Car Rental in Europe: Everything You Need to Know

Shawn Forno

Renting a car is a fantastic way to see more of Europe on your own terms. It’s a good idea. You just have to be aware of a few things

Renting a car in Europe can be expensive and, honestly, a little confusing. Making a reservation for a rental car is easy, but if you aren’t aware of insurance fees and requirements, which countries require an international driver’s license (IDP), potentially steep one-way drop-off fees, and (of course) how to drive a stick shift, your vacation could be sidelined before it even starts.

To be clear, a rental car is a fantastic way to see more of Europe on your own terms. It’s a good idea. You just have to be aware of a few things, because even though the rental companies look  familiar—Thrifty, Dollar, Hertz, Avis, and Dollar—renting a car in Europe isn’t like renting a car in the U.S.

Here’s everything you need to know about renting a car in Europe so you’re prepared to hit the road in style.

Yes, You Should Rent a Car in Europe

For a few extra bucks a day (ok, more like $20/day), a rental car lets you sidestep tourists bottlenecks and explore Europe at your own pace. And while paying for gas, parking, and tolls isn’t ideal, the trade-off of nearly limitless freedom is well worth it.

I’ve rented cars in Italy, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and France and I’ll do so again the next time I’m in Europe. And it’s not because I hate the train.

You know how everyone is always telling you to “travel like a local?” Well, renting a car is one of the quickest ways to experience what it’s really like to live somewhere.

You never have to worry about catching a flight or a train, or worse killing time between weird transfers (it happens). Heck, thanks to international roaming plans you don’t even have to worry about getting lost anymore.

Renting a car is also a great way to go a little off the beaten path to discover lesser known destinations that might just become your new favorite spots. Heck, the only reason my girlfriend and I found out about the free thermal hot pools in Ourense, Spain was because we drove aimlessly through Galicia.

And, now you can too.

What Does is Cost to Rent a Car in Europe?

Obviously, every country is different, but the average price of a European rental car (with an advanced reservation) is anywhere from $8-35 per day or $60-250+ for a weekly mid-size or smaller car rental in many European countries.

Using comparison sites like  Kayak, Expedia, and even Skyscanner (they do cars too) can show you thousands of rental car options at often absurd prices. Play with the dates, pick-up locations, and car makes and models and you can find a rental car in Europe for less than $100 a week. 

  • I found a rental car for just $63/week in Paris while writing this article. And it only took me five minutes of searching using Skyscanner and Rentalcars.com
  • I also found a 7-day rental for a 4-door economy car in Madrid (at the airport!) for only $13.87 on AutoEurope—including CDW and VAT fees. That’s not $13/day. That’s $13 for the entire week.

Other European car rental sites include:

Obviously, you can upgrade that for a larger, newer car, as well include as add-ons like dashboard GPS, roof racks, and other extras, but if you’ve got a phone and a carry on backpack, you should be good to go with a stock, compact rental.

Cost of Renting a Car in Europe
Type of Car Avg Per DayAvg Per Week
Mini$6-12$30-60
Compact$10-20$35-80
Mid-size$21-40$100-120
Average Cost of European Rental Cars By Country
Italy$9-25$65-100
Spain$13-20$89-115
Portugal$11-18$70-120
Ireland$12-15$35-65
Germany$50-70$130-220
France$15-40$110-160

The good news is that these rates often include things like unlimited mileage and (some) roadside assistance.

The bad news is that many car rental companies hide a lot of fees behind some of those too-good-to-be-true deals.

Common European Rental Car Fees

Don’t be fooled by ads claiming “rates as low as €2/day” for European rental cars. That may be the base rate for subcompact rentals, but there are always fees, taxes, add-ons, and restrictions. Here are some of the most common (and costly) European car rental fees.

Relocation, One-way Rental Fees, & Multiple Country Fees: $100-$500

If you’re picking up and dropping off your rental in different locations, or even separate countries, expect to pay a hefty relocation fee. This can range from $100 all the way up to $500-$1000 depending on the destination and rental company, but it’s rarely going to be free.

Read the fine print carefully to make sure you don’t get wrecked with one-way fees.

Stick Shift vs Automatic Transmission: 50% More

It pays to be able to drive a stick shift in Europe. No, really. Fees and rates vary of course, but you can expect to pay as much as 50% more to rent an automatic car versus a standard manual transmission.

What’s worse, a lot of smaller or regional car rental agencies don’t even have automatic transmission cars. Don’t assume that you can just walk in and rent a car. Make your reservation early, and double check that you’ve chosen an automatic, or you’re gonna have to learn stick while navigating roundabouts. Not fun.

Insurance: $20-40/day

Collision and liability insurance can be one of the biggest hidden costs of renting a car in Europe. Car insurance is a tricky thing, and you should definitely do your own research with your existing policy, but often times you can get coverage through your credit card or car insurance back home—at least collision insurance.

If you do opt for the extra insurance at the rental car agency, expect to pay an extra $20-40/day for a collision waiver (which only covers the damage to the car, not you, your passengers or the other driver).

Tolls: $10-20/day

Tolls aren’t technically a fee from the rental car company, but they are everywhere in Europe. It varies from country to country (Portugal has more toll stops than Spain, but Spanish tolls tend to cost more per toll booth), but if you’re driving a hundred or more kilometers a day on highways you can expect to pay $10-20 in toll fees.

Certain European countries have implemented automated tolls. If you’re driving in the following countries you need a special sticker on your car, called a “vignettes,” for automated tolls (or you’ll get a fine):

  • Austria
  • Bulgaria
  • Czech Republic
  • Hungary
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Switzerland

Rates vary from €5-10 a week with cheaper options for monthly or even yearly vignettes. For rental cars, you can either use the automated system from your rental company (usually for a small daily fee), or rough it and buy your own vignette attached to your credit card.

Airport Fees: 10-20% More

Picking up your rental car from the airport (or even a train station) can cost significantly more per day than renting a car from town. Sure, it’s easier to get your rental when you land, but if you’re paying an extra 10 or even 20% more per day, that convenience fee can add up quickly.

Extra Driver Fee: $5-25/day

Extra drivers almost always cost… well, extra. This can range from $5–25/day per driver, so plan accordingly. Just remember, if you don’t add another driver (to save some money), they’re not covered by the insurance if anything happens when they’re behind the wheel.

Underage Rental Fees: $25+/day

Twenty-one is the minimum age to rent a car in most European countries (Luxembourg is 23). Some European countries allow 18 year olds to rent a car, but not many. Bottomline: if you’re under 25, you’re probably going to have to pay an underage driver fee of anywhere from $10-40/day. 

Honestly, if you’re under 21, renting a car in Europe is going to be more restrictive and expensive than riding the train. Germany even requires drivers under the age of 22 to pay extra for a collision damage waiver, even if they already have insurance.

If you can still get that sweet student/youth discount on the train buy a Eurorail pass and leave the driving to us oldies.

Senior Driving Restrictions

Age restrictions cut both ways. Many car rental companies across Europe have implemented senior age restrictions, or additional fees for drivers over 75 years old.

Ireland is one of the more strict countries, (you can’t rent a car if you’re over 75). Make sure you’re young enough to rent a car in Europe before you land.

Taxes: 18-25%

Some rental quotes include the tax, but not all. Europe has an extra value-added tax (VAT) that can be 18-25% depending on the country. Recently, several European nations have also instituted an eco tax of $5 a day to many car rentals.

How to Save Money on a European Car Rental

Use a Comparison Site

Again, it’s obvious advice, but hey, you’re here. Let Kayak, Expedia, and Skyscanner show you thousands of rental cars and sort based on your needs and budget. 

Rent a Tiny Car

When in Rome, right? No really, renting a smaller car—like a 2-door sub compact—will not only save you tons of money on the rental, it’ll save you money on gas and even parking (you can park anywhere in a Mini).

You’ll also be able to explore more freely knowing that you can actually fit your little car in the tiny medieval streets you’ll encounter just about everywhere in Europe. If you don’t have a massive suitcase, you don’t need a huge car. Save money on your rental and splurge on other parts of your trip. As long as you have AC, you’re good to go.

Don’t Rent From the Airport

Obviously, picking up your rental straight from the airport is easier than taking a bus or cab to a regional rental office in the city center. And for many of you, you’re probably going to pay a little extra for the convenience of picking up your car right away. However, you can save hundreds on longer rentals (more than a few days) if you rent a car from town instead of at the airport. 

Rent a Car for at Least a Week

Day trips are great, and you can still save time and money on transportation with a short-term rental. However, the price per day plummets on European rental cars when you rent for a week or longer.

Be Older Than 25

If you’re over 25 you can avoid brutal underage driver fees and extra insurance restrictions, making your rental much more cost effective. 

Use Your Own Insurance

Most credit cards offer some form of included rental car insurance. You just have to make sure that you make the reservation—and pay for it—with that credit card. Also, your existing car insurance coverage on your car at home should cover rental cars. But that’s a big “should.”

Check your car insurance policy to see if you need to purchase additional liability or comprehensive coverage on your European rental car.

Split the Cost

Bring your partner, friend, or fill that 4-door sedan up with buddies to split the cost of a rental. More people not only makes the rental, gas, tolls, and insurance cheaper—it makes your European road trip a heck of a lot more fun.

What Do You Need to Rent a Car in Europe?

Making a reservation for a rental car in Europe is easy. You can make a reservation online right now. It’ll take you 10 minutes. However, picking up that car might not happen if you don’t have the following:

  • Valid Passport
  • Valid Driver’s License (good for at least one year from the date of the rental)
  • Valid International Driver’s Permit (IDP) 
  • Proof of Insurance (Collision Damage Waiver is all you need, but liability is nice too)
  • Credit card (usually the one on the reservation)
  • Stick shift skills (technically not “essential” but pretty nice to have)

If you’ve got all that, you can rent a car in Europe with confidence. Just watch out for gas prices and tolls. They can be more expensive than you realize.

How to Get Your International Driver’s Permit (IDP)

You need an international driver’s license to rent a car in most countries abroad. The UK, Canada, Ireland, and a few other nations recognize a U.S. driver’s license as valid, but it’s not a guarantee. 

The good news is that it’s cheap and easy to get your IDP. You just have to have a valid license and be over 18 years old. And you don’t even have to take a test.

How to get your international driver’s license in minutes:

IDP Online:

  1. Fill out this online application
  2. Wait 30 min. to 2 hrs.
  3. Download and print your IDP yourself.

IDP in Person:

  1. Fill out this application, and bring it to your nearest AAA branch office
  2. Bring in a valid U.S. driver’s license 
  3. They take your picture (for a small fee)
  4. Pay $20 and you’re all set

IDP by Mail

  1. Fill out this application, and mail it to AAA branch office
  2. Include (2) signed original passport pictures
  3. Include a photocopy of both sides of your valid U.S. driver’s license
  4. Pay the $20 permit fee (with an option for expedited processing), and you’re all set.

International driver’s permits are only good for one year, so don’t get yours too early.

Can You Cross European Borders in a Rental Car? 

One of the most common questions is whether you can drive across European borders in a rental car. And the simple answer is: if you’re driving within the Schengen district, it’s completely legal to drive from one country to another.

However, just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s free. Driving a rental car in multiple countries may cost $15-100 extra. And don’t think the rental car company won’t notice if you start hopping borders.

Tolls are just a part of driving in Europe, and while you will inevitably have to shell out some cash to get through a number of tolls, many rental companies include “easy pay” toll systems that don’t require you to pay for automated tolls. They instead track your license plate when you drive through these toll booths and book your credit card directly.

That means, they’ll know if you cross into another country. If there’s a fee associated with border crossings, you’ll definitely get charged.

Read the terms and conditions carefully, as it can vary from company to company and country to country. Driving from Spain to Portugal and back, for instance isn’t a big deal. But if you plan to drive from Western to Eastern Europe, check your policy really carefully.

Do You Need to Know How to Drive a Manual Transmission in Europe?

Now, finally, the age old question that’s plagued American travelers for years:

“Do you really need to know how to drive a stick shift to rent a car in Europe?”

And the answer, surprisingly is… yeah, you really still do need to know how to drive a stick shift in Europe.

Obviously, you can reserve an automatic transmission rental online, but that’s not always a guarantee. Read the fine print carefully and you’ll see that often your reservation only guarantees you a “similar” make and model to the car you’ve reserved. And that doesn’t always include transmission.

It may seem strange or even backwards to Americans that stick-shift cars are still a thing in Europe, but that’s just the way it is.

In many places, like Iceland and Spain, manual transmission cars are often the only available option. Seriously. I’m always grateful that my dad made me learn to drive a stick when I bought my first VW golf. It’s been ridiculously handy over the years.

You don’t absolutely have to know how to drive a stick to rent a car in Europe, but expect to pay a hefty premium for automatic cars, or at the very least deal with significant shortages or limited selection. If you plan on renting a car in Europe, don’t just assume that they’ll have a car you can drive. Make your reservation weeks in advance to make sure.

TL;DR: Renting a Car in Europe

Renting a car in Europe isn’t that complicated. However, if you’re not aware of the restrictions, regulations, and hidden fees you can be shocked or even out of luck when it comes time to pick up your car. 

Pay attention to the fine print, and make your reservation early to save hundreds on your next European vacation with a rental car that lets you get out and actually see Europe on your own terms.

  • You need an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) to rent a car in most European countries
  • Stick shift (manual) cars are still incredibly common, if not your only option in many countries
  • Tolls in Europe are common and often quite expensive
  • Gas is more expensive in Europe
  • You can drive across borders, but it’s not always free
  • Make sure your insurance (on your card or home policy) covers your rental
  • Longer rentals (over a week) can cost less than $10/day
 

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