfortable to drive or you suddenly notice a big stain on the front seat you overlooked in your pre-check, turn around and immediately return to the car rental desk. Once you drive off that lot, you could have a hard time proving anything and could get stuck paying for any of the issues you discover.

Do Not Pre-Pay for Gas
Few of us can predict how much gas we will have in a car at the end of a trip. So don’t accept the pre-pay gas option unless you’re willing to lose money for the convenience. When you do refill the tank before you return it, take a picture of the gas gauge showing that it’s full, and keep your gas receipt so you can prove it. Then make sure you save it, too, for several months, in the event that the company tries to bill you for it several months out. Do the same with all of your paperwork, pre-check and return photos. You just never know when they’ll try to slip damage charges by you, and sometimes it can be months later.

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