Last Updated on June 23, 2024 by Kristin

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Planning a European road trip? Whether you’re touring Tuscany’s wineries or cruising the French Riviera, renting a car provides a unique chance to leisurely explore small towns and scenic mountain drives that you simply will not be able to experience by flying. While the benefits are numerous, renting a car in Europe can be very different than renting a car at home. Here are nine common mistakes travelers make when renting a car in Europe that cost time and money.

Not booking the car in advance

With all the work that goes into planning an international trip, it can be tempting to assume you can take care of the car rental on the ground when you arrive at your destination. But this is a big mistake. Booking your car rental in advance allows you to track prices over the weeks leading up to your reservation, and you can always rebook at a lower rate if one pops up. If you wait to book until you get to Europe, you’ll have to take whatever price is offered at the counter. Also, booking from home ensures you can understand the details of your reservation without worrying about the language barrier.

Not reserving a car with automatic transmission

Another good reason to book ahead is that, unlike in the U.S., most cars in Europe do not have an automatic transmission, and finding one often requires some extra work. If you don’t know how to drive a stick shift, renting a car with an automatic transmission is a must. However, these cars are not very common in Europe and can cost significantly more than those with manual transmission. If you are not familiar with stick-shift driving, don’t be tempted to try to learn on the spot. Instead, budget for a vehicle with automatic transmission.

Forgetting to get an International Driving Permit

Are you traveling to a country where English is not the first language? If so, you’ll likely need to get an International Driving Permit (IDP) well in advance of the trip to be able to drive there. This booklet translates your driving information into 10 languages so that officials in 150 foreign countries can understand the information. Obtaining a permit from the American Automobile Association (AAA) is easy to do in the U.S. before you leave. But be forewarned — the process can take several weeks if you are already abroad.

Not paying in local currency

Another big mistake is not paying for your car rental in a country’s local currency, which will likely be the euro. At the rental car counter, you may have the option of paying in U.S. dollars or in local currency. While paying in dollars may seem like the most logical option, it is often more expensive because it includes an extra convenience fee on top of a potentially less-favorable exchange rate than the one your bank uses to convert the currency.

Using the wrong fuel

Diesel fuel is much more common in Europe, so don’t make the mistake of filling your tank with unleaded gasoline if your model uses diesel. Also, be aware that some travelers have had issues using their bank cards at certain automated gas stations in Europe. When in doubt, try to fill up at a station that has an attendant available in case you need help running the card.

Not understanding insurance and fees

One of the biggest mistakes people make when renting a car in Europe is not understanding how rental car insurance works or anticipating extra fees you may incur during the trip. Rental car reservations typically include some kind of liability coverage, which covers damages and injuries to third parties. However, you may not be covered abroad under your U.S. auto insurance policy for damages to the vehicle you’re renting.

If you are planning to use a credit card with primary rental insurance coverage, be sure to make sure it covers rental cars in the specific country you plan to travel to. Planning to take a cross-country road trip? Along with the standard extra charges for young and additional drivers, European car rental companies may charge extra cross-border fees for each country you enter.

Not getting environmental and toll stickers

One of the lesser-known mistakes when renting a car in Europe is not understanding local laws for driving in certain places. For example, some countries, including Austria and Switzerland, require toll stickers called “vignettes” that drivers must have in advance. Not having one can mean a hefty fine. Separately, some European countries have designated special areas as “environmental zones” where only certain car models can enter. Be sure to check both the requirements for vignettes and environmental zones before setting out on your trip, especially if crossing borders.

Expecting a large vehicle and easy parking

If you’re used to driving a large SUV at home, it’s best to adjust your expectations when renting in Europe. Cars tend to be smaller and more compact in Europe. This is more practical, as European towns tend to have narrow streets and smaller parking spaces. Be sure to rent a car with enough space for everyone and their luggage. The cheapest compact car option may be sufficient for one or two people, but may not be able to comfortably hold multiple large roller suitcases. Double-check how much luggage each car model can hold before booking, and when in doubt take some measurements.

Forgetting to inspect the car

Another big mistake when renting a car in Europe — or anywhere, for that matter — is forgetting to inspect the rental car for damages before taking it out for a spin. Before accepting the rental and signing off on the paperwork, take your time to do a thorough walkaround of the vehicle and take photos of even the smallest scratch or imperfection before leaving the rental office. This can help ensure you do not pay for any damages that previous drivers may have caused.