Driving and Buying Gas Overseas

We asked the independent self-drive travelers among you to share any tips on buying gas overseas (outside of North America and the Caribbean), including choosing which establishments to patronize, which gas to buy, etc., plus any warnings relating to the mechanical, economical or logistical aspects of automobiles, fuel, repairs, rescue, etc. Responses appear below.
If you have anything to add, write to Driving and Buying Gas Overseas, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail
editor@intltravelnews.com (include the address at which you receive ITN). Please be specific about the country of your visit and when you were there.

Here is my $.02 worth of wisdom about buying gasoline in Europe. DON’T! Rent a car that has a diesel engine and uses that fuel instead.

On a vacation to Switzerland in September ’05, I rented a VW Golf with a 6-speed, turbocharged diesel engine — my first experience with a diesel-powered car. It was OUTSTANDING, with plenty of torque (pickup), great mileage (I truly averaged over 50 mpg — miles, not kilometers) and no “diesel” smell. The car was as easy to start as one with a gasoline engine.

Diesel fuel was available everywhere, and it was CHEAPER than gasoline. I regret that I did not keep track of the cost of diesel fuel there, but, as I recall, it was about 25% less than gasoline.

At the rental office, I was repeatedly reminded to use diesel fuel when it was time to refuel. Don’t mistakenly use gasoline or you will be stranded somewhere. How do you make sure you are using diesel rather than gasoline? It’s very easy.

Firstly, the lid that covers the fuel cap has “diesel” written on it, as does the inner fuel cap. This will remind you.

Secondly, at the petrol stations (at least, in Switzerland), when you pull in there are usually four or five pumps at each “island.” The pumps that have green handles will be gasoline. There are usually three of these, for the different octanes of gasoline. The other one or two pumps will have black handles that have “diesel” written on them. Plus the handles will have a “lid” (with “diesel” written on it) that you must lift before you can remove the handle to start fueling.

If there are two diesel pumps, most likely one will have a nozzle with a smaller diameter than the other’s. The one with the smaller diameter is for use in cars. The larger-diameter nozzle will not fit in a car’s filler neck, and this nozzle is used by truckers, farmers, etc., for more quickly refueling the large tanks on their vehicles.

By the way, when flying into the Kloten airport (for Zürich), it is cheaper to pick up a rental car in the village of Kloten than at the airport itself. Kloten is very close by, but you will need to take a taxi to get there (about CHF25, or $20).

When in the taxi, be SURE to point out to the driver that you want to go to the Europcar rental office in Kloten, NOT the rental office in Zürich. When I was there, I told the driver to take me to the office in Kloten and, whether he didn’t hear me or misunderstood, he started into Zürich anyway. After getting his attention, we got turned around and returned to Kloten. The driver was not happy with me nor I with him.

Also, be sure you are taken to the Europcar RENTAL (Mietwagen) agency. The driver dropped me off at the Europcar VW car agency. The Europcar VW business has flags outside saying “Europcar.” Nowhere was there a sign that said it was a VW office (at least, when I was there). The two businesses are on the same street about a quarter mile apart, so I walked from the VW office to the rental agency on Steinackerstrasse.

Including all taxes, the total rental amount came to $215 for nine full days. By picking up the car in the nearby village of Kloten (versus directly at the airport), I saved a LARGE amount by not paying “airport pickup” taxes. Plus when I returned the car, I could drop it off right at the airport for no extra charges at all — quite convenient.

I subscribe to a small newsletter, Gemütlichkeit (www.gemut.com), that covers Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Even though small, it has good information. Through them, travelers can get good rates for rental cars in Europe. That’s how I booked my car. They are very friendly and knowledgeable.

You could also go directly to the Europcar website (www.europcar. com), but through Gemut you have people who can clear up any problems and who know the ins and outs that you ordinarily wouldn’t know.

John Oppy
Glenview, IL

We were in England in 2005 and found that the cheapest gas was at Tesco super stores. While still well over $6, it was the lowest price we could find.

We always rent the least expensive 4-door with stick shift and usually get 35 to 40 miles per gallon, which helps.

We find that as long as we stick with a 4-door, there is always room for us and the luggage.

John Putman
Sun City, CA

In 2000, my wife and I rented a car from Avis in Provence (to be turned in at Paris). Since we were staying in Paris several days and did not want to have the parking problems, we arranged to turn the car in on arrival. We had in hand an address near a main railway station, and the car was to be turned in with a full tank. We had been offered an option to purchase a full tank and turn it in empty but declined.

On arrival at the place to turn in the car, it turned out to be on a one-way street that was difficult to access, and there was no Avis sign. I left my wife at the railway station and was to meet her in 30 minutes. After driving by the location several times in an hour or so and finding no Avis sign, I decided to park and walk the area asking for the location Avis might have moved to.

I finally found a space and parked, then walked the area. At the address, I asked directions and was directed to a sign measuring about 8"x10", at the edge of the street, that said “Rental car return” and led to an underground parking garage.

I drove about and found no petrol station to fill up and decided to just turn the car in — NOT SMART, as the contract specified an exorbitant refill amount and penalty. My bill reflected about $100 for the refueling of a Citroen.

My wife was very unhappy at being abandoned at the rail station for triple the predicted time, and we went on to finish our vacation in Paris.

The maps provided with the rental car were VERY inadequate, and a good map was expensive. We had several directional fiascos (until I purchased a good map), as the highway signs tended to disappear in the larger towns.

In one case, a policeman I asked for help could not speak English and resorted to leading me to the edge of town in Lyon. He waved me to cross a bridge and proceed “straight on.” However, when I arrived at the other end of the bridge I was faced with a mandatory right turn and no directional signs in evidence anywhere. The purchase of a 30-dollar map was, quickly, forthcoming.

Charles Severs
Louisville, KY

Returning a rental car to the Orly airport in Paris in November ’05, I was surprised to see that the gas at the airport gas station was far cheaper than any we’d seen on the autoroute all morning. I wished we’d waited until we’d gotten to the airport to fill up the gas tank.

Brenda Johnson
San Diego, CA

We drive in Western Europe, France in particular, almost yearly. We usually rent a car so we can see the countryside and take the backroads. Our preferred supplier is Auto Europe (888/223-5555, www. autoeurope.com).

Manual transmissions are very common in rental cars in Europe. If you want an automatic, you will pay more. Air-conditioning is becoming more common, but it is sometimes an “add on” cost.

If you are going to be in Europe for more than 17 days, we suggest checking on the lease/buy-back options from various sources (including Auto Europe). This can save over a typical rental. We have used the lease/buy-back plan from Auto Europe for a Peugeot when traveling in France, saving about $400 for 30 days’ use.

Some further advantages are that the price includes full comprehensive insurance coverage (with no deductible) and 24-hour road service, plus you get a brand-new car. In some cases, you have to take the car in for its first servicing, but we have never found this to be a problem.

To save on fuel costs, we always rent a diesel car. Diesels typically get better mileage. Also, the price of diesel in Europe is up to 25% cheaper than that of unleaded — which is not true in the U.S.

According to my research, the combination of better mileage and the lower cost of diesel fuel in Europe can save up to 40%. Even where the cost differential is not as great (such as in the U.K., Spain and Switzerland), the better mileage still saves money — according to our experiences.

Another advantage Europe has over the U.S. is that diesel, or gazoil, is available at all stations. We have never had to hunt for it.

Never get fuel on a motorway, if you can avoid it; they can charge up to 20% more. We always look for one of the big discount shopping stores; they often have stations with much cheaper prices.

In France, look for signs to the Centre Commercial, where you will often find one of these “hypermarché.” Some of our favorites in France (and in other European countries) are Auchan, Carrefour, Géant and Intermarché. The fuel is generic, so if you must have a special high-performance gas, you will not get it there.

These big supermarkets are also an experience. The bigger ones have everything from food to major appliances. We often buy groceries, lunch/picnic supplies, etc.

Although these stores are being blamed for the demise of the small neighborhood shops in France, with everything in one place they are convenient for travelers. They are also often on the outskirts of towns, so you can avoid winding around in the centers of unfamiliar cities.

Doug Clark
Escondido, CA

I traveled through most of a modernized Poland by car in July ’06. Here are some quick observations.

Gas stations are much more prevalent now than they were only a few years ago on my last trip.

There are now 24/7 self-service stations with no attendants, stores, drive-ins, etc. Just insert your credit card and fill up.

Gas prices were running approximately $5.50 per gallon.

Some rental cars will have two filler caps/pipes, usually one on the upper rear fender and one on the lower rear fender (same side). One is for gas only and is similar to the American nozzles we’re used to. I’m told the lower filler is for a gas/diesel mix; the nozzle looks like a large lawn nozzle and is “locked” into place with a quick high-pressure fill.

If you use the wrong nozzle/fuel, you have an inoperative car and a very large repair bill which will not be covered by insurance. Read the owner’s manual first or ask the rental representative.

In some areas, you will see the chemical symbol “Pb” with a line through it. That is the unleaded brand.

Cars with automatic transmissions or with air-conditioning are at a premium. Reserve early!

Jeff Banas
Terryville, CT

An ITN reader wrote of their being unhappy with Europcar (May ’06, pg. 27). I don’t mean to discount the couple’s dissatisfaction at all, but I had an exceptional experience with Europcar — so much so that I specify using it to my travel agent whenever it’s available.

At a fuel station in Ireland in 2001, the diesel nozzle had been switched with the unleaded one (but I should have recognized that), so, yes, I put diesel fuel into my car. Dumb, yes.

After the auto club went out of its way to help me, driving me 70 miles to the nearest Europcar outlet, the Europcar people not only trusted me with another car but didn’t charge me the cost of dealing with a messed-up engine. I hadn’t even purchased any special insurance.

My most recent rental with Europcar was in Ireland in 2004.

Kent Shamblin
Beaver Bay, MN

When planning to drive in Europe, probably everyone considers the advantages, fuel–wise, of renting a small, lightweight car with a manual transmission. With the current price of gas, even a small increase in the miles per gallon can make a noticeable difference in cost. However, too great a concern in this area can unnecessarily reduce the pleasure of your trip.

We have found that gas is significantly cheaper at the various supermarket complexes in France (Carrefour, Super U and Intermarché) and maybe a bit less so at the ones in Germany and Italy. In the countryside, you’ll see road signs or “posters” plastered on buildings advertising these stores and their attendant gas stations, with directions.

One thing to keep in mind — away from the big cities, these stores quite often close for lunch as well as on Sundays and holidays. If you’re traveling on the fast free/toll roads you’ll have no trouble, as the gas stations there operate 24/7, but you’ll pay for the convenience.

We also have found gas to be generally cheaper in Switzerland, whereas everything else seems to be a lot more expensive there. So, when traversing Switzerland, we always fill up before leaving the country. We last drove there in May ’05.

Most important of all, to us, is the trip itself. Compared to the overall cost of a few weeks in Europe, think what a small proportion of that cost is used for fuel. These cars get many miles per gallon, and the distance covered on a trip usually is a lot less than it is here in the States. Even though gas may be double the price it was a few years ago, we find the advantages and pleasure of driving as opposed to being the slaves of some tour or transportation schedule and routing well worth a few dollars extra.

Don Kinser
Hillsboro, OR