You're going to Europe and you want to see the Continent California-style: by car.
Should you rent, buy or lease? Should you make arrangements before you leave or after you arrive? What's the best deal for the money? What can go wrong and who gets the blame?
"Rent it here--Leave it there," says Europe by Car. Make your reservations in advance, before you leave the States, by calling (800) 252-9401 from California or New York, or (800) 223-1516 from the rest of the nation.
"National's the way to go one-way; special low rate and no strings attached," says National Car Rental, phone (800) CAR-RENT, with connections in Africa and the Middle East as well as Europe.
Then there's Auto Europe, "Your key to car rental and lease," phone (800) 223-5555. They say that for three weeks or longer, leasing may be the most economical way to go.
Besides its Renaults, Fords, BMWs and other cars, Auto Europe maintains a fleet of motor homes, such as a GM Excalibur that sleeps five and has a kitchen and bath ($439 a week to rent this job, and unlimited mileage).
Campers, Motor Homes
The Cortell Group, long a favorite on the regular tour group routes, also rents out campers and motor homes. Cortell's rental cars can be connected to a reserve-as-you-go hotel plan good for Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Yugoslavia. Guaranteed rates in U.S. dollars. Arrangements with Cortell are made through travel agents.
Foremost Euro-Car, based in Van Nuys, specializes in lease arrangements. Call them toll-free in California at (800) 272-3299 or elsewhere in the nation at (800) 423-3111. Leases are on new cars, include full insurance and are tax-free, which can save plenty of money in certain European countries.
All car-leasing firms offer unlimited mileage, but there may be additional charges for insurance and VAT (value added tax) ranging from 4% to 33%. And some firms charge an additional drop-off fee if you pick up the car in one country and return it in another. Check on these extra charges at the time you make your reservations. Plan to pay a deposit; it's generally $50 to $100.
Here's how Foremost works out its "lease." The customer signs a "financed purchase-repurchase agreement," paying for the use of the car before going to Europe. Then the car is registered in the customer's name. He or she signs a promissory note for the balance of the car's value on the lease contract. The note is returned to you at the end of the lease period. The longer you lease, the more you save, over the cost of a comparable car rental.
With the strength of the dollar, some Americans are leaning toward the idea of buying a car in Europe and shipping it home after they've toured the Continent.
Word of Caution
A caution: U.S. Customs warns that you must buy a car that conforms to U.S. safety and emissions standards; otherwise the car will need to be modified (often expensive) or even destroyed or returned overseas at your expense. So if buying the car is your heart's desire, contact a reputable sales representative for foreign cars in the United States, before going overseas.
Europe by Car can handle any of the above--buying, leasing or renting cars or campers. Factory service, warranty and factory-installed U.S. specifications are part of the deal; you pick up your new car at the factory where it's made, or, depending on the make and model you choose, at a variety of European cities. They also arrange insurance, shipment and European Customs clearance.
The same firm started the leasing program in Europe in 1954.
In France and Belgium all leased cars are factory-new and are exempt from government taxes. In France, that can amount to 33% when renting a car; in other European countries it ranges between 12% and 25%, lower in Spain and Portugal. Switzerland is the only European country without such a tax. In France there is another advantage to leasing: You must be 21 to rent a standard-size car but you can lease one at 18.
Rentals still provide the most flexibility, says Europe by Car, with more than 15,000 cars available, free delivery and drop-off facilities between many cities, as well as unlimited mileage.
Remember that renting a car (as opposed to using Europe's efficient public transportation systems) makes more sense as the number of people in your group increases.
In France and Great Britain, if you use either country's rail passes, you can arrange for rental cars for local sightseeing between your train rides from one area to another. In Great Britain this is BritRail's Rail-Drive Package. In France it's the French National Railroads France Vacances Pass. Make arrangements before you leave the States.