As a first-time traveler from the U.S. to a foreign country, we all can be a bit like Dorothy and Toto, recognizing we're not in Kansas anymore. Understanding the common practices and rules for car rentals (or car hire as they refer to it in Europe) in advance help customers select appropriate cars while avoiding costly mistakes - or getting stranded without any (or enough) qualified drivers - on the trip.
Before Your Trip
When scheduling a trip to Europe, there are some practices and rules that simply must be known in advance. For instance, an extended family of 11 with a Ford Transit or Sprinter van at home would require at least two vehicles in Europe!
Manual Transmissions are the Default
Continental Europe is much like Kansas circa 1950 - automatic transmissions are the exception rather than the rule. A rental car in Europe is not a good place to master driving a manual, considering the driver's going to already be dealing with sitting on the right-hand side of the car with the same shift pattern! While it's practically impossible to find a manual transmission in the United States unless renting an exotic car, manual transmissions are the default in Europe. In some regions, automatic transmissions are completely unavailable, while other regions have costs for automatics that are multiple times the prices of manuals (the principles of supply and demand apply everywhere). Learning to drive a manual in advance of an international trip could be a massive cost saver.
* A cheaper way to find an automatic is often by upgrading car class, such as from economy or compact to standard or full-size!
Driver License Rules Restrict Maximum Vehicle Size
We occasionally get requests from Europe-bound customers seeking 12-15 passenger vans that cannot be filled. While many sites don't have vans available for rental (at all), the broader reason for being unable to reserve a 12-passenger van is related to law in the European Union.
Throughout the European Union, an advanced driver's license is required to drive a vehicle with more than 9 occupants (8 passengers and a driver). The largest vehicles that will come up in a search for vans will thus be closer to a minivan in the U.S. than a 12-passenger van! Fortunately, the rental car companies always provide the seating capacity of vehicles during the booking process.
The full-size van is designed to seat 9, the maximum allowed by law in the European Union.
Read the Car Descriptions for Listed Capabilities
When booking cars, the seating capacity and storage capacity are always listed. However, a first-time traveler to Europe might not realize vehicles there - on average - are a bit smaller than the average vehicle in the United States due to the cost of fuel, cultural perspectives, and other factors.
One of my U.K. cousins made her first visit to the U.S. in 1999 and I picked her up at Washington-Dulles Airport after work. She checked out my 1998 4-door Ford Escort and asked how I could afford to operate such a large car.
At AutoSlash, we receive a lot of customers who want the "cheapest possible" car. Just like the example above for vans, it's critical to look at the vehicle capacity when booking - it's possible to end up with a 2-door vehicle with two seats and effectively no cargo room if one tries to find the cheapest possible option!
Know the Routes to be Followed
Why? Although there are no longer any passport checkpoints in Europe and the mileage might be listed as "Unlimited", that doesn't mean a rental car can go anywhere and everywhere! Any applicable Geographic Restrictions are listed when making a reservation under the Rules and Information tab - the same information is repeated in the See Rules link on the reservation confirmation.
Here's an example of a Europcar rule from Spain. Not only are some European Union countries disallowed but the car can only be used on the continent proper; a rule of "No islands" could easily cramp a lot of European vacations!
At the Rental Counter
The rental experience at the counter is much like the U.S. There will be time spent standing in line, presenting documents, and listening to the pitches of counter agents (paid on commission) attempting to sell you add-on products and services. Some parts of the interaction will vary greatly, though.
Rental Counters Won't Know AARP or AAA.
Have you seen the "You Don't Know AARP" commercials? Well, the staff at the pickup counter in Brussels doesn't know AARP. The rules of those programs specify applicability to U.S. rentals only -- don't expect to receive any benefits from the rental counter with those cards (AAA's free car seat at Hertz is not going to help when abroad)!
Maximum Driver Age is a Concept
We all know that it's hard for drivers under the age of 25 to rent a car anywhere in the world without an additional fee. In numerous European countries, it's difficult (if not impossible) for renters over the age of 70! Again, our friends at AARP don't advocate for individuals outside the United States.
If a Document is Described as Required …
Renting a car in the U.S., it's rare (for instance) to be asked to prove insurance coverage. Abroad, the rental agents might be much more stringent on enforcement. If the Rules of a reservation say a specific document is required, bring that document. Otherwise, you'll get stuck paying for fees that are otherwise avoidable. In one case, we have even seen a rental car company require a 10,000-euro credit card authorization for individuals who lack the insurance documentation required in the rental's rules.
On the Road (not with Kerouac)
Finally, the driver is on the road and it's time to start the European adventure! Here's where a driver must be hyper-vigilant, as rules - even street signage - vary on a county-by-country basis.
Which Side of the Road?
Going to the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, or Malta? The driver will be driving on the left-hand side of the road, just an added bit of cognitive dissonance after the driver hops into what a U.S. resident would consider the "passenger" side of the car. Fortunately, the rest of Europe has vehicles operating on the right-hand side of the road.
These Road Signs Look Different
The European Union adopted standards* for road signs that vary from the signage standards in the United States. While some signs (like "Stop") are readily familiar, many drivers get confused by the Prohibitory signs within red circles - whether there's a slash or not, the sign means "no".
It is always the driver's responsibility to understand the local rules, regulations, and signage that can vary country-by-country - in the case of Europe, this can be "within minutes"! A driver prone to vertigo doesn't want to look at this listing of country-by-country comparisons.
* Suffering from insomnia? Here's the full regulation.
Color Coding at Fuel Pumps may be "Backward"
When it's time to refuel, read those fuel pumps carefully. The color coding of the handles in some countries is the exact opposite of the United States (where black always denotes gasoline and green always denotes diesel). Refueling with the wrong type of fuel is a very costly mistake in a rental car.
Speed Cameras don't provide a Buffer
Driving in an area with speed cameras (read, "Europe")? The only advice we can provide is "don't speed". Otherwise, the "Administrative Fees" from the rental car company and traffic citations will start showing up on the driver's credit card many months after the trip has ended.
Speaking of Speeding, The AutoBahn has Rules
Chris @ AutoSlash had a nice outing on the AutoBahn recently in a sleek 2-door Mercedes-Benz sports car on a cheap AutoSlash rate. The rest of us are still jealous.
Fortunately, we know he's a pretty good rule follower and was already aware the AutoBahn has many regulations. In fact, many areas of the Autobahn have strict speed limits! The expression of "patience is a virtue"? The impatient practice of passing on the right is likely to result in a citation as an unsafe act.
In many city centers, the government actively discourages driving through tolls and other fees. Some areas completely forbid car traffic. Italy is at the forefront in restricting cars in city centers through Limited Traffic Zones (Zona Traffico Limitato). Inadvertently cross into one of those zones and a camera will notice; the result will be over $100 in fines (from the municipality) and fees (from the rental car company) for each occurrence. Never assume it's fine to enter a zone because the car in front has done so, as residents of the immediate area receive ZTL exemptions.
Returning the Rental - A Last Minute Potential Fee
After selecting the right car, providing the right documents, and avoiding citations (from police, speed cameras, and traffic cameras), it's now time to return the rental car and head home. Some rental car companies - particularly in Ireland - still have a potential fee in store.
A Charge to Pay Via Credit Card?
While traveling abroad, customers occasionally encounter situations where a credit card is required to start a rental (proves credit-worthiness of customers) but there is simultaneously a fee to pay the final bill with a credit card. Some travelers may complain that the practice invalidates their credit card protection on rentals; Ireland - where this practice is most prevalent - is already excluded from most credit card rental car protection.
The fee to pay via credit card on these rentals can be as high as 30 euro, well more than the credit card processing fees incurred by the rental car company. A customer can avoid this fee (listed in the reservation's rules) by paying in cash upon return of the rental vehicle.
In providing a brief overview of the nuances of renting in Europe, we don't intend to convince travelers to vacation and visit elsewhere! Our goal is to simply help avoid the headaches travelers encounter when assuming the rest of the world operates precisely like the United States.
The AutoSlash team has no fears of driving in Europe. The only part of operating a vehicle in Europe that scares us are the fuel costs!