van and luggageLuggage in 7-Pass. VanThere are a few hard realities every traveler should understand when renting a car in Europe. Though a voucher or reservation outlines the terms and conditions of the rental (and our customers are provided a toll-free-from-Europe help line), it is the customer who signs the rental contract and upon whose shoulders rests the ultimate responsibility for resolving and avoiding some of the problems that can arise with a European car rental. Here are five such possible problem areas:

1. Insurance charges

Since most European credit cards don't cover collision and theft insurance, many of the tens of thousands of car rental agents at rental counters all over Europe (especially in smaller cities) don't understand that most Americans pay with a credit card that provides those coverages free. So the contract that spits out of their printer calls for insurance at an extra charge. If you don't want that insurance, it's up to you to make sure you don't sign that contract. You can ask for a copy in English and one might be forthcoming. Otherwise, question the agent about the itemized numbers on the contract and, if in doubt, call the toll-free-from-Europe help line whose number is on page three of your voucher...this help line, of course, is only for Europe customers. If you booked directly with the rental car company, a major online travel seller such as Orbitz or Expedia, or an overseas broker such as Argus or Holiday Autos, you're pretty much on your own; it's you vs. the rental car company.

2. GPS

If you've ordered a GPS (we recommend you take your own) you're undoubtedly going to get one that has been used by a previous renter; one who likely speaks a different language. That means your GPS will probably be set up for that language. If the rental counter is busy, or if you're in an out-of-the-way rental office, there may not be an agent to assist you to switch the GPS language to English. There may be instructions in the glove box, but they are likely not in English. You may have to tinker and experiment, or wait until a rental agent can assist. We recently picked up a car in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. There was one woman in the Europcar office and three customers behind us in line. She gave us the keys to a car that was half a block away. It was simply not possible that she was going to be able to close the office to instruct us on the use of the GPS. It took some fiddling but ultimately we figured it out.

3. Car category booked not available

Computers predict how many of each vehicle category will be required each day at the approximately 5,000 European rental car offices. Sometimes these projections are incorrect and your rental office may not have the category of car you booked (remember, you are guaranteed a car in a category, not a specific make or model). In that case, the rental company's policy is to upgrade the customer. That's usually a plus, however you may get a larger vehicle that uses more fuel and is less easy to park. Be aware, too, of being upgraded to a luxury vehicle not covered by your credit card's insurance. Rarely, a rental agent will ask you to accept a downgrade; a car in a category lower than the one booked. In that event, if you are our customer, you need to immediately call the toll-free-from-Europe help line shown on your voucher. The round-the-clock staff at that number can 1.) use their considerable influence with the rental supplier to find a suitable car, or 2.) rebook with another company.

4. Mechanical problems

European rental cars are mostly new, low mileage vehicles and breakdowns are rare...but they do happen. If you have such problems during your trip you may be able to exchange the car at another of the rental car supplier's offices or get it repaired at a dealer, but both those options may be inconvenient. If the car is no longer drivable, the rental company will have provided a number to call for towing service. If that happens, don't expect a tow truck to arrive in 15 minutes and depending on the circumstances, you may be expected to pay for the tow. If, for example, the clutch goes out on your manual transmission rental car, the rental company may take the position that you used the clutch improperly and wore it out. Not only will they not pay for the tow, they will likely want you to buy a replacement clutch. Repairing a flat tire is another example of a cost typically borne by the renter and not covered by any insurance.

5. Traffic tickets and tolls fees

Over the last few years several European countries have developed dense networks of traffic cameras. In rapidly increasing numbers, rental car drivers are being cited for such violations as speeding, failure to stop at red lights, following too closely, and driving in restricted zones. You probably won't know you've been caught until your credit card is charged weeks or even months after your trip. That charge will be an administrative fee the rental company imposes for providing your name and address to the police that enables them to notify you of the violation. Some renters pay the fine, others ignore the notices they receive by mail from Europe. The rental company cannot help you with a traffic ticket and won't forgive the administrative fee. You agreed to that charge when you signed the rental contract. In addition, other than the liability insurance that allows travel in most European countries, your rental car will come with safety equipment and the necessary toll and environmental documentation to travel only in the country in which the car is rented. If you rent a car in Germany, for example, and plan to travel in Switzerland, you are responsible for purchasing the necessary windshield sticker (called a "vignette") for driving on Switzerland's Autobahn. Drivers who do not display the vignette will be stopped and be required to pay a fine of more than $200...on the spot. Similar stickers are required for driving in Austria, the Czech Republic and other countries. It is each renter's responsibility to understand and comply with the driving laws of each country he or she plans to drive. Some of this information is available at on this Website, but it is by no means comprehensive for the approximately 35 countries in which we and Auto Europe book cars.

More than 95-percent of our rental car customers have a smooth rental car experience, they get the type of vehicle they have been promised and there are no surprises either at the rental counter or later on when the credit card bill arrives. On those fairly rare occasions when things do go wrong, our customers can phone the toll-free-from-Europe help line to resolve many issues, but ultimately it comes down to your name on the the contract. We are always available to assist before, during, and after the rental but some things can only be avoided or fixed by the renter.

For the Internet's best advice on European car rental, see our FREE special report “What You Should Know About Renting a Car in Europe.”

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Suggested Reading:

"Vignettes”—European Driving Stickers
About Your Car Rental Quote
Driving in Europe: Traffic Tickets