In Praise of the Humble Rental Car


Rendezvous Conspirator
I'm excited to see road touring being covered here on ExPo! This is a mode of adventure that my family has enjoyed for a long time, and I've long felt that it had more in common with "overlanding" than some of the "recreational offroading adjacent" aspects that get a lot more focus.

With that in mind, I want to talk about the humble rental car. If it sounds to you like this is too far away from the Expedition Portal mission, then re-frame your trip as a "Self Drive Adventure", and suddenly it makes a lot more sense. While there are many pluses to traveling with one's own vehicle, sometimes the optimal solution is simpler and cheaper.

Why rent a car?
We've done a half-dozen or so 10+ day long tours in western Europe and Canada, and can say that self-drive was absolutely the way to go. Even in countries that are well-served by rail, bus, and other public transport, there are always dozens of places worth visiting that are either slower, more difficult, or downright impossible to reach without a car of one's own. There's a romance to taking the train to the nearest village then hiking, hitching, or finding another way to the castle ruins or monastery, but the most important resource MOST of us have during leisure travel is time. Doubling (or more) the number of places I can visit in a day by using a car versus waiting on trains and sourcing last-mile rides is worth the extra expense.

Balancing self-drive vs. not
Many of the great cities of Europe have fantastic local transit systems, and an increasing number of them are growing more hostile to navigation by car within their city centers. The overall emphasis on local transport over autos which drives lack of parking, pedestrian zones, mass-transit interfaces, parking and congestion fees, etc. can all make it "not worth it" to try to use a car day to day in such cities. We've found that a good strategy is to structure the trip such that we can book-end our travel with bigger "public transit" cities and forgo having a car in these places, then hire the vehicle for moving around the country to access the places not served by transport. Travelers within America are used to flying into a city and picking up a rental car from the airport, which they then drive straight to their hotel and (usually) pay to park. In contrast, most European cities that are served by international airports have (at least) good transit options from Airport to City Center. Big city hotels charge the most for parking, and urban alternatives like AirBnB do not always include parking options. (Forcing you to find an overnight pay lot, etc.) Instead, why not take the train/bus from the airport and spend a few days getting around like a local, THEN get your rental car when you're leaving town. Hiring from a location in the city, rather than the Airport, is often much cheaper, as well.

Another option that a car can unlock is "Open Jaw" travel - flying into one city but departing from another (so-called because the flight lines to/from home on a map look like an open mouth). Since time is often our precious resource, there's little advantage in driving back to your starting city, unless you're making a "loop". Open Jaw travel can also often lower your airfare costs since you can pick cheaper routes or smaller airports. You'll need to be sure to factor in a "one-way" fee into your search for hire cars, but this is typically a "one time" charge and usually cheap compared to the overall rental fees. Much better to pay a $60 one-way fee than to spend the better part of a precious travel day coming back to a city I've already explored, just to turn in a rental car!

  • I've found that the best option by far, in every country I have travelled in, is the smallest car you can manage. It's cliché to talk about "small European streets", but I will never forget our 2nd Germany trip, when we got "upgraded" from the VW Polo or Golf we'd reserved to a Mercedes E-class wagon. Brilliant for tackling triple-digit speeds on the autobahn with four people, but an absolute nightmare while trying to navigate inside medieval walled towns and tiny parking areas for the various pensions and gasthouses. It took fifteen minutes of Austin-Powers-like maneuvering to get the E-class through the gate of our pension in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and I vowed "never again". Touring the Isle of Skye, with its single-track roads with "passing places" made me VERY glad to be in a tiny Kia.
  • If you can drive a manual transmission - it WILL save you money. The upcharge for taking the same class vehicle as an auto vs. manual on our most recent trip to Scotland was about 50%! Making the switch to a right-hand-drive car is slightly trickier for a manual, but from experience I can say that it takes about one hour to be mostly functional and about three days to be fully comfortable.
  • Lease vs. Rent - For a trip of more than ~3 weeks, Leasing a car may be a better option. In addition to the "bulk discount", it often changes the category of taxation, so you can save quite a bit on the daily rate.
  • Diesel vs. Gas - This is tricky, as you need to balance rental rate vs. local fuel prices and how many miles you plan to drive. Make your own comparison based on advertised rates, as sometimes gasoline is the cheaper overall option, even if fuel costs a little more.
  • Child Safety Seat - check the laws of the place(s) you're visiting - if you have younger travelers, you might be obligated to use a booster, even if you have already graduated past one at home. (Penalties for this can be severe in some countries.) Bringing a booster from home is usually a crappy option (especially if you're dedicated to Carry-on/Hand-luggage-only travel like us) both because of the airport/luggage hassle, but also because your foreign-market seat may not comply with local laws. One pro-tip here is that while most car rental agencies will offer to rent you a seat, they add it as a daily charge, just like any other option. We found it was actually cheaper to pre-order a booster seat from Amazon (in-country) and have it delivered to our hotel than to pay the daily rental fee for an extended trip. (We donated the seat to a local children's center when we got to our final-destination.)
  • Insurance - this is an endless topic all by itself. Do your homework here, and in particular find out what YOUR coverage is from your Credit Card, home auto insurance, etc. There's no "one answer" on the best way to insure your rental.

Any other tips? Anecdotes? Questions?


All good points - as a child of the 70's and early 80's, I grew up with at least 2 road-trips (I don't think you can call it a "Grand Tour" when you and your brother cross the country on a foam mattress under an aluminum topper in the bed of an F-150) per year, and I still love them.

Years ago on a business trip I got the be the driver from Munich to Salzburg, because nobody else I was traveling with could drive a stick. That was fun.

Two bits of advice:

1) Here in the US check the "one way" fees very carefully.

We've done this "open jaw" travel a couple times, (new term for me, but I get it) most recently as we toured east coast colleges with our kids, who both ultimately decided to stay in Colorado - it's a hard place to leave.

For business purposes I'm a dedicated "emerald aisle" customer, and have excellent status, free days accumulated, etc... but on one of those trips the one-way fee was so huge we went with another rental company completely. I'm pretty sure that fee fluctuates based on availability, so make sure you check in advance.

Once you settle into a groove, it's a great way to experience things you would normally miss. On one memorable trip we started in DC with the college tours, then headed south to visit family in Charleston - but we took 2 days to do it. Took some back roads, made an excuse to take a couple ferrys, ate oysters at a place on the coast somewhere - I'd have to look it up, but it was decidedly non-tourist... Then dropped off the car at the Charleston airport and flew home.

2) When you get the car, walk around it carefully and take photos of any scratches, dents, missing trim, etc... and mention them to the person at the checkout gate. Twice on one-way rentals I've had the rental company try to ding me for pre-existing issues, and both times the photos and the note in my file from check out saved me. You should do this anyway, but its only happened to me twice, and both times were on one-way rentals.


Another pro-tip is to examine the rental-car insurance policies provided by your Credit Card. I was able to save a significant amount of money daily by utilizing this vs buying the rental agencies policy. I had to use it too and in my case it worked great to reimburse me for damaged caused to my vehicle while renting (someone backed in to me!)

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