How to calculate the “real cost” of renting a car in Europe

How "Smart" is it to rent a car in Italy? Photo by Big Baby Miguel

How much will it really cost you to rent a car in Europe? You know that the price you see on car rental websites isn’t the final cost—as it doesn’t include insurance, gas and other incidentals. But how much are those extra charges? 

On past trips, I’ve made the mistake of underestimating these other charges, imagining that they’re probably not that much more expensive than in the States. Not surprisingly, I’ve experienced sticker shock when my credit card bill arrives and I add it all up. 

Quite often, the initial rental fee will be less than half of the total cost of the final rental experience. With a little planning, however, that shouldn’t shock you. 

Why take the time? 

Why should you go to the bother of calculating the “real cost” of renting a car before your trip? Quite simply, because you have options beyond just driving. Depending on your itinerary, you may be able to take a train, bus or airplane. By calculating the true car cost, you can make an informed decision about which means of transportation works best for your budget. 

Auto Europe

Not the final price.

For this post, I’m going to side-step the question of which mode of transportation makes the most sense for your trip. Instead, we’re sticking to cars and their “real cost.” It’s a puzzle worth solving—and should only take you about 20 minutes. Ready? 

Our 10-day trip 

For demonstrative purposes, let’s take a trip together next March, shall we? Against my better judgement, we’re also going to over-pack our itinerary, visiting four cities during our 10 days in Italy. (I’d prefer three cities–or even two. But this is a typical itinerary.) 

We’ll start in Rome, where we’ll spend two nights. Then we’ll drive up to Florence, and spend three nights there. (During one of those days, we’ll explore Tuscany by car.) Next, we’ll head to Venice, where we’ll spend two nights. We’ll then spend one day and night in Verona. Finally, we’ll speed back down to Rome, for one night, before heading home. 

With a March 1, 2011 kick-off date, the itinerary looks like this: 

March 1: Arrive in Rome. Sleep in Rome.
March 2: Visit Rome. Sleep in Rome.
March 3: Pick up car in Rome, drive up to Florence. Sleep in Florence.
March 4: Visit Florence. Sleep in Florence.
March 5: Drive around Tuscany. Sleep in Florence.
March 6: Drive to Venice. Sleep in Venice.
March 7: Visit Venice. Sleep in Venice.
March 8: Drive to Verona. Sleep in Verona.
March 9: Drive back down to Rome. Sleep in Rome.
March 10: Drive to airport. Return car. Fly home. 

For this trip, we’ll pick up our car in Rome on day three and return it one week later. (There is no need to pick it up on your first day in Rome. It will do you no good while you’re visiting Rome and will just run up costs at a garage!) 

Good; we have our schedule. Now, let’s find a car. 

1. Start with the car rental agency quote. 

Let’s get started by searching around the web for the cheapest rate for a car we like. (We’d suggest starting in our car rental section. You can search several car rental companies at once.) 

After searching around, I found a good rate for the week at Auto Europe. Their quote is $381 for a seven-day rental for a cute little Ford Fiesta, an “economy” class option. Clicking on “terms and conditions,” you’ll find the following details: 

This price includes: Unlimited mileage, sales tax, and airport surcharge. There is also theft protection and collision damage coverage, but with a very high deductible. 

This rate does not include: Insurance to cover personal injuries to anyone in the car. Gas. Road tax of €2 per day. Tolls. 

Cost: $381 

2. Add additional coverage. 

This part is up to you. Your insurance options will vary, depending on the car rental company you use, the country in which you’re renting and the type and level of coverage that you’d like to purchase. As noted above, our rental comes with some collision damage coverage, but the deductible is high—in our case, we’re liable for the first €1,200. 

At the rental office, they’ll probably offer CDW, or a “Collision Damage Waiver” that isn’t technically insurance. Rather, it states that the company will “waive” their right to hold us to the deductible in case of damage to the car. Sometimes this CDW is a good deal, but it, too, can have a high deductible (in which case the rental car company may offer an additional “zero-deductible coverage”). This sort of protection usually runs about $15–25 a day. 

Some American credit cards offer the same sort of CDW protection when you purchase the rental with their card. This can save you some serious cash. However, if you take advantage of this, the car rental company may also place a hold on your card—perhaps up to the retail cost of the car itself! (This can obviously wreak havoc with your available credit during your trip!) In case something goes wrong (the car is stolen or you’re in an accident), that card will be charged the full amount—and then you’ll have to take up the refund issue with your credit card company. (For more information on CDW and credit card insurance coverage, check out Rick Steves’ excellent overview.) 

For our example, let’s say we’re not covered by our credit card, so we purchase a decent Collision Damage Waiver at $22 per day. 

Cost: $154. 

3. Calculate distance and approximate gas charges. 

Italy map

Map it out on Google

This can be tricky—and illuminating. Please, stick with me! 

To determine the distance we’ll be driving, I just plugged each of these cities into Google Maps in the following order: Rome – Florence – Siena – Florence – Venice – Verona – Rome. If driven directly, on the highways, without stopping to explore, the trip would be 1,363 km (847 miles). 

We will be stopping and making little diversions, however, so let’s call it 1,609 km (1,000 miles). 

But what’s the fuel efficiency of our car? Again, a little search (for “Ford Fiesta fuel efficiency”) leads us to Cnet, which reports that the 2011 manual-shift Fiesta fuel economy is 28 mpg in the city (11.9 km per liter) and 37 mpg on the highway (15.7 km per liter). We’ll be doing more highway driving, so I’ll average it out to 35 mpg (14.88 km per liter). (To get the mpg-km/liter conversions, I simply typed “35 mpg” into Google, and the conversion came up automatically as a suggestion.) 

Doing a little division (1,609 km / 14.88), I can approximate the need for 108 liters of diesel for the trip. 

The average cost of diesel in August 2010 in Italy was €1.25 per liter. Multiply liters by price, and we reach €135, or $175. 

Cost: $175 

4. Calculate tolls. 

If you thought calculating distance and gas charges was fun, wait until you start in on tolls! This site, however, makes it possible to view current toll charges on Europe’s main highways. 

All European toll roads are not created equal, and charges fluctuate quite a bit depending on the country. For example, France has more expensive toll roads than Italy, while Germany’s Autobahn is free for passenger cars. Also, even in countries with expensive highways, smaller and more charming roads are almost always free to use. 

In our case, we have quite a distance to cover, so we’ll stick to Italy’s highways for most of the driving. Looking between Google Maps and the toll calculator, I came up with this: 

Rome – Florence: €14.60
Florence – Siena: We won’t take highways. No toll.
Florence – Bologna – Venice: €6.50 + €5.60
Venice – Verona: €3.70
Verona – Bologna – Florence – Roma: €5.30 + €6.50 + €14.60 

Total cost for tolls: €56.80 or $74 

5. Road tax. 

In Auto Europe’s terms and conditions, we find that Italy charges a road tax on car rentals of €2 a day, up to €32 for the rental. This will tack on €14 for our 7-day rental. 

Cost: €14 ($18) 

6. Parking. 

Florence Italy parking garage

Parking hell in Florence. Photo: Miss K

And here we are at our last major charge, but one of the most significant: parking garages. Parking is hardly ever included in the cost of a hotel room when renting in the center of a major European city. (It is often free, however, in more suburban spots or along highways, where there’s often a parking lot.) 

In our case, we’ll need to park the car seven overnights in a garage. The price will vary, of course, depending on the garage and city. With some searching, you can figure it out. In our case, we hunted around and found the following rates: 

Florence garages (3 nights): €18 per day
Venice garages (2 nights): €20 per day in Piazzale Roma
Verona (1 night): €15 (approximate–couldn’t find specific rates)
Rome garage near Termini (1 night) : €28 per day 

Total: €137 ($178) 

7. Additional charges 

There are certainly other considerations. Here are a couple of charges: 

Will you pay extra for a GPS system? Baby car seat? Extra luggage rack? 

Will you incur any traffic or speeding tickets? (Those can really get you—you’ll pay for the ticket, PLUS a “processing fee”! Read our earlier post about how speeding tickets make lousy souvenirs.) 

Are you crossing any bridges or driving through tunnels? 

Are you a young driver? In the case of our rental, the minimum driver age is 23, and drivers 23 and 24 years old will have to pay an extra fee. 

Total: In our hopeful case, $0. 

The bottom line 

We’re ready for the fun part. Let’s add it up:

Car rental: $381
Insurance/CDW: $154
Gas: $175
Tolls: $74
Road tax: $18
Parking: $178
Additional charges: 0

Total: $980

Rather incredibly, the $381 car rental has ballooned to a $980 expense! 

It’s not fun (for most people) to trudge through all of this data, but now we at least have an approximate total cost. Now we can more realistically compare this amount to the cost of taking the train between each of these destinations. We might even choose to take a budget flight between Venice and Rome. 

Or we might still rent the car. The most important thing, however, is that we make an informed choice—and don’t wind up shocked by incidental costs. 

Tell us about additional costs – and your experience 

Have you been surprised by the “real cost” of renting a car in Europe? Did you notice a way for us to save on our hypothetical rental? Did we overlook another cost? Have a story to tell? Share your experience in our comments section.

About the author

Tom Meyers
About the author: Tom Meyers created and launched EuroCheapo from his Berlin apartment in 2001. He returned to New York in 2002, set up office, and has led the EuroCheapo team from the Big Apple ever since. He travels to Europe several times a year to update EuroCheapo's hotel reviews. Tom is also a co-host of the New York City history podcast, The Bowery Boys. Email Tom. [Find Tom on Google Plus]
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Cheapo Comments

8 Responses to “How to calculate the “real cost” of renting a car in Europe”
  • Car Jamming says:

    The other ‘cost’ to take into account is your life. Find out how the roads are before you drive. My parents drove along the Amalfi Coast last summer and were very distressed by the curves, speeding cars and crashed cars hanging off the cliffs.

  • Wow, that’s an amazingly informative article! I’ve been lucky so far with car rental as I haven’t had to pay extra charges and my credit card offers all inclusive insurance (life, car and public property). I’ll make sure to bookmark this before I rent again, just in case.

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  • Karen says:

    When calculating the actual cost of a car in Euorpe, you also must also add the credit charges that show up after you are home for several months. This is what happened to us. We returned the car in Rome with a full tank of gas and absolutely no damage to the car. Two months later we were billed $400 for damages. Needless to say we are disputing the charges and fortunately for us, I took pictures of the car from all angles with the agent looking it over—-showing absolutely no damage. Our credit company has issued a refund and has not paid these false charges. Be very careful when returning your rental car and document with pictures, if possible what the car looks like on return.

    • cam says:

      We had the exact same experience as Karen – definitely be wary of those cowboys. We couldn’t believe they had the gall to pull a fast one on us like that. Our car was mint when we returned it!

  • [...] deal (and maybe you have!). However, you’re only seeing the base price. Don’t forget to estimate costs for gas, tolls, parking and insurance. Only then can you really consider whether to book a car, take trains, or book flights on low-cost [...]

  • [...] maybe we have!). However, you’re customarily saying a bottom price. Don’t forget to estimate costs for gas, tolls, parking and insurance. Only afterwards can we unequivocally cruise either to book a car, take trains, or book flights on [...]

  • yal says:

    What about “liability” insurance, does that need to be purchased or is it included in the rental price? And is there generaly a deductible?

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