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Renting A Car In Europe — A Summary

When I first wrote a blog posting about car rental, I wasn't sure it was useful. However, the amount of email it and follow-up postings generated convinced me otherwise (So formal! You can just add comments to the postings rather than emailing). This article is a consolidation of those different postings to summarize everything in one place.

Only rent a car if you need it

In many European cities, it is better not to have a car: parking is difficult and expensive, "one way systems" are confusing to navigate, and a car can be slower than public transport at busy times. Unlike the US, many Italian hotels do not have their own parking. Don't rent a car if you intend to just sightsee in the city itself, and if you need to get out to visit another town or city, consider a train or bus. Services in Europe can be fast, frequent and reasonably priced. But they can also be slow and inconvenient, so when does it make sense to rent?

When to rent a car

For a larger geographical area like Tuscany or the Dordogne, you are going to need transport and a car is the most efficient way to do so. In these times of eco responsibility, when it seems the only thing stopping eco miltants from burning car drivers at the stake is concern over the CO2 that would generate, I feel obliged to defend this statement. It is possible to get around by bus and train within areas like Tuscany, but boy is it a logistical challenge. Fundamentally you will get to spend far less time enjoying the area. When you have limited time to vacation, spending it twiddling thumbs on a bus is truly a waste of opportunity. Buy carbon offset to cover the CO2 emissions of the car (and your plane ride, while you are at it).

Rent a small car (no, really)

Resist the urge to rent a larger car, even if it is appealing because you have a large family or group on the trip. Get a couple of smaller cars instead. Larger cars are rarer in Europe because running them is more expensive, and also many European towns and cities were not designed for cars at all. As well as being expensive to fuel, large cars are hard to maneuver in narrow streets designed for nothing wider than a few pigs and maybe a horse or two.

On one trip, we stayed a few nights in Florence and then headed out to Villa Vignamaggio. We were to stay at Hotel Brunelleschi, squeezed into the centre of the ancient city of Florence. The hotel is built around a Byzantine tower with Roman remains in the basement - it even has its own museum. The roads leading to it are really, really narrow: even the taxi driver had a hard time getting his small Fiat around the final bend. Some kindly locals stopped to guide him back-and-forth as he edged the car around the corner. With even a small SUV or Minivan you'd be wedged between two buildings several turns back.

Florence cathedral from the Brunelleschi roof terrace

Incidentally, we'll probably never stay at the Brunelleschi again. Not because it was bad - quite the reverse: it is a truly historic hotel with charm, good rooms, friendly staff and a fantastic location. No, I blame Dan Brown: it's where his characters Langdon and Sophie plan to stay at the end of The Da Vinci Code for a night of passion. I could be wrong about the last bit, but it doesn't seem like they're going to sip tea and discuss semiotics. At any rate, ever since then prices have gone up, up, up and you practically have to be Dan Brown to get in.

Traffic circles (or roundabouts)

Driving in Europe continues to be something that generates a lot of email, so on to another popular driving topic: traffic circles -- or, roundabouts as they're known in the UK. Incredibly popular in Europe, you don't see these too often in the US. When you do, they appear to generate a lot of confusion amongst drivers.

Early traffic circle

Early traffic circle -- Stonehenge, England

The "golden rule" of traffic circles is pretty simple: traffic entering must yield to anything already in the circle. As you approach, take a look to see if there's anything coming -- if there is, slow down or stop. You don't need to stop if there's no traffic in the circle. You do need to stop if entering would cause traffic in the circle to slow down or stop to avoid you!

When credit card rental car insurance leaves you uncovered

I'm a fan of not paying for rental car CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) insurance, because it's usually unnecessary and expensive when many credit cards already offer coverage. I've written before about positive experiences with American Express' rental car insurance, but a recent trip highlighted the importance of re-reading the small print. Francesca, one half of LodgePhoto, had rented a car at London Heathrow, and was pleased to get a free upgrade to a Jaguar, which is this rental car company's standard intermediate model. Now, there are Jaguars and Jaguars, and this was one of the former -- i.e. at the low end of the range, nothing exotic, but a pleasant step up from the more typical Ford or Peugot. At the end of the rental, there was a small chip in the windshield, which American Express explained would not be covered "because Jaguars are exotic cars"... which, if true (there's some doubt, see below), means that she'd been driving around without insurance for a few days. Some digging on the Amex website revealed the small print of Amex's rental car insurance (it is hard to find -- it took two failed searches before following a series of links). There are some fairly substantial limitations in the current rules:

  1. Exotic cars: anything by Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini (and other supercar makers). Also listed is the Jaguar XJS, which is not what Francesca rented. Also the Mercedes E320, which I would not consider remotely exotic. Check the document for the full list.
  2. Expensive cars: an MSRP greater than $50,000. This can be a really tough one to figure out when renting overseas -- is that the price of the car when purchased in the US, or the price of the car in purchased in Europe converted to dollars? How would you know either price when presented with a particular car at the rental counter? Is that price at the current dollar exchange rate, or when it was purchased?
  3. Full sized SUVs and Vans: Chevy Suburban, Ford Expedition, Chevy Van etc. If you have a lot of stuff and/or a large family, this might also be a surprise. In Europe I always recommend getting more, smaller cars vs. one huge one, if that is possible, as smaller cars are easier to drive and park on narrow European roads (especially in medieval cities).
This is not the full list of limitations, by the way, just some edited highlights. So, it's not clear if the windshield chip is covered or not, since Francesca wasn't driving an expensive or exotic car per the small print. We'll find out. The take-away from all this: re-read the small print. Even if you read it before. It might have changed!