For most of us, the basis of a car rental in Europe is the journey, not the destination. We spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars so that we can see everything that we want in the minimum amount of time available. This is what a rental car is perfect for, what it is made for, and what you should use it for. Although I am not against taking a train from one place to another (especially after a long drive) I am constantly finding myself looking out the window wondering “Hey what’s over there?”
Of course, the destination is a factor when choosing our itinerary. Equally important is the starting point. Not only can the beginning and end of your car rental save you money, but chosen poorly, it can be the beginning and end of your vacation as well.
First and foremost, if at all possible, try and pick up your rental car in town. In some countries, this can be the difference between fifty to five hundred dollars or more. In some places, it’s just not worth it as the airport can be 20 kilometers or more from downtown with little to no public transportation. In other places, such as Rome’s Fiumicino (or Leonardo da Vinci) airport, there is a train between the airport and main station in town. And in some places the airport is practically in town. The common places where you will find a flat fee for airport pick ups are France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and the United Kingdom. In Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Austria it is usually a percentage, anywhere from 10% to 17%. In Holland, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe it can go either way. Please be advised that this is for the major car rental suppliers and does not cover every one. Always make sure to ask if the airport surcharge is included and if it is a percentage or a flat fee, and if it is waived if you pick up in town. Also, it is good to note that if you pick up in town to avoid a fee, you can usually still drop off at an airport without having to pay the surcharge.
Picking up downtown won’t always save you from a fee, though it usually reduces it if anything. Railstations sometimes have a surcharge (Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium) and if you pick up at a “Premium Location” such as Russel Square in London or Haddington Way in Dublin, you will have to pay a fee as well. Also, some port offices require payment too, either as stand-alone or for a “meet and greet” situation, where the office is outside walking distance so the agents wait for you at the pier. Once again, make sure you ask if there is a fee if you are picking up at a station of any kind.
Aside from saving money, convenience is always a sticking point when deciding where to pick up your rental car. If you are hesitant to drive in a big city, but you want to save money, then you have a couple of options. For one, you can always pick up outside of a busy area but still “downtown” but this alternative comes with the price of having to get there, which is okay if you already have your hotel nearby. You can also find a rental location that is near a highway on-ramp, which is particularly good if you need the rental car not for the city you’ll be in, but for the one you need to get to. A mapping program using the internet is of course invaluable in this search. Get the addresses for your hotel and available pick up locations, and choose the one that is most convenient for you.
Finally, it is important to know what locations are available along the way to your destination. If you need to add an additional driver in the middle of your trip, or you need to swap out your car for any reason, then knowing where you can choose from will help optimize your time and money. There’s no point in going back if you can do the same moving forward right? It’s a good idea to have the phone numbers to the locations you’ll be dealing with, as well as a headquarters number for additional inquiries. Try to use a service that has 24 hour support. The locations may not always be open, but at least you can get through to someone who can let you know your options. Oh, and try not to involve yourself with a rental location that is part of a gas-station, restaurant, barber shop or any other strip mall business that is not car rental. Although many of the major suppliers have locations like this with their name on them, they are licensee, independently owned subsidiaries and you will find the shadiest clerks and the worst service here. This is really just common sense though.
In conclusion, we all know that getting there is half the fun. But the other 50% depends on the start and finish. If you know where that is before you try to move on, you’ll get there just fine.