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Everything You Should Know About Renting a Car in Europe

When exploring cities overseas, nothing beats the relatively low stress of public transit. But if you want to see a country more like a local — away from tourists — you won’t get to those locations quickly with public transit. After all, if tourists can reach it easily by public transit, they’ll already be there!

So if you want to explore more unique locations, a car rental needs to be on your expense list. As a landscape photographer, this is non-negotiable since I want to find landscapes that most people won’t go to.

I knew nothing about car insurance for my first trip five years ago, so it was incredibly confusing to understand all the terms and coverages and scenarios. Since then, I’ve become well acquainted with international car rentals, especially in Europe.

Hopefully I can spare you some of that confusion. Here’s everything you need to know about international car rentals.

Booking the Vehicle

When you make your reservation, make sure you book with free cancellation and don’t have to enter your credit card number. More details in my post on five money-saving travel tips, but here’s the TL;DR: don’t book directly with the rental agency since they usually ask for a credit card number. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better rate through couponing than just checking rates periodically through Expedia or Priceline. With free cancellation, you’re locking in a rate that’s easy to rebook without penalties.

Be wary of purchasing extras like insurance or an extra driver ahead of time. In particular, I don’t recommend purchasing car insurance through your booking site. I purchased insurance through Expedia for my first trip to Scotland, but the rental company would not honor it and made me purchase their insurance. It was not pleasant to find out at the counter that our car rental price would be double what we booked.

Handling Car Insurance

Your personal policy probably doesn’t cover driving overseas, so you’ll need to make alternate insurance arrangements for your trip. In most countries, the rental already include zero-deductible liability: that means if you get in an accident and it’s your fault, liability will fix the other person’s car.

It’s your car that you have to worry about. In some countries, you could be out the entire price of the vehicle, but in most of the countries I’ve traveled to, it’s capped at a high deductible like 5000 EUR. The agency will offer various collision damage waiver tiers to get that deductible down for a (pricey) daily fee.

This is the trickiest part of a car rental, and it goes by many names like Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW). The agency might offer additional insurance that just covers glass, windshield or tire damage. If you can at all help it, don’t purchase the car rental agency’s insurance.

Credit Card CDW Benefits

Here’s where a solid credit card comes in. Several of the major credit card companies offer zero-deductible CDW for free. While this benefit is normally secondary to your personal insurance, overseas it becomes primary: if you’re at fault for an accident, you’ll have no deductible to pay and the premiums on your personal insurance won’t go up!

That’s incredible when you would otherwise pay an extra $10–$50 per day for the rental agency’s insurance — which still has a deductible. And when you do get in an accident, you’ll be working with your credit card company rather than making international calls to the agency’s insurance. It’s hard to overstate how much of a win that is, especially when rental agency customer support tends to be unexceptional.

The difficulty is getting the rental agent to cooperate. I’ve been caught off guard twice in the UK, and the first time I paid double the rate to cover insurance I didn’t actually need because I didn’t have proof of CDW.

Call your credit card company well before your trip to discuss all the terms of their CDW benefit and make sure they cover collision in all countries you’ll be visiting. In particular, only a few credit cards cover collision in Ireland — including mine, which was better than the “Super CDW” you would typically purchase in Ireland.

Picking up the Rental

Sadly, the most frustrating hurdle comes after the red-eye flight: picking up the rental. The agents are often fast-talking salespeople who will be hard to refute without all your mental faculties, so shortcut the conversation by declining all extras and insurance.

Extras go by many names, so if the price deviates slightly from your booked rate, show the agent your confirmation email and ask why it’s different. If they offer to upgrade you to a fancy vehicle, remember that more expensive vehicles are more expensive to insure — which will slam you if you’re in an accident.

To decline the agency’s insurance, you will need to show proof of your collision damage waiver benefit through your credit card company. For some agencies, this proof must be dated within the last 30 days, so call your credit card company ahead of time to make sure they’ll cover your needs, then ask them to email you proof of CDW a few weeks out from your trip.

If you accept any of the rental company’s insurance, your credit card’s collision benefit will not apply at all for that rental. So if you want to take advantage of your card’s CDW, you must decline the rental agency’s insurance.

Declining Insurance in the UK

There’s one confusing exception: in the UK, all rentals are required to include minimum collision insurance. This caught me off guard last year, but unlike my first trip to the UK I had cell service. I called my credit card company, and they explained that so long as I accepted only the minimum insurance and declined any lower deductible options, they would honor any CDW claims.

When you decline, the rental agency will often charge you an “admin fee” that varies from $10–$50. Some of the sketchier agencies will refuse to let you decline their insurance at all, so call ahead and ask what their administrative fee is for waiving collision.

Extra Driver

While you’re on the phone, ask the agency about their rates for an extra driver. Many countries will let a spouse drive for free, but you’ll have to pay extra for a family member or friend. The daily rate for an extra driver could be high enough to sway you to a different rental company altogether.

Never pretend you’ll be the only driver and let your travel companion(s) drive. If they get in an accident, your credit card’s collision benefit won’t apply. For your credit card’s collision to cover those drivers, their names must appear on the rental agreement.

Where Are You Headed?

Nothing compares to seeing a country from the driver’s seat, and with a few phone calls you can ensure it’s a cheap option too.

I hope this helps you navigate the confusing domain of car rentals and gives you the courage to take advantage of all that your travel destination has to offer. Make sure to subscribe to the Yellowscale YouTube channel to keep up with new digital nomad, travel and landscape photography tips!

Jonathan Lee Martin

Jonathan Lee Martin

Globetrotting digital nomad and fine art landscape photographer in Atlanta. Working remotely as a developer + international trainer, scaling mountains at twilight to discover non-touristy landscapes.

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