We have rented a car in Europe almost every single time we have visited (about 15 times in the last 25 years). There have been flawless rental experiences and ones we wish we could forget. Each time we travel to Europe with kids, we debate renting a car versus using public transportation. These are the major things you need to consider before committing to renting a car in Europe.
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What Families Need to Consider Before Making a Rental Car Booking in Europe
1. Cost of renting a car in Europe versus a train
Depending on the number of people traveling with you, renting a car can be more cost-efficient than public transportation. Since we are a family of five, it often makes sense to travel by car. It is far cheaper to pay for a rental car for a day than five one-way rail passes.
The number of people traveling with you will dictate the size of car you need. Smaller families might be fine with a compact car, but larger ones might want a transit van. Our family has three teen boys, and I drive a large SUV at home. In other words, we need space. The best way to accomplish this is through a transit van. It’s not as big as it sounds, and it’s very spacious with plenty of room for luggage.
If you are traveling with a lot of luggage, it can be easier to have a car to transport all of your bags. Hauling suitcases up and down stairs, through train stations, and running to catch the next train, can be exhausting. A car just makes things easier.
2. The amount of luggage you plan to take
Many European cars do not have large trunks, so take this into consideration when deciding whether or not to take the train or bus versus renting a car. We recommend using duffles because they fit in a trunk easier than hard-sided suitcases.
3. Whether or not you need car seats or booster seats
If you are traveling with infants and toddlers, you will certainly need car seats, but is it better to bring them with you or rent through the agency? There’s no easy answer, but we think this article about bringing your carseat to Europe is very helpful.
If you need booster seats, we would recommend ordering Bubble Bums. We used these in France and Italy, and it was very easy to travel with them.
4. What type of rental car coverage do you have?
Some insurance companies will cover rental cars abroad, but this isn’t always the case. If you have an umbrella policy, there is a better chance of coverage. Be sure to check with your automobile insurance company before your trip if you have any questions.
Several credit card companies offer rental car insurance in Europe including Chase Sapphire Reserve, some American Express cards (Platinum and Gold), Capital One, and Bank of America. Again, be sure to confirm coverage and whether you need to pay any additional fees through the rental company.
In some instances (Ireland), you may be required to pay for the rental insurance through the car rental agency.
5. Can you drive manual transmission?
An automatic car (transmission) is a luxury in Europe and there will be an extra charge if you book this option. A manual transmission rental car usually offers the best price, but might not always be the best option.
It is difficult to drive a stick car in Europe if you are driving on the opposite side of the road (like in the UK) or if you are trying to follow directions or if you are driving down narrow alleyways or steep hills. Take all of this into consideration before making a decision.
6. Watch out for unexpected fees
Compare rental companies and rental prices. We have used Auto Europe (a car rental wholesale company that compares different vendors), Europcar, Avis, Hertz, and local vendors. It will take a bit of looking to find the best rates.
If you are considering a one-way car rental in Europe (pick up in one country, drop off in a different one), be sure to keep an eye out for additional costs like a drop-off fee. Plan your trip carefully so you can return the car where you picked it up (or nearby) is the best option to avoid extra fees.
Also, be mindful of any rules regarding border crossing. Some rental car agencies will not allow you to take their car into certain European countries (I believe certain Balkan countries might not be allowed depending on the company).
7. Consider investing in an international drivers license
An American drivers license is accepted in the EU, but many recommend having an International Driving Permit (IDP) as well. The IDP translates your US drivers license into the local language with a photo. These are available from AAA for a minimal fee and we’ve always traveled with one if we plan on renting a car in Europe.
8. Make reservations as far in advance as possible
If you are traveling during high season (summer in most European countries), be sure to reserve your car as soon as you plan your trip. Be mindful of dates as Europeans show the day first and the month second. So August 15 would be 15-8 instead of 8/15.
9. Age requirements for renting a car in Europe
There is a range of age limits when it comes to the EU. In places like the UK, some companies may rent to individuals age 17 and above, but in places like Spain and the Netherlands it’s 21 and up. This is not a hard and fast rule and it varies from one company to the next. If you plan on having a young driver, definitely confirm before booking your rental.
Other important things to know about driving a rental car in Europe
10. There are toll roads
Depending on the country, you may encounter toll roads. Most will accept “chip” credit cards, but you need to have a PIN. Some toll roads will require a permit sticker. It’s best to carry a handful of Euro coins just in case you run into a toll road you weren’t expecting.
11. Know where to park
If you are traveling to a smaller town, the streets can be narrow and parking can be limited, or even restricted. Often there will be parking lots on the outskirts of town or a property may have a private lot where you can park.
Do your research before booking the hotel so you know you will have somewhere safe to keep the car or where to park the car when you arrive.
12. Give yourself extra travel time
Car travel in Europe can often be different than what we expect. The unexpected sheep crossing, roads where only one car can pass at a time, cobblestone streets, you will probably encounter all of these. Pack a lot of patience and know that the estimated travel time is just that, an estimate.
13. Pay attention to the type of gas the car requires
The word for gas is different all over Europe. Diesel is usually diesel, or something similar, but you won’t see the word “unleaded”.
Before leaving the rental car agency, be sure you know the type of gas your car requires so you’re not wondering when you arrive at the gas station. My parents accidentally put the wrong gasoline one time and had a big problem (and a big bill).
Also, gas prices are usually listed by the liter, and run the equivalent of $7-$11/gallon.
14. Use the map app on your phone or pay for GPS
We would highly recommend asking for a GPS with every rental car. They have been life savers on every trip.
A Michelin paper map comes in handy too and can be ordered before you travel on a site like Amazon. If you are traveling with a portable WiFi, you can always use Google Maps as a backup, but it’s best to have multiple options.
15. Take photos of the car before and after
We’ve had some strange rental car pick ups (as in, self pick up and no employees), so we always take photos. Your photos are time stamped on your phone and this is your only proof should the company try to file a damage claim. This happened to us and we were so glad we had proof!
We would recommend renting a car in Europe when traveling with a family. Not only does it save money, but the flexibility and convenience it affords are priceless.