Skip to content Skip to footer

Car Rentals in Europe: Travelers Have to Watch Out for These Pitfalls

If you don’t live in Europe, your assumptions about renting a car there may be wrong. Watch out for these classic mistakes when you rent a vehicle in Europe.

Renting a car in Europe is subject to a slightly different set of default rules than renting in the U.S., so Americans have to be more alert during the rental process. This advice, which comes from experts at the American Automobile Association, SIXT car rental company, and recent experience, can smooth the road. 

• Be sure your driver’s license is valid in the countries where you plan to drive. While few countries actually require an International Driving Permit (IDP), many (including Spain, France, Hungary, and Italy) require official translations of your local license. An IDP is accepted in lieu of a language-specific translation, according to the U.S. State Department, provided you also have your state-issued driver’s license on hand. An IDP costs $20, is valid for a year, and can be obtained at most AAA offices (find one at You will need two passport-size photos, your driver’s license, and the signed application form, available for download here. You can also get one by mail, but AAA recommends calling ahead to verify that your local office handles driving permits. 

• Age matters. Some rental companies—and even some countries—have minimum and maximum age requirements or charge extra for drivers over a certain age. For instance, only drivers 21 and older can rent in Ireland and England, and vacationers under 25 will pay a surcharge in Spain. Drivers over 70 are prohibited for renting in Croatia. The cut-off age in Greece is 75 and 80 in Portugal. Rental companies also may have their own rules or charge extra for younger or older drivers. Know the rules before you get to the counter. 

• Many European cars are now equipped with small USB-C charging ports, which means older model iPhones and Androids may require an adapter. An easy fix: Take a charger and adapter that fits into a cigarette lighter plug, or bring adapters that can handle both the older and newer forms of USB.

• Automatic versus manual transmission? Verify the type of transmission you’re reserving. Manual is generally cheaper and so stick shifts will likely be the least expensive price quotes you’ll see. But if you’re not proficient with your clutching skills, rethink whether you really want to be shifting while driving under pressure in an unfamiliar place and consider paying more for automatic transmission. You’ll get the best price if you reserve that automatic up front. But make your choice when you make your reservation, because prices can be substantially higher if you change your mind at the counter.

• While air conditioning is standard in U.S. rental cars, European cars may not have it. Like transmission type, this feature is something you take for granted in the U.S. and Canada but you’d be wise to check before you finalize a reservation in Europe. 

• The same is true for unlimited miles. Rentals with strict kilometer limits used to be more common in Europe than they are now, but always double-check, and don’t wait until you get to the counter.

• Before you leave the rental desk, ask about the local toll system. In some countries, toll transponders are required equipment for every car. In those cases, the rental company passes along the cost of the tolls about 30 days after your rental is complete. Also be alert to toll signs along your route. In other countries, you can pay as you go with a credit card. But some, such as one thoroughfare in Ireland, require you to go online within a day or two of using the road. Miss that window and you’ll be charged quadruple.

• Check the car for scratches before you leave the lot and take time-stamped phone photos of every surface so that you can’t get blamed for dings. 

• Double-check what type of fuel your vehicle needs.  Diesel-powered vehicles are common in Europe—you’d hate to get that wrong when refueling. 

• Europe’s medieval towns have narrow roads, strict traffic restrictions, and limited parking. You might not even be allowed to drive into some towns—you may be required to park outside the center and walk. A local or regional tourist office can offer tips for where to park for specific villages. Drivers with mobility issues should bring their handicapped tag from the U.S. to signal their need for preferential parking, but don’t expect that to grant you permission to park in cramped historic towns.

• In some countries, electric cars are now available as rentals. But charging times can be lengthy and finding chargers will add complexity to your planning, which means an electric car may not be the best choice for a longer trip. You’ll also need to figure out how to pay for your charge. In Sweden, for example, you’ll need to download an app that allows you to pay for what you use.

• Counting on your premium credit card to cover car rental insurance? It might not work for your destination. Best to check where your card’s insurance is valid before you leave home. In some countries, only a handful of top cards are considered as adequate insurance. If you purchase a comprehensive travel insurance policy for your trip, it may include car rental insurance, so read the fine print to know for sure.

• If you rely on your smartphone for navigation assistance, keep in mind that when you’re roaming, your data speeds may not be as fast as they are at home, which could make your map’s direction function sluggish or unresponsive. Both Android and iPhone users can avoid this by downloading full map info for any destination ahead of time using the major maps apps.

• While some traffic rules are universal across Europe (seat belts are required, and drivers must use hands-free options while talking on the phone), other driving rules vary. For example, can you make a right on red where you’re going? You can find country-by-country rules at the European Union website