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Driving in Europe - Renting or Leasing and Hitting the Road

How to choose between renting a car or using a buy-back lease to drive in Europe

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Urban street scene (Rome, Italy).
S. Greg Panosian/E+/Getty Images

If you've decided to forgo the trains and buses as a means of getting around Europe, this page will try to give you some ideas on renting or leasing a car while offering a little advice on how to deal with European traffic. (If you haven't decided, you may wish to see how the various modes of travel compare in our Taking the Train article.)

The question here is rent (hire) or lease, specifically the French buy-back lease which allows long-term renters from outside the EU to drive a brand new car for the term of the lease.

Renting a Car

Everyone's familiar with renting. You get off a plane, go to the rental counter, hand over your credit card and then fill out numerous forms until they hand you the keys. Reserving in advance cuts down on some of the paperwork.

Things to watch out for when renting:

  • You'll probably want the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW). It's insurance that covers the high deductible that the normal insurance comes with. Used to be that some Gold Cards covered this cost, but you'll really need to check, since some have stopped offering that service. You might check your own insurance policy as well for coverage.
  • The rates quoted in advertisements seldom include all the costs you'll incur in renting a car--there are many hidden costs, such as having more than one driver. Plan where you'll drive your car, then get a final, all-inclusive quote before you compare the costs to leasing.
  • It often costs more to rent from an airport, because the airports charge the rental companies to run their businesses there. If you land in a big city, and want to explore that city--why not spend time there and rent the car when you're ready to leave town?
  • Reserve the car in the U.S. You'll often get a better rate than you might as a walk-up and you'll get peace of mind as well.

Car Rental companies are listed in our European Car Rental directory.

Leasing a Car

When you are going to need a car for longer than 17 (for some programs, you'll have to lease for 21 or more days), it often makes economical sense to lease one. This is an idea that seems to have taken hold in France, with Citroen, Peugeot and Renault offered on lease programs. (This doesn't mean you have to start your lease in France; they ship the cars all over, including airports, but you'll have to pay a bit extra for the service. You will have to deal with people thinking you are French, because the plates will reflect that assumption.)

You can arrange the whole thing online. What you'll get is a brand new car outfitted to your specifications. Often someone will meet you at the airport with it, or someone will pick you up and drive you to a lot close to the airport or train station. You will get a careful explanation of all the functions of the car. Your car will be devoid of advertisements for a rental company and will be fully insured and drivable by any qualified driver in your family. It will have special license plates that identify it as a leased vehicle. It won't have much gas in it, but then again you don't have to fill it up when you return it. That's a huge benefit to me--as it cuts down on the uncertainty when you return a car to the airport before you return home.

Some folks say that leases are slightly more expensive than bargain-basement rentals. This is likely true, but note that on a lease program, the leasing company has a vested interest in the car which will be resold, likely to a rental company, and they protect that interest by offering very good insurance. The full coverage insurance that comes with the price of the lease is well worth the peace of mind in the opinion of this traveler. We've been hit twice in parking lots. With a rental car with the over-expensive "full" coverage we were charged a 50 euro "paperwork" fee. When we returned our lease car that had been dented the day before in a parking lot they looked at the car and said, "don't worry about it, we'll take care of it." We didn't have to fill out any paperwork.

Don't know French cars? Well, we've enjoyed the Renault Clio, our favorite leased vehicle, and have driven several all over southern Europe without incident.

Car Leasing companies are listed in our European Auto Buy Back Leasing directory.

Whether you're renting or leasing, here are a few things to think about:

  • While not absolutely necessary in most countries, it is getting quite common to ask for an International Driver's License. We've found them to be mandatory in Italy at random stops by the highway patrol. You can get an IDL from an American Automobile Association office (although the ones around me are always out of them, it seems) or online. You'll need a passport size picture. (The license is pretty much just a translation of a standard US license. They don't test you by making you slalom around women in black sitting in wicker chairs randomly dispersed over the cobblestone surfaces of one-lane roads squeezed between medieval houses, a skill you may need in Italy. You'll have to learn how to do that on your own.)
  • Gas costs more than you're used to if you're from the US. It's measured in liters, which makes it sound more reasonable than it is until you get the bill for the fill-up. (Check current gas or diesel prices in Europe)
  • Diesel Fuel is usually far cheaper than gasoline. If you're on a budget you might consider renting or leasing a diesel automobile to save fuel costs.
  • Automatic transmissions aren't very common on European cars--the cost differential may reflect these prejudices.

Driving in Europe

Some people are terrified of the very thought of driving in Europe, especially--mamma mia!--in Italy. This fear has been going on for centuries. Honestly-there are accounts of people terrified of Italian horse and buggy drivers and things don't seem to have changed a whole lot since.

While it's probably wrong to generalize, I'm going to take a crack at it anyway. Europeans, by and large, drive more aggressively but pay more attention to the road than Americans. Personally, I like this because you can safely figure that the guy in the red Ferrarri is going to race you for the 7 feet you've left between you and the BMW ahead of you, and you'll be right at least 99 percent of the time. Knowing what people are likely to do is half the battle toward automotive safety. The rest is driving skill and paying attention. (In contrast to the above, and as explanation to our European readers of the sometimes bizarre behaviors one sometimes encounters on American roads, I point the gentle reader toward an absolutely hideous movie called L.A. Story, in which 4 drivers pull up to a four-way stop, motion each other to go, and then all crash into each other. In short, European drivers rush to take their right of way, even if they have to take it from someone else, and Americans rush to give it up when they're not in a hurry--unless they're going slowly in the left lane of the freeway of course.)

Europeans driving on the autobahns and autostrade, as already noted, tend to do most of their driving in the right lane, using the left one only to pass (except, of course, in Britain, which is a special case entirely.) The person in the left lane isn't likely to enforce his arbitrarily chosen version of the speed limit on you, even if he's going 200 km/hour. Chances are, he'll move over to let you pass, a courtesy infrequently extended to fellow drivers here in the US.

The above is, of course, just my opinion. I love driving in Europe, especially Italy. But then I've enjoyed driving at Laguna Seca and Sears Point raceways in flameproof underwear, too. Others less inclined toward the exhilaration that comes from a well-built car at speed have put their crystal-clear assessments about European driving on the web, and we've got some links to them, of course. See Driving in Europe to get a second or third opinion, and to get some idea of the signs used along European roads as well.

Keep the shiny side up. I'll see you on the Autostrada. I'll be passing you. On the left.

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