Over the last month or so, I’ve written several posts about renting a car in Europe. I started with a post about our itinerary and why we chose to rent a car. In the second installment, I covered the basics of renting. The third post gave hints and tips about driving in Europe. In this fourth (and final) post in my “Renting a Car” series, I’m going to write about how to deal with unexpected problems.
Thankfully, I have not had an accident in a rental car, but I have experienced many minor problems. The problem we have experienced the most often, is getting lost. We have struggled with timing – driving always takes longer than expected. The biggest problem we had was trying to return the car last time we rented one. Read on…
When my mom and I were in the Netherlands several years ago, we rented a car for the whole trip. At the time, I was unfamiliar with European public transportation (although many of the places we traveled to called for a car, anyway). We tried to visit the cheese-weighing ceremony in Alkmaar, Netherlands. We drove around the city several times, and when we finally figured out where to go, the ceremony was finished.
Another time we were getting on the highway, but weren’t sure we were on the right road. We pulled over on the ramp, to look at the map. As soon as we stopped, a policeman pulled up right behind us. He scolded us for stopping and insisted we move immediately. “You can’t stop here!” We traveled to the next exit, got off, checked the map, and then continued on our way.
Using a Map
At that time, phone data services were non-existent, unreliable, or cost-prohibitive, so we relied on a paper map. Although times are changing, many drivers still prefer to use a paper map when driving in an area that is unfamiliar. My favorites at the time were Falk maps, printed in Germany. They focus on Germany, but also produce other European maps. Although they are not widely available in the states, you can pick one up when you arrive in Europe.
The best Europe maps available in the states at this time are the ones produced by Michelin. If you will be driving in Europe and prefer a paper map, look for Michelin maps at your local bookstore or on Amazon.com.
On our recent trip, we purchased a European SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card and paid for a set amount of data. We could use our favorite mapping program with familiar turn-by-turn navigation. (Google Maps, Waze, etc.) We had a lot less trouble with getting lost using this method. If you plan to drive in Europe, I would strongly suggest you look into purchasing data access if it is not already included in your phone plan.
Why does Driving Take Longer in Europe?
Every time that I’ve driven in Europe, the trip takes longer than I have planned. In the states, a 200 mile trip would usually take a little over 3 hours, maybe as much as 3 ½ hours. In Europe, traveling 200 miles might take all day – even if traveling on highways.
I’ve tried to figure out why this happens – here are my conclusions:
- Travelers make more stops. Everything is new and interesting, so it is tempting to stop to visit a site you haven’t seen before.
- Meals take longer. Most fast food places in Europe are ones that have been imported from the states – KFC, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King. When traveling, I usually look for something unique or local – not something I can visit at home. These unique, local places specialize in customer service rather than speedy service.
- Driving on the back roads is more interesting, but also takes more time. If I’m in a hurry, I take the highway, but if I want to see the country, I travel on smaller roads through small towns.
- Getting lost, or just taking a wrong turn that is easily corrected, adds more time to the trip.
When you plan to drive in Europe, determine how long it would take in the states and then double it. Add more time if you have specific places in mind to visit.
Not Asking the Right Questions
When my daughter and I rented the car on our recent trip, we planned to drive a long distance on the first day. We got a late start and knew we had to keep moving. We had planned to drive on the highway for most of the trip, so we got on it as soon as we left the car rental agency.
I usually travel with cruise control when I drive on a highway, but I had no idea how to set it. My daughter took the owner’s manual out of the glove box to try to look it up, but the instructions were all written in Spanish. She remembered that we had data access on our phone, so she quickly looked and found the answer on the internet.
A couple days later, it started raining while we were driving. We were able to turn on the windshield wipers with no problem, but also wanted to turn on the rear wipers. I messed around with the controls a bit, and the rear wipers came on. The problem was that I wasn’t sure how I turned them on and when the rain stopped, I didn’t know how to turn them off. Back to the internet – my daughter was soon able to figure out how to stop the now squeaky wipers. We should have asked a few more questions when we picked up the car in the morning.
Rental Agency is Closed
When we originally rented the car, we weren’t sure where we should drop it off at the end of the rental period. I thought I had chosen a train station on the edge of Paris, but when I began planning our route, I realized it wasn’t as far out as I thought. So, when we picked up the car in the morning at the Hertz agency, we tried to change the drop-off point.
The woman at the agency was extremely helpful and was able to find us a more convenient location. She asked what time we planned to return the car – we hoped to have it back by 8 pm. The agent said we would be fine as long as we returned the car by 10 pm.
We arrived at the Hertz agency around 8:30, but found it closed. We looked around but did not find a key drop, and had no idea what to do. We tried calling every Hertz number we could find, but were striking out. Eventually, we tried calling the US phone number for Auto Europe – the consolidator where we had rented the car. We were finally talking to a person.
We talked to an agent, and then to his supervisor, who in turn talked to her supervisor. Unfortunately, after spending over an hour on the phone, the only workable solutions the agents could come up with were for us to sleep in the car or return it to the original agreed-upon location. By now it was dark. I would have to drive in the busy city of Paris, on unfamiliar streets…in the dark.
Driving around the Triumphal Arch
My daughter and I had already had a long day of driving. We were tired but didn’t have much choice other than more driving. We accessed the navigation on the phone one more time and started out. It seemed to be going okay until my daughter asked, “Do you see what is up ahead?” I could see the Arc de Triomphe or Triumphal Arch, but when I had initially mapped it out, we were routed away from the famous arch before we approached it.
When I told my daughter, I thought we would avoid the Triumphal Arch, she informed me that the navigation was, in fact, directing us to encircle it. If you are unfamiliar with the route, twelve streets converge into a multi-lane (6 lanes?) round-a-bout circling the Arch. If you view the traffic circle from the top of the Arch, it just looks crazy.
I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to enter the circle, drive over half-way around it, and then exit it, without getting hit or even honked at. Amazing. I kept thinking, ‘Someday we are going to laugh about this.’
Finally Dropping-off the Car
We had a little trouble finding the actual drop-off point, but we finally were able to take care of it. Since it was late, we weren’t able to ride the Metro to the apartment we had rented, but instead called an Uber. As we rode in the back seat, my daughter looked at me and said, “Bucket list!” I guess now I’ll add ‘driving around the Triumphal Arch’ to my bucket list, so I can cross it off. After this eventful and stressful evening, we made it safely to the apartment.
Talk to the Rental Agency
The reason we had so much trouble, was that we had arranged the change with Hertz, rather than with Auto Europe. If we had contacted Auto Europe in the first place, things might have gone more smoothly.
For any issues you encounter with your rental car, it’s best to contact the agency right away. It seems obvious that you contact the agency if you have a mechanical problem, an accident, or if someone steels the car, but even smaller issues can sometimes be resolved by calling the rental agency.
It’s Worth the Trouble
Renting a car and driving in Europe may be different than at home, but it’s worth the trouble if you are able to see sites that you would otherwise miss. This last time we rented, we had a real adventure, but we were safe through it all and now have an exciting story to tell.
Have you experienced trouble when renting a car? Share your story below.