Car rentals and leases

By Philip Wagenaar

(Third of three parts)

In this issue I will continue last month’s discussion of overseas car rentals and leases.

Picking up the car

If you drive directly to your hotel after picking up the car, it will help to map out your route ahead of time. This is facilitated in a country covered by the Michelin Red Guide, which shows town plans on which many hotels are indicated.

If you want to save the price of the first day’s rental, take an airport shuttle to your hotel and pick up your vehicle the next day.

Before driving away, inspect your vehicle (inside and out) for preexisting damage and have any irregularities noted on the provided sheet.

Check the odometer when paying for mileage.

Verify that the gas tank is full. In my experience, most gas gauges continue to show “full” until you’ve used several gallons. A gauge that shows less than “full” almost certainly means a tank that’s not full.

Ask for a contact number in the event of an accident or breakdown (some companies will offer roadside assistance).

If you can avoid it, don’t drive inside cities. Traffic often is a nightmare, one-way streets may baffle you and parking will be a hassle.

If you rent from a local independent, get in touch with the firm before you leave. You usually will have to return the vehicle to the place of pickup. To obtain the names of reliable local companies, peruse ITN or a guidebook.

Returning the car

Upon termination of your rental, allow yourself plenty of time to return your vehicle. Why? Because you may have difficulty finding the airport rental return, since signs are not always clear. You may have even more trouble locating it when you first drop off your luggage at the departure hall.

Several years ago, at Schiphol airport near Amsterdam, my wife, Flory, tried to find her way from the departure hall, where I was checking in, to the Avis lot. She ended up far outside the airfield in the town of Aalsmeer. Fortunately, she made it back in time.

Consider either bringing the car back the day before departure and taking a taxi or public transport to the airport the next day or using a trial run to locate the dropoff area.

Be sure the check-in attendant inspects the car’s body in your presence and you agree about any damage. Several years ago, in Scotland, we had an overzealous employee who, after a 20-minute microscopic exam of the car, found a small scratch. Triumphantly, she noted the “damage” on her sheet. Her face fell when I wiped the “scratch” off with my moistened finger. Undaunted, she proceeded to look for any irregularity in the spare wheel and tire. Fortunately, for us, it was an exercise in futility.

Wait for the finished copy of the rental agreement and examine it carefully for all charges so you will not have to argue about any discrepancy after returning to the U.S.

Charge a balance due to your credit card or pay part of the bill with leftover foreign currency. The latter is more advantageous than changing overseas money back into dollars, since rates for cash at the airport usually are outrageous. (After all, the exchange office has a captive audience.)

At times, offices abroad will not tell you how much you owe since the billing is done from a central agency. All you can do is double-check the rental agreement for accuracy.

Watch out for duplicate billing of the same rental.

Renting a car while overseas

Suppose you have been traveling by train. Your railpass is no longer valid and you decide you want a car. You wonder which cities have autos for hire and which ones offer one-way rentals.

To determine in advance where to arrange for a pickup, ask several of the international car suppliers to send you a list of all their locations in the country you will be visiting. Photocopy the brochure at 64% reduction (still legible) and carry it with you.

When ready to rent, call the airport and downtown locations of various agencies and play one against the other, inquiring about all discounts and promotions. (Most reservation agents speak some English.) This works out better than just visiting one office since once you are there you will have no leverage.

If you don’t succeed in getting a reasonable price, call back to the international companies in the U.S. (note that even 800 numbers are toll calls from overseas) to obtain the best rate.

Once you make a reservation, the U.S. agent typically will inform you that it will take two days to get the car. However, in my experience, the vehicle usually will be available the following day.

To facilitate making your way to the automobile agency, secure a map of the city’s public transportation. Alternatively, take a taxi or have the car delivered to your hotel.

Other tidbits

Make sure to obtain an International Driver’s Permit (or, for Brazil and Uruguay, an Inter-American Driving Permit) from the AAA before departing on your trip. It provides a translation of your home license (you must carry the latter as well). While not required in a number of Western European countries, it is recommended everywhere else since the police may have trouble deciphering your home license. The International Driver’s Permit is now mandatory in Italy.

Before entering the expressways of Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (M1 and M3), you’ll need to buy a tax stamp specific for each country. This so-called vignet or vignette is available at local tobacco shops or gas stations close to the border. Travel without the sticker and you risk a fine. As more and more countries require you to have these decals, check before you leave.

For information on mapping the route to your desired destination or on finding a street address, read “How to Google for a Better Journey” (ITN, Dec. ’04, pg. 86).

Please drive defensively, carefully and safely!