Renting a car in Europe? Driving on the wrong side of the road? Freaking out? This one is for you!

Everyone knows someone who knows someone that has at least one or two horror stories from a rental gone wrong! But if you follow a few simple steps you’ll have nothing to worry about! But before we get to the tips, let’s consider some of the benefits and pitfalls:

The benefits:

  • Freedom – spending the time you have where you want!
  • Reaching your destination faster – no guest pick-up/drop-off
  • Convenience and comfort – no need to sit on that bus from the 80s with no aircon!
  • Cheaper – seriously, compare the cost of those tours and transfers from the airport
  • Flexibility – where you’re able to define your route taking in the views rather than purely sticking to the motorways
  • Fit your needs and likes, or that extra boot space for the ‘just in case’ clothing
  • Remote locations where the only feasible option may be to rent a car
  • No maintenance or concerns – 24-hour roadside assist!

Remember to consider our tips for using your mobile phone abroad when you want to use Google Maps (or perhaps the less than desirable Apple Maps) on your mobile to act as GPS.

The pitfalls:

  • Accidents – remembering no one does anything on purpose!
  • Minor damage – exterior and interior, it all matters
  • Traffic – trust me the frustration is much higher when you’re the driver compared to sitting on a bus on your phone
  • Limitations for leaving the country borders (generally possible but read our tips below!)
  • Pick-up/Drop-off times whilst generally reasonable can still be a consideration if you have a very early or late flight
  • Understanding the agreement and quote (does it include what you think it does?!)
Our zippy car in Zakynthos!

Our zippy car in Zakynthos!

Where we hired a car:

Now, if you’re still reading, you may be wondering who we are and why you should take our advice (I mean have we even hired a car more than once?) well, yes we have!

  • Sicily, Italy.  We used a company called Locauto.  We had no problems (just keep in mind there is a shuttle to and from the airport)
  • Izmir, Turkey.  We used a company called Garenta.  The company was quick to process our request.
  • Naples & Amalfi Coast, Italy.  Tip, get a small car as the roads are very narrow!
  • Dubrovnik, Croatia.  We used a company called Avis.  They were helpful and quick to process our request.  They even waited 15 minutes after closing as we were running a little late dropping the car in!
  • Zakynthos, Greece.  We used a company called Thrifty.  The company was quick and processed our booking.
  • Milan & Lake Como, Italy.  We used a company called Maggiore.  The company was quick to process our booking.
  • Sardinia, Italy.  We used a company called Maggiore. The company was quick to process our booking.
  • Ibiza, Spain.  We used a company called Centauro.  The company was great, except you need to get a shuttle bus to and from the airport, it is only 5 minutes down the road.  Helpful hint:  They don’t take AMEX to secure the deposit and if you don’t have another credit card to use, they use your debit visa (so they debit the money and then refund it at the end – this becomes expensive with conversion fees etc!!)
  • Koh Samui, Thailand. We used a no-name company, well they probably had a name… It was a scooter, not a car, but it has similar considerations and we had no problems at all.
Our VW in Bosnia

Our VW in Bosnia

Now for the advice…

Step One:  Make sure you have an international driving permit (IDP)

This is something that not a lot of people think about and if the car company doesn’t mention it, you won’t think about it. Each country has different regulations, so it is best to check these before booking your car hire.  We were living in London, with an Australian driver’s licence. For us to get an IDP, we had to apply to our home state (for us, it was Queensland) motoring body. If you live in your home country it will be as easy as popping into your local motoring body’s office, but given we were in London we needed to follow the postal application which required the form to be completed, printed and signed together with two witnessed (consular services) passport sized photographs.  You have so many options for sending this to Australia, but we opted for a registered post service as in our opinion it is more likely to arrive on time.

Make sure you arrange for this with plenty of time before your holiday as it can take over a week to be sent from your home country to where you’re living in Europe.  The permit does not replace your licence, but it’s basically a translation of your licence into the foreign language.

thewelltravelledman international driving permit

Step Two:  Comparison websites to choose your rental company

Go beyond the international brands such as Avis, Hertz or Thrifty as they are usually more expensive, but this doesn’t necessarily translate to better customer service and rating! If you scanned through the list of our rentals, you’re unlikely to recognise many of the names as they’re generally the local car rental companies with comparable ratings, just cheaper!

There is a range of comparison websites, but we found www.rentalcars.com very easy to use. Rentalcars.com list the available rental companies, rating, car options and any restrictions on one page. We never actually booked online but called them instead to speak to a customer service representative to handle our booking (open 24 hours!!) and each time they were very friendly and most importantly, were able to offer me a discount compared to the online price! Not only were they able to bring the car hire cost down, they also dropped the price of the zero excess car insurance.

Step Three:  Choosing your car

Two key factors come to mind.

  1. Size, bigger is not always better!Have a think about the location, in particular, those narrow, windy roads in Italy. I certainly wouldn’t want to be driving or looking for a park in that large comfortable sedan or four wheel drive! However, make sure you know what you actually need. The last thing you want to do is book a compact vehicle when you have two large suitcases and carry on bags. We hired a Renault Twingo in Sardinia and honestly, after squeezing our two carry on suitcases in the back I was glad Jenna didn’t pack those ‘just in case’ bikinis. Now, I’m sure I don’t have to remind those 6ft tall people out there, but also have a think about the leg room (or lack thereof in some of the smaller compact cars, maybe opt for the Golf instead of the TwinGo!).
  2. Economical – diesel vs petrol for small island getaways (Zakynthos comes to mind) this is clearly less of an issue… But if you’re planning on a bit of driving then I would highly suggest looking at something more economical, skip the turbo and even opt for a diesel if you can. The extra $10 you’ll be spending on the car will be saved on the fuel cost!
Our economical car for the Amalfi Coast

Our economical car for the Amalfi Coast

Step Four: Be aware of any more costs you might be charged

Booking through rentalcars.com is easy because they will tell you about any other costs that might be associated with your trip.  Some of these include:

Cross Border Fee:

We picked up a car in Dubrovnik, Croatia and drove into Bosnia and Herzegovina.  For this particular trip, we were charged a cross border fee and we needed extra insurance.  If you’re doing this – remember to take your passport for border control!

Pick up / Drop off at a different airport:

Having already booked our flights and accommodation at the time, we gave rentalcars.com a call to book a car in Sardinia, Italy. The pick up was from Alghero and drop off to at Olbia (the other side of the island) as we were doing a road trip around the island. Little did we know, there is a charge (and not a small one) to drop the hire car off at a different location to the pickup up location. Sympathy only get’s you that far as companies still need to make a profit but I was very grateful when the customer representative reduced the car rental to help with the overall fee (although this was still quite a lot higher than we anticipated!).

Remote Island fee:

When we booked a car for Zakynthos, Greece, the price was higher than many of our other bookings.  This was simply because they incorporate a remote island fee to the price!

To be fair, there is nothing you can do about this so if you’re headed that way it’s just something to be aware of!

Additional Driver:

If you want to list more than one driver, this is an additional cost.

Insurance:

Travel insurance vs. Credit card travel insurance vs. buying direct with the rental companies

One thing is for sure, you need to take out some insurance. We haven’t had any damage as of yet, but if anything you just don’t want to worry about that 1,000 euro excess and the ‘what if’. Peace of mind is certainly worth the small price to pay.

If you have any doubt, check and double check your policies. I know for a fact that my platinum American Express credit card offers a good level of travel insurance and yours may as well (make sure it includes car rentals before relying on it). We also always take out annual travel insurance policies for those holidays where the booking company charges an exorbitant surcharge or simply does not accept your American Express credit card, but we still always opt to pay for the zero excess car rental insurance at the time of our booking our car rentals.

Age Penalties:

Most of the time, if you’re under 25 there will be an age penalty on the booking. This is one of those times where you’re happy to be old(er).

Mileage:

Make sure you understand any restrictions, and if possible opt for a rental company that includes unlimited mileage.  The last thing you want is to be limited to 100km and then drive 500km!

Late drop off:

If you’re going to be late dropping your car off, you may be charged additional fees.  This is because most rental companies charge you in 24 hour blocks, so if you go over that, they may charge you for another full day.

Petrol:

Make sure you fill your car up before dropping it off.  If you drop the car off without a full tank of petrol, they will charge you a premium to do this for you. I also would never recommend prepaying for fuel as the fees are significantly higher than what you’re able to get at the petrol stations. We have never struggled to fill up close to the drop off locations, but it may be worth checking google maps before you start that journey to drop off the car.

Our hire car in Sardinia

Our hire car in Sardinia

Step Five:  When picking up the car, be sure to check, double-check and triple check for any damage

After hearing so many horror stories, we were very careful when picking up a rental car to make sure all marks were noted down on the form, before driving off.  We often spent 15 – 20 minutes just going over the car and getting a staff person to amend the form.  It is worth the time when you pick the car up, rather than arguing when you drop it off about scratches you didn’t put there!

Remember to check the roof of the car (which is often forgotten!) as well as the interior and spare wheel as these are all checked when you return the vehicle.

No doubt they may have missed a mark here and there as they do have some leniency of marks (generally up to 2-4 cm in diameter depending on the company) but it’s always worth having them note these down. One fond memory was being handed a form with no marks noted, only to inspect the car and having them amend it by adding around 20 (proper) scratches and dents along the body of the vehicle… Now to be fair it was within a car park and the lighting wasn’t great (we used the torch on the iphones) but imagine driving off thinking everything was okay, only to wake up the next morning to see the disaster that awaits you!

Now, we have only done this once where it proved faster than taking photos, but feel free to take a video on your phone at the time of pick-up to clearly show where the damage is (rather than having multiple photos of some panel, which could be any panel) to avoid those arguments when you hand the car back to the company.

Step Six: Drive on that wrong side of the road!

Seriously, it does feel a little unusual at first and if you’re really nervous, opt to pick the car up at the airport rather than in the city. This should give you a bit of time to get used to the roads and motorways before entering those manic city centres or navigating those roundabouts!

Now, on a positive note. These are all only precautions and we have never had any real issues with the cars – so go ahead and do it!

Do you have travel insurance?

Before travelling, make sure you get a travel insurance policy – you never know when you might need it! Click here for information on travel insurance, what company we recommend and a link to get an instant quote.

Alternative accommodation

If you’re looking for alternative accommodation to either save some money or share with friends or family, click here for information on Air B&B ($50 discount on your first booking), hotel price comparison websites etc.

“No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be.” – Chuck Thompson

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