Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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In the driver's seat

Renting the right set of wheels can make or break a self-driving vacation

When bus tours seem too tame and even rail passes feel restrictive, it's time to hit the road in your own rental car. I've learned firsthand that driving in Europe isn't easy. Over the past few years, I've had to contend with washed-out roads in Italy, nerve-racking switchbacks in Switzerland, Grand Prix-worthy speeds on German autobahns and budget-breaking tolls on French highways. I've also skidded through volcanic ash in Sicily, idled endlessly at sheep crossings in Spain, and driven atop more cliffs than I can count.

Yet I wouldn't trade the freedom and flexibility that self-driving offers for anything, because one spontaneous stop at an out-of-the-way spot is ample compensation. Ready to take your own drive on the wild side? These tips will help make it as easy and inexpensive as possible.

1. DOLLARS AND SENSE
Rental cars are pricey, so it's important to get the best deal you can. You'll find it by renting for a minimum of seven days and booking from home at least two weeks in advance. The big question is which company to book with? My lowest rate (an amazing $98 weekly) was arranged through an independent agent in Malta: given the price, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that my four-door sedan only had three door handles.

Since then I've stuck with big-name North American companies. They charge more, but I have the comfort of knowing quality controls are in place. I also know that if problems arise it's easier to resolve them when dealing with an English-speaking agent on this side of the Atlantic.

2. YOU BETTER SHOP AROUND
You can compare the rates offered by major companies by logging on to travel sites like www.expedia.ca and www.travelocity.ca — just don't get carried away. There's a fabulous deal. You're urged to BOOK NOW. But don't touch that mouse. Take a minute to call the company's toll-free number to ask about unadvertised specials. If you're comfortable going through a consolidator, it's also wise to check out Auto Europe (tel: 888-223-5555; www.autoeurope.ca). Aside from bargain rates, the 50-year-old company boasts a solid reputation, 4000 rental locations and 10 Canadian sales offices.

3. SIZING THINGS UP
The quotes you get will depend largely on the size of vehicle you select. Luxury models aside, smaller cars cost less to rent. And considering Europe's exorbitant gas prices (in December I paid up to $1.90 for a litre of unleaded) they cost less to run, too. As an added bonus, smaller is better when it comes to negotiating narrow streets and squeezing into hard-to-find parking spots. But keep in mind that standards differ abroad. A midsize there is equivalent to a compact here. So the budget-conscious should leave their SUV-sized expectations — and some of their luggage — at home.

4. LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT
Before making any commitments, be sure to read the fine print on your rental contract. Add-ons — including value-added tax (20 percent on average), insurance upgrades, airport location fees, one-way drop-off fees, surcharges for additional drivers or kilometres and other assorted extras — can easily double your bill. Most are unavoidable; however, you can often cut insurance costs by knowing what you're already covered for. Although there are exclusion clauses, you probably have theft protection through your own auto insurance policy. And if you pay for your rental with a major credit card, a Collision Damage Waiver may automatically be thrown in.

5. ASK AND YOU SHALL (PROBABLY) RECEIVE
Standard transmissions are the norm in Europe, and with good reason: you get better control over your car, which is crucial when racing up the autostrada or motoring down Alpine roads. If you want an automatic, you not only have to pay a premium, you have to request one at the time of booking. Other extras — like air-conditioning, CD players, cell phones and ski or bike racks — should also be reserved in advance. Travelling with young children? Remember to ask ahead for age-appropriate car seats. I've tried folding a robust two-year-old into an infant carrier and don't recommend it...

 

6. PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
When picking up your vehicle, it's tempting to grab the keys and go. Don't! Inspect it thoroughly for dents, scratches or torn upholstery and have an agent note any existing damage before you leave the lot. While some companies offer express drop-off services that let you bypass the counter when returning your car, it's important to go through another inspection in the presence of an employee at the end of the rental period. Otherwise you may be charged for problems you didn't cause. On-site extras also complicate the billing process: so always return your car fuelled up and on time. To protect yourself further, save all rental-related papers. I've received bogus billings twice and needed them to make my case.

7. RED LIGHTS
There are places you can't drive, especially if you've chosen a high-end rental. For example, certain companies won't allow cars to cross between Britain and the Continent; others ban vehicles from entering Eastern Europe. There are also places you don't need to drive: namely cities. Sure, with some practice you can dodge double-decker buses in London and double-parked cars in Rome. But why would you when public transport is efficient and inexpensive? If city stays are on your itinerary, you'll avoid headaches (along with daily rental fees and parking charges) by positioning them at the beginning and end of your trip with the rental period in between.

8. ROAD RULES
You've no doubt heard intimidating tales about adrenaline-fuelled drivers and freeways that resemble free-for-alls. But the fact is that every country has its own rules: the trick is figuring out what they are. Luckily, Britain's Automobile Association offers insider info through a downloadable document that covers everything from seatbelt laws and speed limits to quirky customs in 44 European countries (http://www.theaa.com/allaboutcars/overseas/europe_advice.html). If you are pulled over, be prepared to follow the same procedures you would at home. Have your licence and registration ready; pay any fines that are passed out (they'll catch up with you eventually!) and always pick your battles.

9. LOST AND FOUND
Sometimes getting lost is part of the fun. But sometimes you simply want to reach your destination. You can't rely on Global Positioning Systems because they're not yet widely available. However, online route planners like www.mapquest.com and http://mappoint.msn.com can help. If you plug in your starting point and destination, they provide free customized maps plus step-by-step instructions. And www.viamichelin.com even estimates your driving expenses. Personally, I still prefer old-fashioned paper maps. Yes, they're cumbersome. But when I get lost (and invariably I do) they offer the most options. Although rental companies typically hand maps out, it's best to buy — and study — your own before leaving home.

10. AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION
You'll avoid most problems by using common sense. When picking up your car, make sure you have a spare tire, jack and the numbers for roadside assistance. Also take time to get acquainted with local signage and familiarize yourself with your vehicle's basic operations. Figuring out how windshield wipers work while driving 140 kilometres per hour in a downpour is no fun. On the road, stay fuelled up — I've learned the hard way that gas stations are scarce in remote areas. And always pick the proper type of fuel: adding unleaded when you should use diesel is a quick way to kill a car. Finally, befuddle thieves by locking valuables in the trunk, keeping "tourist markers" like maps out of sight and only parking in secure areas.

Self-drive vacations aren't for everyone. Various countries place age restrictions on rentals, so if you're under 25 or over 65 you may not be able to take the wheel. If you're a new or nervous motorist, you may not want to. After all, Europeans do drive aggressively and conditions can be challenging. On the most dramatic roads, hairpin turns and hair-raising inclines are typical. Guardrails and passing lanes aren't! For those reasons, even experienced drivers may have a few "what was I thinking" moments. But they'll quickly pass, provided you use good judgment and give yourself a chance to acclimatize. Millions of motorists manage to drive safely around Europe everyday. Just get out there and join them.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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