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Car Rental Firms Offering Good Deals in Europe : Transportation: Most travelers are unaware of the discounted rates offered by U.S.-based wholesalers who rarely advertise to the general public.


Who offers the best car-rental deals in Europe?

If you're looking for a bargain--and who isn't during a recession?--there's a little-known option that could save as much as a third or more on your rental cost: U.S.-based wholesale car-rental firms.

No, this isn't a scheme to fob off junk cars on the unwary. The wholesalers work with Hertz, Avis, National, Budget and other major international rental companies. But they often are able to offer cheaper rates than the majors themselves.

In Germany, a subcompact can be rented for as little as $99 a week plus tax.

What's the gimmick?

The wholesalers are able to negotiate special discounted rates with the rental companies because they do a volume business with them, and then they pass the savings on to their customers--most of whom are leisure travelers. The deals are especially good in the summer, when business travel in Europe is slack and car-rental companies there welcome the business they get from American vacationers.

The wholesalers--there are at least five of them--seldom advertise to the general public. For one thing, the car-rental companies don't want them to because they are afraid everybody might want to book at the wholesalers' price. And for another, the wholesalers get the bulk of their business from travel agents. As a result, they do most of their advertising in trade publications that the public never sees.

How good are the deals?

Auto Europe, a wholesaler based in Camden, Me., regularly takes transatlantic calls from Europeans who want to book a cheap rental in their home country at the rates Auto Europe offers American vacationers.

Other wholesalers are Connex of Peekskill, N.Y.; Kemwel of Harrison, N.Y.; Meier's World Travel of Los Angeles, and DER Tours of Los Angeles.

Although there is something of a hush-hush aspect to wholesale-priced car rentals, it is a legitimate business with which travel agents are very familiar. "We book many of our clients with these companies," says Marilyn Kessler, travel manager of Belair Travel-Carlson Travel Network in Bowie, Md. "They offer lower prices for the most part." Auto Europe books 50,000 reservations a year.

For travelers bound for Europe, the general rule of thumb is that it is cheaper to reserve a rental car in advance in the United States than to wait until you cross the Atlantic.

When it comes to renting a car in Europe, "Americans are getting a better deal than Europeans," says Heinz Niederhoff of DER Tours, a wholesaler.

The reason: European prices--aimed at the local market--reflect Europe's higher cost of living. But because locally generated business is slack in summer, rental companies are happy to offer their unused cars to U.S. wholesalers and their customers at sharp discounts.

If you need a rental car in Europe, you have at least three options. Because of the many variables in rental pricing, it pays to comparison shop among them--either by doing it yourself or consulting a travel agent. You can:

* Reserve a car in advance directly from a rental company such as Hertz, Avis, Budget or National. They have toll-free reservation numbers listed in the phone book.

* Book a car in advance from the very same companies but do it through a wholesaler. The wholesalers claim that on average, their rates are about one-third less than those made through direct rentals. The companies provide the same services, such as replacing a car that breaks down, regardless of how you book. "You're not a second-class renter," says David Mungavin, chairman of Connex.

* Take advantage of any fly-drive promotions that may be offered by the airline you are flying.

All five wholesalers listed above require a minimum rental of three days, a restriction that should be no problem for most vacationers. But it probably does impinge on business travelers, who tend to need a car for only one or two days. Besides price, another big advantage of wholesalers is that they customarily take last-minute bookings. If you book directly, some rental companies require that reservations be made two weeks in advance to get the cheapest rates.

Typically, a wholesaler negotiates an off-price contract with one or more major rental companies in each European country in which it does business. As Roy Hurdidge, executive vice president of Kemwel, explains it, one company may offer the best deal in one city while a second company is cheaper in another city. To get the best price, the renter must be willing to use the rental company the wholesaler chooses. The wholesaler should tell the renter the name of the car company when the reservation is made. A voucher is issued, and it is turned in at the rental desk at the arrival airport or other location. Each wholesaler has its own rental policies, and they may be a factor in deciding which firm to use.

Among the questions to ask: Are prices guaranteed in U.S. dollars or the foreign currency? Is unlimited mileage offered? Is a deposit required? Is there a cancellation penalty? Is there a drop-off charge if a car is returned to a different location than where it was picked up?

Similarly, if needed, how much is the CDW (collision-damage waiver) charge? Some wholesalers offer CDW protection at discounted rates, which is particularly useful for longer rentals. Travelers charging their rentals on a major credit card get free primary coverage for a limited period only: American Express, 30 days; Visa Gold, 31 days, and Gold MasterCard, 15 days. Without CDW protection, renters might be liable for repair or replacement costs in the event of an accident or theft.

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