If you are like most car-rental shoppers, you want a car with navigation, preferably factory-installed.

First, built-in navigation is never guaranteed by the rental company. Even if your reservation says ”Mercedes Benz or similar with GPS,” when you pick up the car you could be handed a portable device with a rubber cup to stick on the inside of the windshield. Conversely, even if you didn’t book a car with GPS, and never mentioned the word at the rental counter, your compact category Volkswagen Golf might have dash-mounted navigation.

How likely is it that your car will have a built-in navigation system? Here's a very rough estimate based on our own experience and feedback from customers.

  • Mini, economy: 0-5%
  • Compact: 10-15%
  • Intermediate: 25-40%
  • Standard: 33-50%
  • Fullsize: 66%
  • Van: 66%
  • Premium/Luxury: 80-90%

OK, so you just want electronic help getting around. There are three ways to guarantee your rental car has GPS, portable or built-in:

  1. Book a car category that includes GPS in the description (“VW Golf or similar with GPS”).
  2. If the category you want doesn’t specify GPS, order a portable device at a cost of 4 to 25 euros per day (discounts for longer term rentals).
  3. Take your own GPS and make sure it’s loaded with Europe maps.

We recommend option 3 over option 2. The portable devices rented from car rental companies may be much-used by previous renters and difficult to program to your needs such as language or coverage areas. (There are no guarantees a rental company-supplied GPS will cover all the countries you plan to visit.) In many cases the rental counter will assist with set-up but we hear too many tales of rented device—both portable and factory-installed—that fall short of customer expectations.

Advantages to taking your own GPS:

  • Cost: Unless it’s included in the basic rate for the car, you will pay $30 to $120 per week to rent a GPS from a European car rental company. On eBay and Amazon you can purchase refurbished portable devices with Europe and North America maps for as a little as $50.
  • Ease of Use: No need to learn how to setup and use an unfamiliar device.
  • 100% Availability: Portable units rented in Europe are not allowed on international one-way rentals, and sometimes not on domestic one-ways. Many rental offices in smaller towns don’t even rent GPS, so unless you’ve rented one of the more expensive vehicles that has a better chance of having built-in navigation, you're out of luck unless you bring your own.
  • Unlimited Coverage: A good percentage of rental car factory-installed and portable GPS units cover only the country in which the car is rented. That’s not a problem when you bring your unit with the right maps.

GPS alternative: use a smartphone or tablet

An increasing number of travelers don’t bother with GPS at all; they simply rely on Google Maps on a smartphone or tablet. That, of course, means if you want turn-by-turn live directions, you’ll have to have a data connection in the car, and that will involve cost. It may be worth it to you to purchase a data package from your phone’s service provider (AT&T, Verizon etc.). A less flexible but cheaper alternative is to create and download maps of your routes prior to getting in the car when you have access to WiFi. Even without a data connection you can use the maps you downloaded and your phone will track your location using satellites and cell towers. Apps, such as OffMaps for the iPhone, can store multiple downloaded maps.

Finally, backup whatever navigation system you use with quality hard-copy maps scaled at 1:200,000 or 1:150,000 (preferred). The paper maps will provide perspective as well as identify scenic roadways and significant sights and towns along your route.