The rules of the road--and for renting a car--are quite different overseas, this doctor has learned.
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The rules of the roadand for renting a carare quite different overseas, this doctor has learned.
Oh, the joys of the open road. The sunshine. The freedom. The bewildering road signs. The exotic cars that appear out of nowhere and paste themselves to your bumper, even though you're already traveling 100 miles an hour. The smiling officer who hands you a speeding ticket at the toll plaza.
You must be driving in Europe.
Seriously, once you figure things out, it's not half bad. But the learning curve can be steeper than a mountain road in Switzerland. Old habits die hard. Reflexes trained to dodge right sometimes have to go left. Hand gestures that seem so colorful and demonstrative are best left untranslated.
I've taken 10 trips to Europe and have driven thousands of miles there. What I've learned might be helpful for you to know before you go.
It's wiser, I've found, to reserve a car from home than to try to locate one after you get to Europe. First, it helps to book with an English-speaking agent, in case you experience a problem later. Second, you can lock in a rate now, and if the exchange rate is more favorable at the time your credit card is billed, you'll pay less for the rental. At worst, you'll still get the confirmed rate.
Not certain when or where you'll need a car? If you're traveling to England or Italy, contact Kemwel Holiday Autos (800-678-0678; www.kemwel.com) or have your travel agent do so for you. The company rents throughout Europe, but in those two countries, it sells prepaid vouchers that let you get a car at the last minute. You can return unused vouchers for a full refund.
In general, you'll have few problems with renting if you stick with a major company, like Avis, Budget, Hertz, or National Car Rental, all of which have plenty of offices overseas. Prices vary among these companies, though, so shop around, perhaps using a travel-related Web site. Two that have helped me save money are Expedia.com (www.expedia.com) and Travelocity.com (www.travelocity.com).
If you plan to visit more than one country, try to rent the car in the one where charges are lowest. Granted, you might not want to land in Brussels and take the train to Vienna to get a sweet deal, but comparing rates between countries is always worth the effort. Also, ask the agent to explain the company's policy on picking the car up in one country and dropping it off in another. These drop-off charges can easily double the rental cost, so you'll want to discuss them up front.
Likewise, getting the car at the airport usually proves more costly than picking it up nearer to your final destination. My favorite travel consultant saved my wife and me aggravation and a lot of lire by specifying a pickup location on the outskirts of Rome. A taxi navigated the back streets and dodged heavy traffic to deposit us at a rental office almost in sight of the expressway. Again, it'll be easier to enjoy this sort of flexibility if you rent from a big-name company, which likely will have several offices within the city limits.
It's also smart to ask the agent about taxes, surcharges, additional-mile rates, and other fees that will be tacked onto your bill. For instance, some companies charge extra for infant seats or cellular phones, others for young drivers or for returning the car early.
Be specific, too, about the type of car you want. Most European rental outlets carry very few cars with automatic transmissions, so you'll have to request one and cross your fingers. Europeans seem to do fine in tiny, underpowered, stick-shift cars. Those autos are inexpensive to rent but not big enough for a couple traveling with several suitcases. Find out what size car you're getting for the price quoted, and never accept a hatchback or any car without a trunk. Suitcases in plain view can disappear in a heartbeat. You'll stand a much better chance of taking your Jockeys along for the ride if you have a trunk to lock your luggage in.
Before you go, you might also think about getting an international driver's permit, which provides a translation of your American license in several languages. The American Automobile Association (www.aaa.com), the only organization authorized by the US State Department to sell IDPs, charges $10 for these. I've never bothered to get one and have had no problems, but it's an inexpensive way to err on the side of caution. The small fee might save you a hassle later. For its members, AAA provides excellent free maps and a good Europe travel book for $5. There are also AAA offices throughout Europe; call your local branch for a complete list.
More important than a good price is a rental contract that protects you if you damage a car overseas. At least one major company, Hertz, does a good job of explaining its coverages and rental requirements, plus the rules of the road in major European countries. If you have Internet access, go to www.hertz.com. Click on "Site Map," then scroll down to "Policies and Procedures."
My rule of thumb: First, call your auto insurance carrier and ask what your personal policy covers. If you're not covered in a rental car for collision damage, theft, and injuries to other driv-ers and their passengers, call your credit card companies; some will protect you if you use their card to pay for the rental. Diners Club, which is widely accepted in Europe, provides primary coverage for vandalism, theft, and damage. Medical costs aren't covered, however, nor is damage you do to other vehicles and their occupants. (In Italy, theft coverage costs extra and is mandatory to rent a car.)
Use the rental company's insurance only to fill gaps in your personal coverage. And while you're reviewing your auto policy, check your medical insurance, too. Medicare won't pay for medical costs incurred outside the US, although most major private carriers will. So discuss travel insurance with your agent. I take it out routinely, althoughthank goodnessI've never had to use it.
After you arrive in Europe and receive the keys to your rental, inspect the car for dents, dings, and interior damage. If you find anything, tell the agent immediately and have it noted on your contract. Also, check the trunk for a spare tire. I've heard horror stories of travelers being stuck without one and having to wait hours for what could have been a relatively quick fix.
Okay, your paperwork is in order, and you're behind the wheel. A smile spreads across your face, but the real challenge is just beginning.
The cardinal rule of driving in Europe is slower traffic keep right. In Italy several years ago, I set my Audi's speed control at 160 kilometers per hour (about 100 mph) and cruised into the left lane. Seconds later, a Fiat was uncomfortably close to my bumper, horn honking and headlights flashing.
Because they're mostly straight and flat, major European highways scream speed. It's easy to get a ticket, and you'll probably be surprised when you get your first one. That's because the police, instead of pulling cars over, use radar to clock your speed, then send the ticket to the rental-car company. The fine will likely be added to your bill. Another way the police can nab you is by sitting at the toll plazas and checking toll tickets. These tickets are stamped with the times you entered and exited the highway, which makes it easy to calculate your average speed. Once, while zooming along in the south of France, I spotted the fuzz and decided it best to "lose" my toll ticket. I paid a higher fare when I couldn't produce it, but avoided an even larger fine.
Europeans drive fast, although only on the autobahnwhich has no speed limitmight you be passed by a car going 100 mph faster than you are. Trucks, however, are almost never a problem. They usually cruise contentedly in the slow lane. Unless you're ready to run with the big dogs, I'd suggest you stay there, too.
Roads are typically well marked in Europe, but signs for small towns seldom appear until you've almost arrived. So stay alert. I'd also recommend packing a handful of pocket dictionaries along with your maps. My family and I spent almost an hour in Germany poring over a map looking for the town of Ausfahrt, for which we had seen dozens of signs. Can you say "exit" in German? We can now.
Outside of cities, stoplights are rare. Where Americans would put a stoplight, Europeans construct a traffic circle or a "roundabout," as the Brits call it. They're easy to navigate once you've been around a coupleexcept in England, where everything is a mirror image of the US. Survive a few hours driving there and, if natural selection hasn't stepped in, you'll do okay.
The same can be said of busy four-way intersections, where simple manners take a back seat to aggression. There's never an unspoken, "After you, Alphonse." You must be ready to seize the moment, or you'll find yourself as I did, with drivers pulling around you to throw themselves into tiny openings in the stream of traffic. Even little old ladies will cut you off.
When you make your hotel reservations, ask about parking availability. I arrived at our small Florence hotel four hours before check-in, because I'd learned it had all of two parking spaces for guests. When we arrived at 10 am, both spots were vacant; by 2 pm, the nearest spaces were more than a mile away. But, in general, parking isn't hard to find in Europe. In fact, the quaint cobblestone streets, little shops, and pretty parks you'll visit are often sitting just above enormous underground garages.
Never assume that on-street parking is free, even if there's no meter. Check the dashboards of the other cars. You may see metered slips or tokens that were obtained from a nearby dispenser or tobacco shop. Leave a dashboard naked, and your car is likely to be towed. Of course, this means you'll need a pocket full of change to buy the parking slips or tokens, so plan for this.
Getting gasoline also takes a bit of foresight. Gas is expensive in Europe, and the stations are farther apart than they are here. I spent one Sunday morning frantically searching Tuscany for an open station. The gas gauge on our Ford Taurus was well below "E" when I spotted another driver filling up. But there was no attendant anywhere to be seen. As I realized after observing the other driver for several minutes, he was using an automatic pump that needed to be fed with lire.
Take my advice and have someone show you how to work the pump before you get low on gas. Actually, don't even get close to low on gas. If you're traveling the major routes, take advantage of the many excellent service plazas along the way. Besides gas, they offer decent food. On some European highways, restaurants and cafeterias are suspended right over the traffic. Stop, have a bite, and watch the truckers down a liter of wine or beer with a meal. At least they won't be driving more than 50 mph.
You might be tempted to stick to public transportation after reading about all the potential hazards of driving in Europe, but there's really no reason to be nervous. If you exercise caution and plan ahead, it's fun and no more risky than driving in the US. And by driving, you'll be able to stop and sightsee in places that trains and buses whisk by.
Just remember, when you pull back on the highway, stay out of the fast lane. And watch out for those Fiats from hell.
Charles Davant III. Read this before you drive in Europe. Medical Economics 2000;7:139.