If you’ve been to Europe before, you’ll understand the risk of trying to drive in its big cities. I must admit, having grown up in Boston, I enjoy the thrill of city driving. But in Paris or London or Rome (or pretty much any big European city), you’re generally better off without a car. You’ll save time and money going with public transportation, and you’ll get a richer experience with local culture.
But what if you want to head out of town? What if the Loire Valley beckons, and you know that even though you could get there on a train, you’d be out of luck traversing hilltop villages once you arrive? It’s time for a rental car!
In our family’s case, that means a van for the six of us. A rental van can mean big bucks. It can also mean tight squeezes through centuries-old alleys. But here are seven tips to make it a little more manageable.
1. Rent From an In-City Rental Location. City car rental locations can be tremendously convenient to your lodging and will save you a trip back out to the airport. If you can find one on the edge of the city, near public transport and a major road or highway, you could have a quick and easy way out of town. Going with a non-airport location can also help you avoid airport surcharges and taxes.
2. Include AutoSlash in Your Search for a Good Deal. Not only do they have a great selection of coupons; they also have a free price monitoring service. If you enter details from an existing reservation on AutoSlash, they will watch for better deals for the same dates, location and car type. If they find one, they’ll let you know and you can choose to reook at the lower price.
3. Understand Car Sizes. A small car in Europe can be a great help when navigating the city or finding parking, but can really throw a wrench in your plans if your family and/or luggage won’t fit. We’ve rented multiple vans in Europe that were advertised as 7-seaters. While that spec has technically been accurate each time, fitting suitcases in with the passengers is an entirely different matter. You may be able to use roof space for a suitcase or two (unfortunately not for the noisiest child), so bring some rope if you think you’ll need it.
4. Splurge on the GPS. A lot of agencies charge a pretty penny for this, but it’s entirely worth it to navigate unfamiliar lands without delays. Smartphones can fill this need, but if you lack the necessary data coverage abroad to get detailed maps, you may be stuck with a paper map or gas station directions. Keep an eye out for GPS coupon codes to save a few dollars, and be aware that sometimes you can get GPS discounts as a member of AAA.
5. Redeem Loyalty Points. Using loyalty points toward a rental can be an especially beneficial when renting a larger vehicle. For smaller vehicles, using points usually makes less sense, since there are great deals to be found on compacts that are omnipresent at car rental companies. Also, if you’re renting for more than a couple of days, check weekly rates for the same period, which are sometimes cheaper and allow you some extra days’ use of the vehicle.
6. Be Prepared for Tolls. Many European highways (autoroutes) are toll roads. In our experience, these roads are well-kept, fast and have great rest stops and gas stations. On the flip side, tolls can be expensive. On our most recent trip to France, most autoroutes accepted credit cards, but a few toll plazas did not (cash only). So be ready with some bills and coins, just in case.
7. Choose Your Rental Company Wisely. Beware of car rental companies you’ve never heard of (these are frequently listed as “off-airport”) or ones that you know are the cheapest players. While these can be tempting, and sometimes you might get lucky and save several hundred dollars (which, I admit, I’d go for), the customer experience can be pretty awful. And when your kids are exhausted and you just want to get to the hotel, an extra hour at the car rental place can put you over the top. In our experience, the quickest in-and-out car rentals happen at Hertz as a Gold Plus member (which is free to join).
If you decide to rent a car while in Europe, don’t be intimidated! It may present some unknowns, you may get lost, and the kids will probably still fight in the back seat. But just file those tidbits in your “making memories” file. You’ll see some beautiful countryside along the way and be able to explore lovely, off-the-beaten-path locales where public transportation won’t take you.
Spencer and Emily Wheelwright have long loved to travel, exploring many corners of the world together. Read more about their travels, tips, and recommendations at Family Explorers.
Photo Credit: David van der Mark