Top Picks For You

Avoid These Common Mistakes When Renting a Car in Europe

Stop grinding your gears.

Europe has achieved continental notoriety for its comprehensive systems of transport—trains, buses, and planes are affordable, plentiful, and efficient. But for travelers who are in search of farther-flung locales and scenic natural wonders, forgoing mass transit to wield a set of wheels provides the mobility that is necessary to access those elusive nooks and crannies.

When hiring a car to crisscross the continent, it can be helpful to understand a few of the potential pitfalls one could encounter along the way to ensure a smooth ride and to prevent an arm and a leg expenditure from escalating into a full-body blunder.

You Absolutely Need to Pay Attention

Portugal is one of the less expensive destinations in Europe to rent a car, and driving is an adventurous way to cruise through copious vineyards in the Douro valley or to mount the copper coastal crags in the Algarve. The rental process in Portugal is straightforward, and there are many international companies with a good selection of cars across many locations. So what could go wrong?

Those who are unfamiliar with the Portuguese language can end up seriously bungling their rental car experience. In Portugal, the name for gasoline is gasolina, a word that is understood across many languages. The name for diesel fuel is gasóleo, and for someone who is on autopilot for a task deemed as routine, gasóleo can easily be misinterpreted as the Portuguese word for gasoline. If that isn’t enough to throw a wrench into the situation, the colors of the pumps can also cause confusion—in the U.S., diesel is dispensed from the green pump, but in Portugal, the green pump is for gasoline. Oh dear!

Continue Reading Article After Our Video

Recommended Fodor’s Video

It’s not difficult to understand these designations if you have familiarized yourself and are paying attention, but if not, it is quite possible to load up your tank with the wrong fuel. The inevitable outcome of this error is that a few miles down the road you will find yourself stranded on the side of a sun-scorched highway, waiting for a tow and perhaps receiving a few salty looks from your travel companions. This mix-up happens frequently enough that Portuguese car rental companies include a number to call for “refueling issues,” prominently displayed in the provided rental literature. The cost for this oversight is steep, in the time spent waiting for a tow, the risk that there is not another car available, and the most painful of all consequences—forking over somewhere around 500 euros to rectify your mistake.

The good news is that this face-palm-worthy blooper is easily avoidable, so please, preste atenção!

You MUST Request an Automatic if You Can’t Drive Manual

Ah, the old manual transmission. Those manual purists will yammer on and on about why driving a manual is better (More control! Better for the engine! Extends the life of the car! How the professionals drive!) while less proficient drivers mostly see it as an unnecessary addition to an experience that already requires enough attention without having to fiddle with even more knobs and pedals.

Americans are notoriously deficient as manual gear drivers, and unfortunately, this costs them money—in Europe, cars equipped with automatic transmissions are typically 50% more expensive to rent. Also, automatics are not always available, especially if all the other American automatons got there first. For those who can only drive an automatic, it is imperative to include this preference in your car rental reservation. As an extra measure to ensure this functionality, it can be helpful to send an email to the company to confirm your choice. This does not guarantee that your request will be honored, but it will perhaps reinforce how serious you are about transmissions.

Speed Cameras Are No Joke

Of the 100,000 speed cameras operating throughout the world, most are in Europe, with Italy having a particularly high concentration of these technological tattle-tales. Getting slapped with a speeding ticket in another country may seem like a non-issue, but the all-knowing European road gods can and will cross oceans to extract their pound of flesh from foreign speed demons.

When the ticket arrives through the mail, it will likely be in another language, but the gist is clear. Fortunately, an online payment system means you are only a few clicks away from clearing your good name on the continent.

What happens if you don’t pay a speeding ticket? The answer is: you don’t want to find out. Each country has different policies about how exactly they deal with it, but at the very least, if you ever return to the country, you are likely to be stopped at the airport upon entry and presented with the options of paying the ticket plus fines (not a fun way to lose your precious euros), going to jail (food’s probably decent at least), or turning right back around and heading home (ciao baby!).

Driving Across Countries and Borders

While one of the most appealing aspects of a vehicular ramble across Europe has a high concentration of different cultures within a small area, so one potential road trip hiccup is that certain countries do not allow foreign rentals across their borders. Check in advance to make sure the rental has permission to traverse the desired frontiers. Even if the car has permission to cross borders, there is often a fee applied for returning the car to a different country. A way around this is to drop the car off in the country where it was rented, hop on a bus or train, and pick up a new ride after crossing the border.

International Driver’s License

Some European nations require renters to hold an international driving permit, so if you plan to drive within multiple countries, it is best to have one at the ready. This permit does not replace the license of your home country, it is merely a supplement that tells the authorities, yes, I have completed the application, mailed two passport photos and a check for $20 in exchange for an oddly-sized booklet that is valid for one year from the date of issue. You can get an international driver’s license at AAA.

Renting a Motorcycle or Scooter

The feeling of whizzing around windswept cliffs overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean or coasting through the olive groves of a Greek island on a scooter or motorbike can instill a sense of open road freedom and lend a cinematic quality to your European adventure. However, in some countries, renting a motorcycle or a scooter requires a motorcycle license which can be a real bummer if you do not have one.

Fret not, because in many countries it is possible to rent a less powerful machine (no more than 50cc) without holding a motorcycle license. Another workaround to this restriction can be to find a small local company that wishes to keep their inventory in rotation more than they care to follow any rules about who should be doing what. All of this is at your own risk of course, and if you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable driving this type of vehicle then you should stay in your lane–which is steering clear of the lane altogether.

fouDor February 23, 2023

although this happened a while back (2015)... I found out the car rentals turned out to be expensive in Portugal (mid September to mid October). Surprised at the relatively high cost and just out of curiosity I checked the cost for same type car, but for oick-up and drop-off in Sevilla instead of Lisbon... Wow! Should have checked that out before booking the air... because the airfare did not allow any changes! I really should have flown to Spain instead, rent a car there, then make a side trip to Portugal...
Worth a check in advance if you plan to see southern Iberian Peninsula!