In Praise of the Humble Rental Car

Herbie

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!

Options
  • 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?
 

Maddmatt

Explorer
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.
 

grizzlypath

Active member
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!)
 

LRNAD90

Adventurer
The One Way fee is generally pretty cost prohibitive in my experience. I rented a Minivan to take out daughter to college this year (MD to TX), intending to drive one way, turn the car in and fly home, but the one way drop fee alone was MORE than the 8 day rental I ended up with driving it both ways. It was crazy, but the rental comapnies obviously are tryign to discourage this..
 

Herbie

Rendezvous Conspirator
The One Way fee is generally pretty cost prohibitive in my experience. I rented a Minivan to take out daughter to college this year (MD to TX), intending to drive one way, turn the car in and fly home, but the one way drop fee alone was MORE than the 8 day rental I ended up with driving it both ways. It was crazy, but the rental comapnies obviously are tryign to discourage this..
It is definitely region (or country) specific.

For our recent Scotland adventure, the one-way fee for an 8-day rental which allowed us to do a complete lap of the highlands and midlands was only 50GBP.
 

plh

Explorer
my daughter has been getting several assigned rentals of 100% EV cars at the DFW airport. Not very convenient for short duration, high miles (over 100) business trips and requirements to bring the car back charged. No Teslas, have been Volvos and Hyundais.
 

kmacafee

Adventurer
We spent 6 weeks in Europe a few years ago and if you drop the car in a country different from pickup, the drop off fees can be hundreds of Euros. Based on research I did, for any rental over two weeks, you might be better off buying a car. Auto Europe (https://www.autoeurope.com/) had a deal where you essentially buy a new car from them, and sell it back at drop off. We got a brand new Peugeot Diesel in France with almost no miles on it and sold it back to them in Italy after putting almost 5000 kilometers on it. The process and paperwork for the purchase and sale was easier than buying a car in the states and the package included full coverage with 0$ liability.

I kept waiting for some hidden charges but none appeared. I found out about the purchase after talking with one of their reps online because it wasn't obvious on their website.
 

DieselRanger

Well-known member
Rental cars are widely regarded as the fastest cars in the world. Once rally'd a late-90's Chevy Cavalier up Pike's Peak (when it was gravel), and liberally used parking-brake slides around corners on the downhill.
 

gdaut

Active member
I seem to recall PJ O'Rourke had a good essay on the myriad capabilities of rental cars. Probably in Car and Driver; probably in the late 70s.

Re one way rentals, we got a great deal on a one way Denver to Boston rental last year. Company must have needed some cars moved to the East Coast.
 

BritKLR

Kapitis Indagatoris
We do a fair amount of rentals for work and pleasure. In the US we've had great luck and price with one way rentals from point A to point B whether we followed the PCH, Mississippi River or the Gulf Coast.

Most of the cars are pretty vanilla (which is good in the city) but, we tend to have enough points to upgrade and have had some fun cars, mustangs, chargers, corvette, jeep, motorcycle, etc.....they always make the trips more enjoyable.

Some funny/weird experiences tend to follow, such as: Flat tires, Suburban picked up in Kansas City but had come in from Colorado and smelled like a MJ smuggling vehicle, 50 mile radius limit from the airport with the corvette, Everyone wanting to race the neon green charger, etc...

I'm a big fan of rentals for exploring. Cheers.

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axcxnj

Member
A rental Nissan X trail with worn out tires got us through the F roads of iceland just fine. the license plates didnt hold up so well though.ford.pngIMG_20190618_211838662.jpgIMG_20190615_055719327.jpg
 

alanymarce

Well-known member
Renting makes sense for trips of a few weeks, where shipping your own vehicle is far too expensive, and where buying and selling later makes no sense either. In the last three years:

We rented a 4WD with RTT in Iceland on a five week trip and any other option would have been crazy.

We rented a 4WD in Argentina to wander around Patagonia.

We rented a VW (and were given a C-CLass Mercedes) for a three week trip around Central Europe (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Czech Republic.

We rented a FIAT in Greece to head through the Peloponnese and to Kythira.

Great way to explore!
 

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