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Watch for Surcharges on Car Rentals in Europe : Rates: 'Airport service charges' and theft coverage are adding to the cost of renting on the Continent.

June 20, 1993|JACK ADLER

Travelers renting cars at many European airports are now facing the reality of a price increase that can amount to as much as 10% over last summer. Another new car-rental cost that may spread in Europe is for theft coverage, which may no longer be part of the standard insurance package included in the basic car rental rate.

The new airport surcharges were introduced by major car rental companies starting early in 1992 and have gradually spread to airports throughout the Continent. As of April 1, 1993, three of the biggest companies--Hertz, Avis and Kemwel--had begun imposing the surcharges in a number of European countries.

Countries where the airport car rental surcharges have begun showing up include France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Austria and Switzerland.

According to the car rental companies, the increase, which travelers will find in the form of a percentage of the entire rental cost, or a set amount in the local currency, was necessary to defray the cost of doing business at the airports.

Since the surcharge is generally labeled an "airport surcharge" or "airport service charge," it can be misleading to consumers. "It looks like some sort of government tax, but it's really a car rental charge," admitted Michael Wellner, president of Kemwel, a Harrison, N.Y.-based car broker specializing in European rentals.

On April 1, 1993, Hertz initiated a surcharge at French airports of 55 francs, or about $11, per car rental. Other examples of European airport surcharges that have gone into effect recently on airport rental cars from Hertz, Avis and Kemwel include: Austria, 7% of the total rental charge; Belgium, 9%; Denmark/Norway, 50 kroners or about $8-$9 U.S.; Finland, 50 marks or about $10; Germany, 10 marks or about $7; the Netherlands, 15 guilders or about $9; Italy, 10%, and Luxembourg, 6%.

Hertz also has imposed surcharges of $3 per rental in Bulgaria, and 7% of the total rental charge in Hungary. Hertz and Kemwel have raised their surcharges in Switzerland from 6% to 7% per rental. Hertz's surcharge in the Czech Republic and Slovakia will be changed from 15 marks, or about $10 per car rental, to 6% of the total rental charge as of July 1.

And according to Mariana Field Hoppin, a spokeswoman for Avis Europe, Avis is expected to impose an airport surcharge later this year in Portugal.

"I think these surcharges will spread to other airports in Europe," Kemwel's Wellner predicted. "But the amount can vary between companies."

There are differences in the surcharges being imposed by different car rental companies in some markets. For example, Hertz charges about $9 per car rental in Sweden, while the Avis and Kemwel surcharge is about $7.50. One way for consumers to combat the car rental surcharges at European airports is to rent their cars at an off-airport location, such as a downtown office. "If a traveler is just going to a downtown hotel, there may not be any reason to rent the car at the airport and then just park it downtown," said Peter Rasmussen, vice president of international marketing and sales for Hertz. "You can just relax after the flight and then rent the car downtown, and still return it to the airport. The surcharges aren't a profit center for us. They're just to cover our business costs to operate at the airports."

Another way to cut costs would be to rent in a country without a value-added tax, or with a low VAT, while renting a car in Europe on a multi-country trip. The VATs range from 5% to 25%, depending on the country.

Theft coverage used to be included in basic car rental rates. Now in some European countries, Hertz, Kemwel and Avis have started charging for a theft waiver. Depending on the type of rental car involved, and the country, the waivers cost from $5 to $15 per day.

Kemwel, for one, is offering optional coverage for theft in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Germany, Israel, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. But the waiver is mandatory in Italy because so many cars have been stolen there in recent years.

"At this point, I don't expect the mandatory policy to spread to other countries," Wellner said. "These are car rental company policies, not governmental policies . . . If a renter elects not to buy the theft protection we offer, and the car is stolen, they can be held responsible for the entire value of the car."

Rasmussen added that there are deductibles--amounting to anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000, depending on the car--set by the car rental companies in most European countries that limit the amount renters would pay if they decline the theft protection waiver and the car is stolen.

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