Read This Before You Rent a Car in Europe

Securing a vehicle for ground transportation at my destination is something I have done numerous times.  I research the rental companies as well as third party offers through Priceline, Expedia, Orbitz, and other online agencies.  Careful consideration is given to selecting the appropriate pick-up location, the dates the car is needed, best amenities, and best price; and then, finally, I book a car.  Very soon the confirmation is delivered to my inbox.

Now, most people would put a check mark by “rental car” on their to-do-list.  I put a check with another date, because a few days before the trip, I will call the rental agency to make sure everything is in order.  Oh, I do not expect any problems, but I just like to make sure. With that said, I had obviously never tried to rent a car internationally, until preparing for my recent trip to Europe.  Renting a car for my stay in Italy proved to be time consuming, nerve wracking, and an oddly rewarding learning experience.  Here are 6 important things I learned.

Italian Car Rental

1. Choose stick or automatic:  The first and most formidable obstacle was the scarcity of rentals with automatic transmissions.  Availability and the best prices await travelers who can drive a stick.  Manual transmission vehicles rent at a significantly lower rate than their automatic counterparts.

2. Begin your search early:  If you are like me and a stick is out of the question, I would strongly encourage you to begin looking for a rental car at least two months in advance.  What I have learned is that only in the United States, Canada, and Australia do automatic transmissions reign supreme.  Not to worry though, a limited number of rentals with automatic transmissions are in stock for us Americans, but when they’re gone, they are gone.  The ambience of casually touring the Italian Riviera will not be the same from the backseat of a taxi or from a tour bus.

3. Understand insurance coverage and options:  The next lesson I would learn was the difference in the rental insurance requirements and mandates.  In Italy, Collision Damage Waiver Insurance is mandatory.  It is almost always included in the rental price quote.  If this insurance is not a part of the quote, it will be added before payment is made.  It cannot be declined.

Excess Insurance is an optional insurance to cover payment of “excess damage assessments” should dings, dents, scratches, or any other type of damage be found outside of what is included in the Collision Damage Waiver Insurance.  This is the insurance we never really think we will need, but we are afraid not to get.  For this trip the optional insurance was purchased, but not through the car rental company.

4. Shop around for optional coverage:  Many car rental companies will try and convince buyers that they will not accept third party excess damage insurance.  Do not fall prey to this tactic.  Third party companies such as iCarhireinsurance.com sell this optional insurance at a much cheaper rate.  Frequent road warriors may purchase it annually and their coverage is available globally.

After much back and forth deliberation, I booked an automatic transmission vehicle, which was covered by the mandatory CDW and the optional Excess Insurance through the third party company, rentalcars.com.  Finally, I breathe a sigh of relief, feeling empowered with the accomplishment of navigating an international car rental.  I could just picture us cruising along the Italian Riviera.

5. Check for holidays that may affect your visit:  A few days before leaving the United States, I contacted rentalcars.com to verify the booking.  Everything was confirmed, the reservation had been booked with Thrifty and I was told there was no cause for worry.  Despite this assurance, I felt very uneasy, I tried but I could not shake the feeling that something might go wrong.  Not having a car in the US is one thing, but to be without a car, or without one with an automatic transmission on a foreign continent would be a disaster.  Perhaps my tension was further fueled by something I have not mentioned.  The day we were to pick-up the car was a national holiday and most major rental outlets and other businesses across the entire country would be closed.

6. Confirm your reservation with the pick-up location:  I needed relief from the awful feeling within me, so I called Thrifty and to my dismay the representative informed me that there was nothing in their system for me.  After countless hours on hold, more than four representatives, and several transfers, not one representative could find my booking.  Panic set in, but I quickly called rentalcars.com and explained the situation.  To my relief, a very knowledgeable agent told me exactly why there was no need for all my anxieties.

To get the best prices, rentalcars.com collaborates directly with the car pick-up location.  Therefore the confirmation number was specific only to the Thrifty location in Florence, Italy, where I would receive the vehicle.  In my final attempt to be assured that we would not be on foot during this vacation, I loaded $10 onto my Skype account and called the Thrifty pick-up site in Florence, Italy.  When I asked about a reservation for Kaylah Burks, I heard the sweet sound of, “Si, Signora Burks, we have your car rental reservation in our system.”

For more information on international car rentals, check back for my next article featuring great tips on must have gps options, the pick-up process and pumping gas.

~ By Kaylah Burks, an athlete, who enjoys traveling the world while staying health conscious.  Follow her on Instagram @jadenlie

Driving Into Mexico, by Accident!

The beautiful city of San Diego, California is located only a few miles north of the Mexico border. In fact, I was driving on Interstate 5 and noticed highway signs that read “Mexico exit is coming up.” My plan was to drive to the end of the US border, park my car at San Ysidro and walk over to Mexico. It is much faster and convenient to go this way especially if you are doing a day trip. There is a pedestrian bridge that one can take into Tijuana, the first town, an important financial and industrial center of Mexico, and the largest city on the Baja California Peninsula. After arrival, buses and taxis are available that take you into the center of town which is bustling with shops and restaurants.

Unfortunately, the exit on I-5 that I was suppose to take had no sign stating that “this is where you need to get off to park your car if you are going to Mexico” so, I accidently drove into the border.

I thought there must be a place to park at the border crossing, or at least I can turn around somewhere. But no, an unmanned check post said “Welcome to Mexico!” and there I was. Nobody checked for identification or stamped my passport but I’m sure there were cameras all around.

crossing US border into Mexico

The moment I crossed international borders, my GPS went out of service and cell phone switched to roaming. I didn’t bother to print any maps of Tijuana beforehand since I wasn’t planning to arrive there by car. I had not notified my car rental company that I was going to take it to Mexico. Neither did I have a phone number to call in case of an emergency.

Here I was in Tijuana, supposedly one of the most dangerous places in North America. People later warned me that its famous for kidnappings, gangs and drugs.

There were well maintained highways and people seemed to be following some laws. Exit names were nicely labelled, although very confusing and inconsistent. I wasn’t sure where I was suppose to go even though I wanted to see the city. So I just kept on driving wherever the roads took me, which in this case was to Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico.

Rosarito, located only 30 minutes south of Tijuana, seemed like a quiet beach town with lots of newly developed homes. There were margarita and taco shacks dotted all along the ocean which was waiting to alive once the sun went down. A few tacky souvenir shops sold shot-glasses, sombreros and t-shirts. It didn’t take very long to drive through the stretch of the main street, which was also heavily guarded by Mexican police.

Rosarito beach Baja California

I stopped at a gas station to pick up a map, only to realize I didn’t have any Mexican Pesos. The lady at the cash register accepted my US Dollars but returned the change back in Pesos. There was no prior understanding of the prevailing currency exchange rate as I got the “take it or leave it” look from her.

Thankfully, I was able to find my way back into the city (mostly through trial and error) and see the main attractions of Tijuana. By this time, I gained enough confidence to park my car and step out. I visited Tijuana Cultural Center, Avenida Revolucion, Amigos del Artes, churches, food markets, shops and plazas. Downtown area was overwhelming with lots of cars, pedestrians, street hawkers and everyone trying to sell me something. It didn’t feel unsafe, although someone who is not use to traveling in third world countries may perceive otherwise. In any case, Tijuana was not the sort of place I would like to spend more than a couple of hours at.

Amigos del Artes Tijuana

After paying the parking attendant with the rest of the Pesos I had, I made my way back north towards USA. The 6-lans drive-through immigration was perhaps the most chaotic border patrol I have ever seen. Separate lines for US citizens, permanent residents and visitors were non existent. There were no signs for wait times, documentation or anything whatsoever. The lanes kept shrinking, so we had to merge every few minutes. Then there were street hawkers who set up shop in the middle of the highway, making it a marketplace. It was easy to do so since we were virtually in a “parking lot” situation for many hours.

Mexico immigration crossing

The Mexican vendors walked around selling everything from souvenirs, furnishings, cold drinks, fast food to puppies and medicines. There were men wearing t-shirts identifying themselves as “pharmacy” who sold antibiotics without prescriptions, ladies taking orders for fresh tacos and burritos, handicapped citizens begging for money, young men washing cars without permission hoping for tips, and kids running around collecting anything American tourists would give them. It was a grave sight while I waited 2.5 hours in line to cross the border.

puppies sold at Mexico immigration crossing

 

medication sold at Mexico immigration crossing

Once I reached the immigration counter, the office asked me what I went to Mexico for, and I explained the whole situation of “driving there by accident.” He didn’t seem amused, as if this happens all the time. Truly, next time I will be careful not to blink while driving, or end up in Tijuana. The officer looked at my passport, inspected my car, asked a few questions and allowed me to re-enter California.

Spring break staycation

Spring break is around the corner and you may be thinking of what to do for fun with your family. A lot of people are also tight on budgets this year. The economy is improving slowly, but not everyone has extra cash to go on a trip. Here’s an idea – Why not have a staycation? The term didn’t exist until 2009 so let me first explain to you what it means.

Wikipedia says – A staycation (also spelled stay-cation, stacation, or staykation; known in the United Kingdom as a stoliday or holistay) is a neologism for a period of time in which an individual or family stays and relaxes at home, or vacations in their own country, possibly taking day trips to area attractions. Staycations achieved popularity in the US during the financial crisis of 2007–2010. Staycations also became a popular phenomenon in the UK in 2009 as a weak pound made overseas holidays significantly more expensive.

While the usual activities during a staycation may include backyard camping, pool parties, visit to local festivals, I am urging you to think outside the box.

Be a tourist in your own city without breaking the budget – Go out and see those attractions that you don’t get to when caught in the everyday life. You can buy a city pass and cover the highlights without having to rent a hotel or car. Read reviews about your own city online (on sites such as TripAdvisor, Frommers, etc.) and find out where the tourists go to dine and view. A lot of museums offer discounts (or free) passed if you enter during the weekdays. You can also arrange for group discounts if you take a group of neighbors or friends. Now may also be the time to check out those nearby waterfalls you have been meaning to see someday.

Create a resort at your own home – Who says you need to spend thousands of dollars and fly a few hours to relax? You can create a resort-like environment in the comfort of your own home too! Pack the kids, the cooler, the beach ball and head out to the pool (river, lake or ocean) if you have one nearby. Put on your “vacation-only” bathing suit, an umbrella in your drink and the sun tan on.

A cruise on land – A cruising vacation involves non-stop fun all day long. But you can get the same experience on land if you plan it out in advance. Fill up the day with activities for the whole family. Go to a local Caribbean restaurant for lunch. Book a dance lesson or a cooking class, a massage at your local spa for the adults and a few hours at the game arcade or bowling alley for the kids. End the day with a family poker night where you have your very own casino.

 Some rules of staycation are:

  •  Plan ahead
  •  Make a schedule
  •  Avoid routine
  •  Have fun!

Do you have any rules for your family staycation that you would like to share?