Ground Transportation – Car rentals

Renting a car may not seem like the obvious choice for budget travel, but once you take into consideration where you want to go, how long you will travel, and the number of people you need to move, it may make more sense to do so.

We looked at a number of different options for our ground transportation, particularly in Europe.


Eurail passes have been the mainstay of budget transportation in Europe since backpacking began!  You can get to the centre of all major cities and many smaller towns in Europe by train, and the quality and timeliness of trains is generally pretty good.  The seating is comfortable, and often there is wifi on board.  Getting to rural areas can be more challenging, and may require multiple trains or train/bus combinations.  Katina and I used Eurail passes when we backpacked across Europe for our honeymoon.  At that time it was the best low-cost and flexible way for us to travel given where we wanted to go and for the period of time we were to be in Europe.

The passes come in a number of varieties:

  • Global Pass – explore up to 24 different countries (this would have been our option)
  • Select Pass – select 4 bordering countries to travel through
  • Regional Pass – select from a number of 2-country combinations (e.g. Germany and France)
  • One-country Pass – select a pass for one country

The passes are available in different lengths of time, from 5 days for the Select Pass to 3 months for the Global Pass.  For our family, a 3-month family pass (3 adults since Mikhaila is over 12 years of age) would cost €5,400 – about $7,500 Canadian.

For our trip, this would not be the best solution for a number of reasons:

  • Length of time.  Our travels in Europe will exceed 90 days
  • Places we wanted to visit.  Our travels will not only take us to major centres…we will be visiting rural areas as well.

General Car Rental Tips

Rumour: apparently if you reserve the smallest vehicle available at an agency online ahead of time, there’s a huge chance you will get upgraded because they rarely have that vehicle in stock.  I haven’t tried that one yet…

Fuel: Fuel prices are extremely high in Europe.  For diesel, the prices have ranged between $1.80 CAD /litre up to $2.30 CAD /litre.  For regular gasoline, the prices have ranged between $1.95 CAD /litre and $2.50 CAD /litre.  Opt for a diesel engine whenever you can.  The cost of fuel is lower and the range – the distance you can drive on a full tank – is higher.

Transmission: standard or automatic?  In Europe it is not common to drive a vehicle with an automatic transmission.  Almost all vehicles – including cars, vans, and trucks – come with a standard/manual transmission.  Even if you get an automatic, often it is a ‘hybrid’ automatic, meaning that the car is basically doing the work of the clutch and shift for you, but the shifts are not as smooth as you might expect.  In addition, if you opt for an automatic transmission you should expect to pay about 30% more for your rental.

Long term rentals: in Europe, we discovered that you can get a long term rental (also known as a lease buy-back) through Peugeot.  The way it works is that you order your brand-new, off the assembly line vehicle ahead of time for a specified date range.  The lease needs to be 21 days or greater.  At the end of your ‘lease’, Peugeot agrees to purchase the vehicle back from you and then presumably they either sell it or rent it elsewhere.  The cost of the rental includes zero deductible insurance and free road-side assistance.  In the end, this is the route we chose to take.

This family business run out of Seattle, Washington USA specializes in European car rentals.  I have personally rented through them several times while in Europe over the past several years.  They have travel expertise which has proven to be extremely valuable on the transportation side of things.  This is where I learned about long term rentals through Peugeot.  Their webpage also has a variety of travel related information, so they’re not just car rentals!

Gemut books the rental for you through all of the big-name rental agencies – Enterprise, Europcar, Budget, Avis etc. – but they do it for much less.  You’re getting the same quality of vehicle as if you had booked directly through the rental agency’s web page or made your booking directly by phone.

I worked with Bob at Gemut, and he was able to secure a Peugeot 5008 diesel for us.  This vehicle is about the size of a Honda CRV.  It easily holds all of our luggage, with room to spare.  When I picked the vehicle up from Peugeot it only had 4 km on the odometer!

As part of my research I went online to try and find a lower cost.  Using the exact same vehicle specifications and dates, I was shocked to discover that renting the vehicle directly through one of the ‘chain’ agencies would cost 3x more than what I was paying through Gemut, and almost 1/2 the cost of Eurail passes for the family.

If you are planning to go to Europe and will be renting a car, start with Gemut.  I made a lot of changes to our rental plans over the course of several months, and Bob and team were always very helpful to make sure that we got the best vehicle for our needs.

Bob and Andrew also published a very helpful document on their website called “What you should know about renting a car in Europe in 2014”, and you can find it here.

Many know about using Hotwire for finding hotel rooms, but their car rentals are very competitive as well.  When we’re not renting through Gemut, Hotwire is a close second.  With Hotwire, you can reserve a vehicle well in advance and there is no commitment, so you can cancel at any time.  As we got closer to booking our travel, I placed ‘holds’ on cars well in advance of when we thought we may need them.  When our dates changed or we ended up not needing the vehicle after all, I simply went to the site and canceled my reservation.  I had a couple of instances when the rental agent – Europcar for instance – had to double check the rate when I went to pick up the vehicle because they could not believe the deal we were getting!

I also kept an eye on the rental prices through hotwire as our dates approached and the prices did increase drastically the closer the rental request was to the needed date.

The worst time to try and rent a car in Europe is during the summer high season, so if you have a sense as early as March or April of what your dates may be, start booking your car (and flight!) at that time…you’ll save a lot of money.


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