Renting a Car- the Basics

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the rental car itinerary my daughter and I followed from Barcelona, Spain to Paris, France. This week, I’ll walk you through the process it took to rent the car.

Which Side of the Road?

The first question I’m always asked when I tell people I’m renting a car is, “Don’t they drive on the wrong side of the road?” First of all, what side of the road a country chooses to drive on is not wrong or right, but rather left or right. In the US, we are used to driving on the right. England, Ireland, Australia, India, and a few other countries, instruct people drive to on the left.

Driving on the Right

In continental Europe, though, people drive on the right like we do. I have driven in Spain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, with no orientation problems. Of course, since they drive on the right, positioning is familiar.

I’ve talked to people who have driven in England and Ireland. They said they did not have problems after the first couple of minutes.  If you drive in countries that prefer the left, it may take you a few minutes to adjust, but you should be fine.

Getting an International Driver’s License
International Driving Permit

Actually there is no such licence, but rather, there is a document used along with your state driver’s license, called an International Driving Permit (IDP). The IDP is available at AAA or AATA offices for $20. The application is available online – fill it out and bring it with you when you apply. I was in and out in 15 minutes with my IDP in hand.

This document, required in some countries, helps authorities translate and understand your driver’s licence.  Spain requires it; France does not. When I rented the car in Barcelona, the rental agency did not ask for the IDP, but accepted when I offered it. It would more likely have been required if I ran into problems while driving. Be sure to check if you need an IDP in the countries where you plan to drive.

Choosing a Car Rental Agency

Most major American car rental agencies (Hertz, Budget, Avis, etc.) have offices in cities in Europe, but they may not have an office exactly where you want it. European car rental agencies (Europcar, Sixt) are in more places, but you may experience language problems if you try to book directly with an agency.

Making Good Time on the Highway

We booked through the consolidator, Auto Europe. This agency looks through all available offers and special deals in order to find the best option for your rental agreement. The car we used was actually a Hertz rental. We went to the Hertz office to pick it up and to return it. If we had gone directly through Hertz, we would have had to pay much more.

If you have problems with the rental, you would contact Auto Europe, which has offices in the states. Agents in these offices speak English, so you are less likely to have a misunderstanding due to language.

Choosing a Car

There are two major options that influence your decision in choosing a car – size and transmission type.

Obviously, a smaller economy car will be less expensive than a large car, but price is not the only reason to request a small car. Since cars in Europe are small, many of the roads and parking spaces are also small – or maybe that is why the cars are small. Either way, navigating roads and parking is much easier with a small car.

The Renault Scenic We Rented
– A Little Larger than I Like

There are times when you reserve a small car, but are offered a free upgrade when you arrive to pick it up – for the same price you can get a larger car. Think twice before accepting the offer.  The agency may have a larger car available because no one wants it. On the other hand, even SUVs and cross-overs are smaller in Europe, so you can still find  car that will comfortably fit four adults or a family of five (two adults and three children).

Manual transmissions are much cheaper to rent than automatics. If you drive a manual at home, you should drive one in Europe.  If you don’t, you may still want to rent a manual to save money.  However, be sure you are completely comfortable driving a car with a manual transmission, before you commit to it.

If you drove a manual in high school, but haven’t driven one in years, it might not be a good idea. If you are not sure what you are doing and burn up the clutch, the rental agency will charge you for the repair – a repair that is not covered by insurance. Do you want to re-learn a manual transmission, translate foreign language signs, and travel unfamiliar roads at the same time? Give yourself a break and pay extra for the automatic transmission.

Do I Need Insurance?

You might need to pay extra for insurance on your rental car, or you might not need it. Check with your primary car insurance company to see whether or not you are covered for rental cars.  Many insurance contracts cover rentals in the states – less cover rentals in other countries. If you contract does cover car rentals, you may be required to alert the insurance company before you rent. Call your agent to check how your plan works.

A Beautiful Drive through
the Pyrenees Mountains

A second option is to check with your credit card.  If you have a premium credit card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred (or one of several others), you may be covered through the card. Read your card’s fine print to determine the coverage included.  Some cards provide primary coverage, while others provide secondary coverage.

Finally, if you do not have insurance coverage anywhere else, you can accept the coverage offered by the rental agency.  Make sure you understand the terms of the the coverage, though, as some items may not be covered and deductibles may be high. This type of insurance is usually not a great deal.

Should I Rent a GPS?

Many rental agencies will provide the use of a Global Positioning System (GPS) device for an extra charge. In unfamiliar territory, a GPS can be a great help.

We Followed Google Maps
– Even though We had Doubts

Do you use a GPS at home?  If you rely on your GPS, you may want to add one to your rental agreement.  However, there are other ways to get the same assistance. If the GPS you use at home is small and offers coverage in other countries you might want to use it. Many only work in the states, though, so be sure to check before you carry along the extra weight. If you are only renting a car for a day or two, it will probably be easier to rent one with the car.

Another option is to use Google Maps, Apple Maps, Waze, or a similar smart phone app.  If you have a data plan that works in Europe, this is a simple way to get navigation. For our recent trip, we purchased a SIM card so we had access to data throughout the trip. We relied on Google Maps for all of our navigation throughout the six days of car rental.  The only time we lost our signal was when we drove through a tunnel – we got it back as soon as we exited to open air.

With data access and Google Maps we were able to find anything we were looking for. I’ve never had such an easy time navigating in Europe!


Renting a car in Europe doesn’t have to be difficult. With the right car and the right tools, you’ll find it isn’t much different than driving at home.

Have you driven in Europe? What was your experience like?  Share your stories or helpful hints below.


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