Driving in Europe is more demanding, and like it or not, there is a very good chance you will get fined in Europe. In fact, i have just received a notification via registered mail on a traffic offence committed in Rome nearly a year ago (there was a separate email sent by the car rental office one month after the rental). Basically, there’s no way you can escape paying the fine.
The instruction says i could get a 30% discount if i paid the fine within 5 days of receiving the notification, and the letter suggests paying through telegraphic transfer, which would be quite a chore. Plus, the commission would be expensive too. Thankfully, i Googled and found someone giving the link to the pay fines for Rome using a credit card. I paid it promptly, 88 Euros. No point writing an appeal letter, because it’s clear that after going through so much trouble to send the letter to me, they would not waive the fine. Telling them you don’t know the local traffic laws is a lame excuse that probably doesn’t work.
If you got caught speeding, there is probably no chance for you to appeal, and the car rental company may charge the fine to your credit card directly (yes, this happened to me). The bottom line is – know the rules, obey the rules.
I have written a newbie’s guide to car rental, and that remains relevant. With regards to finding cheap car rental in Europe, well, you’ll basically have to do an exhaustive search. Don’t be lured by advertising that claims 20% or 25% discount. Get as many quotations as you can from the available car rental agencies. Europeans are used to driving manual cars, so, although the local car rental agencies (i.e. not the international franchises) typically offer better rates, they may not offer automatic cars.
One way to do an exhaustive search is to get the list of car rental companies for your arrival airport through Google maps, and then get the quotation from each respectively. Many rental companies actually belong to the same group, so you can expect similar pricing from them. For example, Avis and Budget are from the same group, Enterprise, Alamo and National are from the same group, Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty are from the same group.
One interesting thing you might notice when you enter the initial criteria (the date, time and pick-up/return locations) to search for a rental car is, there is a question asking whether you are a US resident. You might wonder why, whether they get special treatment. Well, yes, they get to opt out of CDW completely. This is the standard practice for car rental in the US, and they are given this option in Europe and the rest of the world as well. Not a good idea though. You should at least sign up for the minimal CDW.
After a decade of mostly incident-free car rentals, it happened to me – i met with an accident. As is always said, don’t panic, when you meet with an accident. OK, it’s a different story if there is injury of any kind involved, but otherwise, the situation is likely not as bad as you think. Anyway, here’s what happened in my case.
I drove a car rented from Croatia into Italy, and I hit the car in front. Complicated, right? Well, the Italians were extremely nice people, including the police. Can you believe it that someone from the car in front actually expressed empathy that our holiday was affected by the incident? Thankfully, the rental car was still driveable, and we were able to complete the rest of the final 3 days itinerary.
As is normally the case, people will want to settle the accident on the spot without calling the police. Since I was driving a rental car, this option was not possible. Despite feeling annoyed, the driver of the car in front was rather muted in expressing frustration. I apologized, and was sincerely sorry for the trouble I brought about – the time and effort incurred having to bring the car to the workshop.
The police arrived shortly, and they spoke enough English to be able to converse. I was asked to give an account of what happened, and they dutifully wrote what i said into a report in Italian, thereafter explaining to me the contents. An administrative fee of about 30 Euros was paid, and that was it. I was free to go. This was possible, of course, because of insurance. The standard Europe-wide green coloured insurance document furnished by the car rental company – make sure you inform them of your plans to cross border so that you will get this document. By the way, i also made a call to the car rental hotline as instructed, but they weren’t interested at all. Well, this was good in a way.
During car return, I paid the car rental excess, and was finally relieved of the stigma of driving a badly bruised car. Back home, I was able to be reimbursed the full sum of the rental excess after making a claim with my travel insurance company. It seemed too good to be true. You can almost wreck a car (provided there is no damage to the engine and chassis) and still get away with it. No fine. No demerit points. No-claim discount unaffected.
In case you were wondering, the offence that resulted in the fine in Rome was driving onto the path reserved for trams or buses. I vaguely remember doing that, but the reason I did so was, in many European cities, trams and cars share the street space. Apparently, the same does not apply universally. The moral of the story is, take time to study the traffic regulations, and if in doubt, at least do as the car in front.
Quite often, there are restrictions placed on entry into the oldest parts of towns. Sometimes there are specific timings when you are not allowed to enter, but more often, only cars with authorization may enter. In Italy, these zones are called ZTL.
Another form of fine that tourists are often nabbed for is failure to display a vignette. Countries like Austria and Slovenia collect road toll through the sale of vignette, and failure to do so comes with a hefty fine.
Should you rent or not
Driving in Europe can be quite demanding in terms of driving skills. You may have to maneuver the car through narrow channels and tiny parking garages. You may have to drive up or down steep slopes. You may have to parallel park the car into impossibly short lots. If this sounds scary to you, then maybe it’s a bad idea.
Otherwise, a rental car is the cheapest and arguably the most comfortable way to get around in Europe.