Renting a car in Paris

While I would never rent a car just for Paris, it can be great for when it comes time to explore the French countryside, whether on a longer trip across Europe or just for multi-day side trips to the Loire Valley, Normandy, or Champagne Country.

A car grants you the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, turning up a dirt road to visit a vineyard or down a back alley to explore a medieval town.

Resources for renting a car in Paris

Step 1: Get a price from the aggregators

Research the going retail rates at various rental outfits, booking sites, discounters, and travel agencies by using a meta–search engine called an aggregator:

Once you have that lowest retail fee in hand, see if you can beat it using the companies below:

Step 2: Compare it to Auto Europe

Auto Europe ( offers consistently lower prices than the BigFive.

AutoEuropeIt actually works a bit like an airfare consolidator, so you still pick up the car at some local European office of, say, Avis or Europcar... you just end up paying less for it.

This is almost always my first choice when I need to rent, and since they now do leases as well, it's the best one-stop-price-shopping for the best option.

Step 3: See if the agencies and booking engines can beat it

Partner Major Agencies (search all at: Orbitz.comPartner, Expedia.comPartner, Travelocity.comPartner)

I rarely find the best prices by going directly to the big rental agencies (Hertz, Avis, Budget, National, Dollar)—though for Europe, do check out the local outfit Europcar (www.europcar.comEuropcar)—but occasionally there will be some special sale or promotion that will bring the rates being charges by the majors down to the discounted prices you'll find at the companies listed above. The easiest way to compare prices quickly at all of them is to go through a search engine: Orbitz.comPartner, Expedia.comPartner, Travelocity.comPartner.

Money-saving tips for car rentals

OK, so cars do have one big drawback: they are pretty expensive, especially when compared to using trains. I don't mean just the rental cost.

Gasoline in Europe costs three to four times what it does here. No joke. In spring, 2012, gas in France averaged more than $8 per gallon. That's part of why they drive so many of those teensy, fuel-efficient, little Matchbox cars over there, and why they're still churning out diesel-powered sedans and wagons.

And let's not forget parking garages in cities that cost $30 to $50 a night. High daily rates, mandatory insurance, obscure vehicle drop-off fees. Yep, renting a car on vacation can be a pretty costly proposition.

I’m here to help.

Here's how to shave the high price of car hires into a reasonable travel expense.

How to save hundreds before you even start

Do not rent a car for any portion of your vacation during which you will be in a major city

Cars are useless in cities. The traffic is awful, parking is difficult to find and insanely expensive (usually $40 to $80 a day), and public transportation is usually quite excellent.

Save a rental car for exploring the countryside and small towns—and save yourself (1) money (2) aggravation and (3) time by arranging to pick up your rented car on the final day you'll be in your first major city and dropping it off as soon as you arrive at your last city.

It'll shave a few days off the rental period, and avoid parking fees for those days as well. This alone can knock several hundreds dollars off your rental costs.

Find the true rental rate

Make sure when you ask what part of the quoted rate is the base rate, what's included (such as CDW), if taxes are included, whether you get unlimited mileage (which you definitely want), and any other restrictions.

Be flexible
Play with the dates. Sometimes if you pick up the car Thursday instead of Friday or at the downtown office rather than the airport, or keep it over the weekend, you'll save big bucks.

When you give the rental firm your dates for pick up and delivery, let them know you're open to other dates as well if it means saving money.

Trade down a few models; do you really near the Ferrari convertible, or can you make do with a Fiat Punto?

Even try different pick-up/drop-off cities—you never know.

Also, for complicated reasons, it's sometimes cheaper to rent for a full week rather than two days.

Pick up downtown, not at the airport

Airport pick-ups are almost always more expensive than downtown—often it is even broken out as an "airport pick-up fee."

Why is a mystery, since airports are where the keep car rental companies keep their largest fleets, so it's not as if you're paying a premium for their inconvenience. The sad truth is that this is an institutionalized rip-off within the car rental industry. they charge it becasue they can.

The downside to downtown pickups is that you have to navigate Paris city traffic to get out of town, whereas airports tend to be on a major highway at the edge of the city.

Stick shift is cheaper than automatic

A stick shift car can be up to 40% cheaper than an automatic shift. On Europe's many narrow, windy, hilly roads and tight streets in ancient cities, manual shifts give you better control as well.

Share the love, cut the costs

Renting a car is a particularly expensive proposition for the solo traveler, who has to shoulder the entire cost himself.

For families or small groups, however, the fact that there's just one lump fee actually works in your favor, as the amount is spread across each person's costs.

Sometimes the magic number of total passengers is three, sometimes four, but at some point renting a car becomes cheaper than buying three or four separate train tickets.

Still, even if it's just one or two of you and therefore renting is going to take a big bite out of your budget, there can be situations in which renting a car is worth the expense.

If you are at all planning to visit the villages of Provence, the hilltowns and vineyards of Tuscany, the whitewashed pueblos of Andalucia, or any other itinerary rarely of never served by trains or buses, get the car.

The truer Europe lies in the small towns, not the big cities. Don't short-change your experience by short-changing your budget.

Read the fine print

Most rental companies have restrictions on where you can drive. With some, you must stay in the country of rental (usually this is only mandated by smaller, national outfits).

Most won't allow you to take a car rented in England to Ireland or the continent.

Few let you drive from any Western European country into Eastern Europe, so if you're planning to drive to Prague, make sure you work it all out with the rental agency from the get-go.

Consider the CDW insurance

If your regular auto insurance doesn't cover can rentals abroad (check), you might want to buy the collision damage wavier, or CDW. This peace of mind comes basically allows you to total the car and not be held liable.

Your credit card may cover the CDW if you use it to pay for the rental, so always check with your company.

If you need to buy it separately, don’t purchase CDW coverage from the rental agency. They can charge up to $15 a day. Rather, buy it from a private insurer like Travel Guard, which charges only $9 a day (

Consider your options

For longer terms, lease a car instead

Companies won't usually remind you of this option, but if you want a car for more than 17 days (up to six months), tell them you want to short-term lease it. There's a whole section of this site devoted to the ins and out of such leasing (a.k.a. purchase/repurchase, or buy-back) programs. Full Story

Trains and Automobiles (Planes Optional).

Look into the rail-and-drive passes that get you several days of unlimited train travel on a flexi-pass along with several days of carn rental. You can add rail days or car days as needed to customize the pass to fit your schedule.

Tips: Picking up the rental car

Remind them you've already paid.

Make sure you know exactly what you paid for when you arranged the car rental. For reasons I'll never understand, the pick-up office in Europe often somehow "overlooks" the fact that your credit card has already been charged for the rental cost, and they double-charge you. The hassle of working this out with the credit card people after you return isn't worth the trouble. Usually, you will get one charge on your card from the European office for the first full tank of gas it provides (which is almost never included in the original rental price).

Inspect the rental car before you drive away.

I know you want to jump in and get out on that Autobahn, but if the agency doesn't know something is wrong with the car when you drive it off, it will assume you broke it and charge you accordingly. If what's on the inspection form they want you to sign doesn't match the state of the car, point it out. Otherwise, once you drive it away, you are legally liable for its condition.

Make sure all locks and doors work, check the various lights, and peruse the whole thing quickly for dents, scratches, and rips in the fabric. Scrutinize the contract and the vehicle well. Check for the repair and safety equipment. Check the trunk for a jack, inflated spare, snow chains in winter, and a hazard triangle (most countries require you to hang this on the trunk if you're broken down by the side of the road). Check the glove compartment for a parking disc (ask the rental agency about this; they'll explain about the honor-system parking lots if the country has them).

Make sure that any existing damage on the car is noted on the rental form before you drive it away—and also that you don't scribble your initial next to anything on the form that promises you will pay $15 a day for some insurance coverage you already have by virtue of the fact that you put the rental on your credit card.

Tips: Dropping off the rental car

Be sure to drop off your rented car on time

One of the great institutional rip-offs in rental cars is that you must drop it off on your final "rental day" at the same time you picked it up on your first day. Think about that, in terms of a realistic itinerary.

You pick up a rental car early in the morn (say, 9am) on the first day so you can get the highway under your tires and move on with your vacation. But on the last day, you want to be able to coast into your final town in the evening, drop off your bags at the hotel, and then return the car to the rental office before heading out to find some dinner. Problem is, the car was due back at 9am that morning, and they'll charge you insanely high daily rate of the "extra day" that you kept it.

The only solution: book the vehicle for a period that ends the day after you expect to be finished using it. That way you coast into town at night, drop off your stuff at the hotel, then return the car early. Sure, technically you have it until 9am the next day, but there's no reason to (a) pay for a garage overnight or risk parking it on the street, or (b) waste your next morning driving in rush hour to the rental office then filling in forms and such.

Always gas it up to the brim before returning it

You think European gas is expensive in the first place (which it is)? You ain't seen nothing like the charges a rental place feels free to impose (gas charges of over $100 aren't unheard of).