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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
Many credit cards offer extensions to basic rental car insurance to cover accidental damage and/or theft - far more cheaply than the rental car company. You are already paying for this in your annual card fee and/or interest, so make use of it. Check the website of your card supplier to find out what they offer, and read all the small print so you know exactly which insurance to accept, and which to decline.
I like American Express' coverage in this area, and so use that card for car rental charges. Our rental car was vandalized in Toulouse, France (not badly, but we got a hefty charge from the rental company) and we claimed through Amex. After sending in the paper work they did their investigation and then paid up a few weeks later. Insurance is getting simpler in places like Italy, where there are a lot of claims - all rental car companies now mandate you buy comprehensive cover.
The insurance cover you probably don't need is for personal possessions -- resist the suggestion from the rental car company to buy it. Your belongings are typically covered by your household insurance policy, but there are exceptions for expensive stuff like cameras, lenses and jewelry. Read your policy to see what is covered and don't buy coverage twice. In general, the best policy is to take anything remotely valuable out of the car as any kind of car trouble tends to ruin your day.
Not all rentals are equal -- San Francisco CA
Here are the companies I have used:
Auto Europe is an agent for Europcar (a pan-European car rental firm) and Avis. You may never have heard of Europcar, because they have no presence outside of Europe, but rest assured they are highly reputable. Auto Europe specializes in online and phone car bookings and typically has good prices as they do a lot of volume. I've rented from them several times in the past, and they can be very good value. You typically pay a deposit for the rental and receive a voucher in return. It is vital that you print outthe voucher and take it with you -- it's a cash pre-payment and the car firm needs to credit it to your rental. If you don't have a print out (yes, I learned this the hard way...) then you'll be spending a lot more time at the rental counter while they try to find it. You pay the balance of the amount at the end of the rental.
Avis may be the second largest car rental firm world wide, but they are stronger in some countries than Hertz -- especially France. You will almost always find an Avis location in or right next to French railway (SNCF) stations, for example. This is a major boon as you won't have to haul your luggage far from the platform to the car. Avis has a frequent renter program (Preferred) for customers in the US, which means you won't have to wait at the counter to collect your car.
Hertz is the world's largest car rental firm. They can be especially good value for pre-paid car rentals in Europe, where you pay the entire amount up front in return for a bigger discount. They also have "green fleet" of low emission (AKA low fuel consumption) vehicles which are thus cheaper to fuel up than regular rentals and go longer between refueling stops. It really pays to sign up for Hertz's Gold Club frequent renter program, as it means you can collect your car without stopping at the counter.
Gas is somewhere between $7 and $8 a gallon in Italy or France, depending on the exchange rate. This isolated statistic, by itself, causes some to freak out. After all, your small SUV does 18 miles to the gallon (I'm talking actual miles, not the sticker MPG) on a good day, so that kind of pricing is bad news for the vacation budget, right?
Well, hold on. Car manufacturers in Europe have had over 50 years of higher gas prices, and this means the majority of cars there are designed very differently to those in the US. Those of you who have been to Europe know that cars there are smaller. That's one effect of high gas prices -- cars that are smaller weigh less, and therefore require less energy to move around. In general, cars are smaller, lighter and have smaller engines. However, to compensate for the smaller engine size, they also have very advanced engine management systems to squeeze maximum performance from the fuel. European cars sip gas like it was an expensive wine rather than gulping it down like cheap beer, but can still perform well.
Diesel fuel is widely available in Europe, and not reserved for trucks at gas stations. This is because diesel cars are even more economical than gas cars -- the engine design means they use less fuel, which also means lower CO2 emissions. Diesel engines used to be slow, noisy, dirty things with poor acceleration. But the same engine management technology that has improved efficiency of gas engines means that turbocharged diesel engines are quiet, clean and deliver amazing acceleration -- while using even less fuel. Thus you can achieve 50 miles to the gallon or better in a European diesel car (actual MPG, not sticker). To top it all off, Diesel fuel is actually cheaper than gas in Italy and many other European countries.
So don't freak out at $8 a gallon for gas, because diesel is cheaper and you can easily get a diesel rental car (if you don't get one by default, ask to change to one), and it will do far more miles to the gallon. Just remember that diesel is called Gasolio in Italy, which sounds confusingly like gas. But now you know differently, so fill up your diesel car with gasolio with confidence.
Unlike the US, it is often illegal to overtake on the inside. Thus the law about keeping right on a multi-lane road in Europe is usually obeyed. Failure to move over to the right on a two or three lane road to allow someone past will typically result in flashing lights and beeping on the horn. Before it turns into a full-blown road rage incident, get over and let them get caught by the next electronic speed camera. Did I mention those? They're all over the place -- far more so than in the US -- and you will get a fine in the mail passed on by the rental car company.
Yes, you will need to be reasonably good at parallel parking. It's a learnable skill that you can achieve with a little practice.
To rent a car in Italy you only need your US state license. Show it at the rental car counter, sign the paperwork and you're off. But the law in Italy says that you must have an International driver's license if you are not a European Union license holder. This means you, my American friends. You can get these for about $15 at AAA. The fine for not having one if the police stop you is 70 Euros (about $100 or so). You may be thinking "OK, so what's the chance of being stopped?" One major difference between the US and Italy is that the police do not always need "probable cause" to stop cars. They can set up roadblocks and do random stops to check on vehicle condition, drink-driving, and paperwork violations. It seems like a reasonable trade-off: $15 and the inconvenience of a trip to the AAA office, versus a 70 Euro fine. If you develop an attitude when stopped in this way, the Italian police can also impound your car... but you'd really have to annoy them to get that far. So be nice and enjoy your vacation.