What to Rent

First, a caveat. Every car rental company uses the words "or similar" when discussing specific car models as in "a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, or similar." You will not be guaranteed a specific model, only a category. The Mercedes E200 you reserved may turn out to be a BMW 520i. An Opel Astra is interchangeable with a Ford Escort, a VW Golf, a Fiat Bravo or a Peugeot Clio, and so on.

So, what to rent? For two persons, the Opel Corsa category (or Ford Fiesta or VW Polo) is o.k., particularly if you plan to avoid the Autobahn. There is adequate luggage space (covered hatch), the car looks good and handles well. Virtually every European rental car, including the Corsa, comes with a tape player in addition to a radio.

If you plan to be on the Autobahn, move up to the next category - Opel Astra, Ford Escort, VW Golf. These cars are comfortable at 80 to 90 mph and have a larger trunk - figure one big suitcase, two small ones and maybe a garment bag and/or a soft duffel or two. They sometimes come with a sunroof and are perfectly comfortable for three adults.

For two couples, our choice is the midsize Opel Vectra/Ford Mondeo category, which comes with four doors. Trunk space is a bit iffy, however, and we suggest a visit to your local Ford dealer for a look at the trunk of a 1996 Ford Contour (the U.S. version of the Mondeo). Cars in this category are the same size as the Mercedes C180 and the BMW 316i, and, at almost half the price, are a much better value.

The next category up Ford Scorpio/Opel Omega (both about the size of a Ford Taurus) is substantially more expensive. To get a bit more legroom and trunk space you'll pay two to three times the cost of the Vectra/Mondeo.

Those who must have customary American amenities and size will pay dearly. The typically available full-sized cars such as the Volvo 960, BMW 730 and the big Mercedes Benz models start at around $600 per week plus tax. Air-conditioned cars in Germany are rare and very expensive. Air is more readily available in Switzerland but only on larger, more expensive rentals. Air-conditioned cars are more common in France, Spain and Italy.

Rates for minivans increased dramatically last year and kept right on going in 1996. Besides that they're in very short supply. Book immediately.

Which Country?

Germany is the least expensive and, along with Switzerland, offers the most reliable service. Germany's value added tax (VAT) rate is 15%.

For small to midsize cars, Switzerland's basic rates are about 20% higher than Germany but the VAT is only 6.5%. However, pickup a car at any Swiss airport and you'll be socked with a 9% airport tax.

Italy's basic rates are approximately double Germany's. In addition, the VAT is 19% and every renter is forced to purchase theft insurance at from $13 to $18 per day. Consider this: a compact car for one week in Germany rents for $119 plus 15% VAT for a total of $136.85. The same type car in Italy is $266 plus $118 theft insurance plus the 19% tax on all that for a total of $456.96!

Austria's rates are more than double Germany's and the VAT is a whopping 21%. Belgium's rates are about 20% higher than Germany and the VAT is 20.5%. Rates in France are about double those in Germany and the VAT is 20.6%.

There is usually no charge to pickup a car and drop it at another location within the same country. But dropping in another country will cost from $60 to as much as $1500.

What About CDW?

"Collision damage waiver" insurance, if you choose to buy it at from $14 to $30 per day, gets you off the hook financially if you damage the rental car. (Liability or third party insurance must, by law, be carried by the car rental company.) Usually, however, there is a deductible amount of at least $100. So, if you return the car with a $1000 fender dent, you pay only the deductible. But don't assume you're covered for everything; there are several exclusions such as for broken windshields.

It is extremely unlikely that your own auto insurance will provide CDW coverage in a foreign country. However, MasterCard, Visa and American Express offer credit cards which, when used to pay for car rentals, provide free coverage. If you rely on these, however, you must first pay for any damage to the car usually with your credit card and then submit a claim to the credit card company for reimbursement.

There are some important things to consider when relying on a credit card for this coverage:

• If you don't buy the rental company's CDW at the time of the rental, an imprint will be taken of your credit card. This will be used by the rental agent to obtain an authorization to charge your card approximately $1500 to $4000, depending on the car. This ensures the rental company that you have the ability to pay for any damages. Your card is not actually charged (unless, of course, there is damage) but your credit limit is reduced by the amount authorized. Thus, if you have a $10,000 credit limit, with a balance due of $2,000, and the rental company obtains a $3,000 authorization, you won't be able to charge more than $5,000 on your card during your trip.

• Some cars - such as high performance vehicles and very expensive models - are excluded from coverage. American Express says its CDW coverage doesn't extend to vans mounted on truck chassis. Thus if you rent a Ford Transit van in Europe you won't be covered by American Express because Amex says this vehicle has a truck chassis.

• MasterCard CDW coverage in Europe is limited to rental contracts of 15 days or less in duration. If your rental is 16 days, you may think you have coverage for 15 of the 16 days but that's not the way it works. A 16-day rental contract simply doesn't qualify for CDW coverage. The Visa and American Express coverage limit is 31 days.

• Never pay cash.

March 1996