Renting a car in Europe
Car travel allows a freedom offered by no other form of transportation. We may be big fans of the train, but we admit that renting your own auto allows you to stop and smell the roses. (And then some!) If you want to get off the beaten path, it's hard to beat getting around by car.
European car rentals can be pricey and language barriers can seem formidable. This guide is meant to serve as a non-nonsense introduction to renting a renting a car in Europe.
Finding a Rental
Car rentals can be found through travel agents, travel booking sites, car rental websites, and car rental consolidation websites. We'll explain all of these below.
We have four general guidelines for getting good rates on car rentals in Europe: longer rentals; booking through a car rental consolidator; remaining flexible with dates; and planning in advance.
1. Longer rentals are good.
Rent a car for several days, a week, or even longer. As a general rule, you'll find that car rental per diem rates decrease significantly as the rental period lengthens.
2. Check prices with a consolidator.
Car rental consolidators will price cars from a range of rental agencies and will usually offer you a wider range of options at lower rates. Note that this is largely—not exclusively—true. There are exceptions to this rule.
3. Be flexible with dates.
By maintaining flexibility with rental period, pick-up and drop-off locations, days of the week chosen for pick-up and drop-off, and car rental duration, you may be able to save even more.
4. Plan in advance.
Last-minute deals do exist, but in general your best bet is to make a reservation a month or two in advance.
There are basically three booking options: through rental car agencies, though online travel sites like Orbitz, and through rental car consolidators. We're omitting the choice of going through a travel agent here, because we've never found travel agents to be able to deliver on cheap car rentals.
Big rental car agencies
Big rental car companies, like EuropCar, Hertz, Avis, and Budget, all operate Web sites. Going directly to these sites offers a very real sense of security for many. You know what you're going to get, and you put your fears to rest. For repeat renters, going through car rental agencies sites may also yield all sorts of frequent user perks. For some, these perks may encourage customer loyalty. However, we've found that the big rental car agencies usually don't offer their best rates on their websites.
Online travel agencies
Online travel Web sites like Orbitz and Expedia offer helpful rate comparisons for European car rentals. You can search for your dates and see comparative rates offered by competing car rental agencies. These rates won't very likely be as inexpensive as those offered by rental car consolidators, and they'll typically increase once relevant service charges are taken into account.
Rental car consolidators
Rental car consolidators provide the cheapest rates for car rentals in Europe. Similar to flight and hotel consolidators, rental car consolidators are able to negotiate special, cheaper rental rates with car rental companies. Their buying power means that they are able to give consumers the cheapest rates out there. The largest of these consolidators, Auto Europe, offers what we believe are the best rates on car rentals in Europe.
We became fans of Auto Europe after finding that the rates it quoted us to be vastly cheaper (often around 25 percent less expensive) than those on offer through individual car rental agencies.
With Auto Europe, you're renting directly from top car rental companies, including EuropCar, Hertz, Avis, and Budget, but with a cost-saving difference. Auto Europe guarantees that the rental rate they offer will always be cheaper than those offered directly by the rental car company or any other online rental agency.
To this end, if you can find a better price, Auto Europe will commit to beating it by 10 percent. In addition, Auto Europe never charges for cancellations or order changes. They don't even charge a penalty for a no-show.
Auto Europe's headquarters are in the United States, in Portland, Maine. Additional offices are located in Europe. Auto Europe provides customer service 24 hours a day, seven days a week through a toll-free number accessible world-wide. Cars can be booked online or by telephone.
See the Auto Europe site for more details.
Incidentally, Auto Europe operates not just in Europe but also in some parts of the Americas, Australasia, Asia, and Africa.