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We Americans are used to renting a car on vacation. Why not? We fly to Vegas, Hawaii or Florida, pick up our rented Mustang Convertible or Minivan at the airport and enjoy being able to go everywhere we want. The cars and the roads are the same, the laws and driving customs are similar, and, of course, in the good ole USA, it’s about the only way to get from point A to point B. We might even rent a European car, like a BMW or Mercedes, so renting in Europe should be about the same, right? Not exactly. The cars are different, the customs are different and the costs may be a lot different than at home.
Let's start with the Cars:
Manual or Automatic?
Unless you’re renting some exotic supercar here in the USA, you’re going to get an automatic transmission. Many people under 50 have never even been in a standard car, let alone know how to drive one. Manual transmissions are alive and well in Europe.
Smaller, lighter and more economical cars are the norm in Europe. Have you ever seen a VW Polo, or a Mercedes A series? These cars will make your small SUV look absolutely huge. To be more economical (remember, gas costs about $5 a gallon or more) they have smaller (or maybe diesel) engines and manual transmissions.
Now, consider the size car you want. We Americans tend to overpack. Will two adults and four suitcases fit into the econobox offered? Remember, we’re not taking that 10+ hour flight to go for a long weekend, or, if there’s a cruise involved, that adds another layer of clothing and accessories necessary. You don’t want to travel every day with a suitcase on your lap.
Petrol or Benzin?
More about diesel…. Diesel is not popular in the US for a variety of reasons, but is very popular in Europe because Deisel vehicles tend to be more economical to operate. Nowadays, they don’t belch smoke, or smell bad like they used to, but if the smell of diesel fuel makes you gag when filling up, this could be an issue. Also, you may have to be careful when fueling since a tank of gasoline will ruin a diesel car (and vice versa), so you MUST know whether your car takes Petrol or Benzin (gasoline or Diesel).
Then there are the Costs and Space to consider:
It’s more than just the rental fee. Everything costs more in Europe. Fuel costs $5 to $7 a gallon (and it’s measured in liters, just to fool you). Let’s see, 3 ¾ liters in a gallon at 1.50 Euros a liter when a Euro is $1.20…take my word for it, it’s expensive. Then, there’s parking. Nearly every place in the USA is surrounded by acres of free parking. Check in to the Hilton, or the Courtyard, or the Holiday Inn, and parking is free (unless you’re in NY or San Francisco or LA, or other large cities. If you’re used to those parking prices, you will be comfortable in Europe). Few hotels have parking facilities, and if they do they can cost upwards of $30 a night. The spaces may be so small that your passengers need to get out of the car before you park; since they won’t be able to open the doors afterward (I’ve seen it, believe me) Would you be able to drive your rental into a very narrow car elevator to get to the underground parking? The Autobahn in Germany is free, but many of the highways in other countries are not. However, they do not always have toll booths, you must have a tag in the window. You can purchase one at the rental car agency or they’ll advise you how and where to get one.
What about Customs, Laws, and other Differences?
In the good ole USA driving laws and customs are mostly the same state to state. Not so in Europe. The British drive on the other side of the road, Italians consider lanes and signs more suggestions than laws, if the Germans are flashing their lights while coming up behind you, it just means their high performance Beemer is going a lot faster than your rented Skoda wagon, and you should get over to the right (NOW), and so on.
Always do extensive research on the area where you’re going. Remember, you probably won’t be able to read the street signs so learn a few in the local language before you go. You CAN get a speeding ticket from a camera, and there’s not a phone book full of lawyers offering to get you off for a fee. The rental agency will just add it to your bill, and it could be significant with a surcharge.
Have a beer, then drive to the next destination? After all, in Europe, beer is cheaper than water, but it could be more expensive in the long run. The laws (and the beer) are both stronger in Europe.
Be sure to check with your home car insurance carrier. You may not have any coverage in another country. Also, travel insurance may cover you but probably not if you bought it from the airline or cruise line, and, of course, you can buy the insurance from the rental agency.
Alternatives to renting a car?
Unlike the USA, most countries in Europe have an extensive network of comfortable, reliable public transportation. You can get to all but the most obscure locations using this service. You may have to take a train and a bus…and maybe even walk a little bit, but you can still get there. Also, if you get close to your destination at a train station, there’s always a taxi waiting to help you finish your journey.
The other benefit is you don’t have to “watch the road” and think about the driving laws, just sit back, have a beer and watch the scenery go by. Thinking about going 100MPH on the Autobahn, how about nearly 200 MPH on the train?
I learned to drive in Germany and got my driver's license there but I’d rather take the train (or other public transportation). It’s more economical. It’s comfortable, convenient and I’ve never been stuck in a traffic jam or construction zone (that I was aware of) on the train.
I can have a meal or a snack, watch the sights go by, and get nearly everywhere easily.
If you are a person that just needs the independence of driving a car, enjoy, just do your research first.