It is a common assumption for most Americans that they can jump in a rental car and drive to wherever the spirit is willing to go. This makes sense, as there are few restrictions in North America regarding international travel. The major car companies will usually let you travel into Canada from the US and vice versa.
Some restrictions are allowed to be lifted with the proper information or documentation. Some restrictions are punishable offenses if you are caught engaging in them. In addition, some restrictions will get you thrown in a Czech jail. The best way to deal with all these restrictions is of course to know about them in advance, which is what we will cover in this article.
First, I will cover the most common of the misconceptions, which are ferry crossings. Most people believe that since there is a place on the ferries for vehicles that rentals are included amongst those allowed. While it is true that the ferry operators will not care if your car is a rental, the company you rented it through surely will. Therefore, this is a two-fold issue. Let me first state that I do not in any way condone the transportation of rental cars by ferry, because it is an imposed restriction, and also because your rental insurance becomes null and void the minute you set your tires on the deck of that ship. If the ship happens to sink while your car is on it, then guess what? You now own a $30,000 metal reef. Hope you brought your scuba gear.
Many people still take their rentals on a ferry simply because either they do not know (if it is not on the terms and conditions) or they think they can get away with it. Sometimes it is even allowed on certain island-hopping countries, such as New Zealand, where you are expected to go from the north island to the south. If this happens, you can bet that your bill at the end of the rental will be much higher than you initially thought.
Therefore, the ferry crossing issue is more a matter of judgment than anything else is. Either you take your chances and save yourself from having to drive farther or rent two vehicles by putting your car on a ferry, or you reconsider your current itinerary. Sometimes, especially when you are traveling to smaller islands, it is best to drop the vehicle off at a port office or somewhere closes, and uses public transportation when you get there. The cost for placing a vehicle on a ferry by itself, coupled with the rental cost, is going to be significant as it is. Placing yourself at risk for doing so makes it double the problem.
The next restriction is more recognizable and easily understood. Although the former Eastern Bloc countries have recently started to join the EU, they are still rife with war-torn areas and high levels of crime. We have been chastised on many occasions by many clients who are from certain Eastern European countries that swear that these nations have a rich culture and beautiful landscape, and I do not disagree with them. However, political stigma is a hard thing to shake, especially when incidents verify the claims. Since most travelers visit the populated cities and since these cities are the breeding grounds for criminal activity, (a good example of this is Prague) then the rental companies have no choice but to impose these restrictions. The good thing is that sometimes you can pay a fee to enter these countries, but you will most likely receive a "low-risk" model, such as an Opel or Skoda. Make sure to mention to the rental company if you are planning on entering Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia or any country east of these.
The Eastern Block is not the only country that has restrictions. Italy, for one, will not allow BMW, Mercedes, Audi or high-end VW models in from outside the country (or they will, but the rental company will not) and some countries require you to have an international driving license to pick up the car or travel on the highways. The countries where you need an IDL to pick up are Austria, Greece, Russia, and most of the Eastern Block. If you are pulled over and you do not have an IDL you will be fined in Spain, Italy, and the countries mentioned above (if entering from outside). Please note that although you may not have to provide an IDL in some cases, it does not mean you should not get one. They only cost 15 to 20 dollars and you can get them made from your original license at AAA (or CAA in Canada). The IDL is just your license reprinted into several different languages.
If you are outside of this range, definitely ask your rental company. Some outfits charge a young or senior driver fee. Some age restrictions are tighter when you request high-end car classes. Some vans capable of holding more than nine passengers require that you have a special license.
Of course, every city has its own restrictions (such as the congestion zone in London or pedestrian areas of Rome) so it is best to brush up on your city knowledge before you go. In addition, restrictions between cities exist for some cars, so if you are planning to do a one-way rental, make sure the vehicle you have is allowed. Again, always tell the rental company what countries you are planning to visit. In conclusion, the more we know about what we cannot do allows us to do more of what we can do.
For most of us, the basis of a car rental in Europe is the journey, not the destination. We spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars so that we can see everything that we want in the minimum amount of time available. Although I am not against taking a train from one place to another, (especially after a long drive) I am constantly finding myself looking out the window wondering "Hey what's over there?"
Of course, the destination is a factor when choosing our itinerary. Equally important is the starting point. Not only can the beginning and end of your car rental save you money, but chosen poorly, it can be the beginning and end of your vacation as well.
First, if possible, try to pick up your rental car in town. In some countries, this can be the difference between fifty to five hundred dollars or more. In some places, it is just not worth it, as the airport can be 20 kilometers or more from downtown with little to no public transportation. In other places, such as Rome's Fiumicino (or Leonardo da Vinci) airport, there is a train between the airport and main station in town. In addition, in some places the airport is practically in town. The common places where you will find a flat fee for airport pickups are France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. In Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Austria it is usually a percentage, anywhere from 10% to 17%. In Holland, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe it can go either way. Please be advised that this is for the major car rental suppliers and does not cover every one. Always make sure to ask if the airport surcharge is included and if it is a percentage or a flat fee, and if it is waived if you pick up in town. In addition, it is good to note that if you pick up in town to avoid a fee, you can usually still drop off at an airport without having to pay the surcharge.
Picking up downtown will not always save you from a fee, though it usually reduces it if anything. Rail stations sometimes have a surcharge (Germany, Italy, Spain, and Belgium) and if you pick up at a "Premium Location" such as Russell Square in London or Paddington Way in Dublin, you will have to pay a fee as well. In addition, some port offices require payment too, either as stand-alone or for a "meet and greet" situation, where the office is outside walking distance so the agents wait for you at the pier. Once again, make sure you ask if there is a fee if you are picking up at a station of any kind.
Aside from saving money, convenience is always a sticking point when deciding where to pick up your rental car. If you are hesitant to drive in a big city, but you want to save money, then you have a couple of options. For one, you can always pick up outside of a busy area but still "downtown" but this alternative comes with the price of having to get there, which is okay if you already have your hotel nearby. You can also find a rental location that is near a highway on-ramp, which is particularly good if you need the rental car not for the city you will be in, but for the one you need to get to. A mapping program using the internet is of course invaluable in this search. Get the addresses for your hotel and available pick up locations, and choose the one that is most convenient for you.
Finally, it is important to know what locations are available along the way to your destination. If you need to add an additional driver in the middle of your trip, or you need to swap out your car for any reason, then knowing where you can choose from will help optimize your time and money. There is no point in going back if you can do the same moving forward right? It is a good idea to have the phone numbers to the locations you will be dealing with, as well as a headquarters number for additional inquiries. Try to use a service that has 24-hour support. The locations may not always be open, but at least you can get through to someone who can let you know your options. Oh, and try not to involve yourself with a rental location that is part of a gas-station, restaurant, barber shop or any other strip mall business that is not car rental. Although many of the major suppliers have locations like this with their name on them, they are licensee, independently owned subsidiaries and you will find the shadiest clerks and the worst service here. This is really just common sense though. In conclusion, we all know that getting there is half the fun. However, the other 50% depends on the start and finish. If you know where that is before you try to move on, you will get there just fine.