Rick Steves' Tips For Choosing The Right Rental Car For Your European Vacation

Europe is a dream destination with its rich history, diverse cultures, and scenic beauty — but to truly experience every inch of asphalt, from the city streets to the gorgeous countryside, the freedom of a rental car is a must. Travel expert Rick Steves shares his insights on choosing the right rental vehicle for your European escapade.

First and foremost, be prepared for European cars to be different from what you're used to in the U.S. Typically, vehicles in Europe are more compact, with less space for passengers and luggage. Additionally, in the U.S., automatic transmission is the standard; whereas in Europe, manual cars dominate the roads. This is essential to remember, especially if you're not comfortable driving a stick shift. While automatic cars are growing (in 1997, only 10% to 12% of European vehicles were automatic, versus 44% in 2019), it's nowhere near the amount in the U.S. at 96%. 

Still, automatic cars are usually available; however, they tend to be pricier to rent, often by about 50% or more. Moreover, you might need to opt for a bigger car to get an automatic transmission. If you're keen on an automatic, book well in advance. The demand for automatics is high and the supply is limited, especially away from major cities and airports.

Expect differences in European cars

Rick Steves often opts for the smallest available car with a manual transmission. Why? Maneuverability. European streets, especially in ancient cities and towns, are narrow and winding. But if you're planning to drive long distances in the countryside, a more comfortable sedan might be a better choice. You should also consider how many people you're traveling with and how much luggage you'll have and match your rental car appropriately.

You'll come across brands you recognize, such as Ford and Volkswagen. However, Europe has its own popular brands, including Opel, Citroën, Peugeot, Renault, and Škoda. Rick Steves explains that rental agencies usually guarantee a category or size of a car rather than an exact model. So, while you might book a Ford Fiesta, you could end up with a Škoda Fabia or similar. Open up to the novelty of driving a European car — look at it as a travel experience! 

Gas is notoriously expensive in Europe — nearly double the U.S. price in some countries. To cope with that sticker shock, Rick Steves recommends renting small cars with good fuel efficiency. Diesel cars are also prevalent and tend to be more fuel-efficient than gasoline ones. Want to skip fossil fuels altogether? Electric vehicles are more common in Europe than in the U.S. In fact, EVs make up 20% of rental car fleets, and charging stations are widespread and plentiful (a humble half a million). Save money, help the environment, and drive a cool electric car around Europe! 

Additional car rental tips for your European trip

Before you drive off, understand what's included in your rental agreement. Rick Steves warns that some might come with added fees like extra driver charges, theft protection, and even pickup and drop-off fees. As far as insurance goes, Rick Steves outlines three options: Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), your credit card's coverage, or having collision insurance as part of your travel insurance policy. Also, make sure to get your International Drivers Permit. An IDP is a legal-must in many countries like Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Prior to signing anything, inspect the car for existing damages; this can save you from unpleasant disputes when returning the vehicle. When you do return the car, make sure it's got a full tank of gas. Otherwise, Rick Steves warns that you may end up paying double the day's gas price plus a "refueling fee." Also, acquaint yourself with local driving rules. This is particularly crucial in countries where driving on the left side of the road is standard.

Another note, some countries require you to purchase vignettes (sticker permits) to use their highways — these are sold at border crossings and gas stations, according to Rick Steves. Otherwise, you may face a hefty $150 fine, or even more. As far as money goes, renting a car will cost you between $30 and $80 per day, depending on the model and rental country. With your rental car secured and keys in hand, you can vroom-vroom away to your European vacation!