Simply put, the more time you have to book your car, the better the chances of scoring an automatic. And we don’t just mean a few weeks or even a couple months. We mean: as soon as you have your plane ticket, figure out the dates you’re going to need your rental car and book it as soon as possible. Especially when trying to find automatics, which are in short supply in the Old World.
This also means that if your travel plans change, you should call your rental agency as soon as possible to see if you can change your existing reservation. When we tried to move our reservation back a day, and then add a different drop-off location, our reservation would have to be canceled and then remade, with no guarantee that there would be any automatic transmissions left, or GPS option available.
Even getting a manager on the phone was to no avail since we only had the U.S. office of Avis to deal with and they had no idea about the inventory of their European counterparts, so the more time you have, the better.
Just like you use Orbitz, Travelocity and other travel aggregators to book your flights, you can do the same thing with rental cars too. However, since we’re talking about Europe, don’t use a U.S. site since they don’t allow you to search specifically for automatics.
Instead, try one of the European aggregators like Auto Europe. It lets you search by country, car class, and type of transmission, and it almost always has the lowest price available.
There are some downsides--namely that you have to pay up-front and it’s non-refundable. But the savings are so deep that it's worth it. Second, you won’t know which company you’ve rented from until you get your confirmation, so if the brand matters to you, you might not want to use the site.
Third, the interface of Auto Europe also isn’t the easiest to navigate. If something doesn’t match up, or you want to fiddle with your dates while you’re searching, you have to start all over again.
Lastly, you cannot confirm specifics like GPS or child seats in the rentals, and it is completely dependent upon the inventory at the specific agency you are picking the car up from at the time you get there. When we used Auto Europe, we had a great experience overall. Though we might not have chosen the peppy powder-blue Citroen they saddled us with ourselves, it got us all around France without incident.
Pick Up The Phone
Web sites are terribly convenient and can offer you great rates, but if you’re having trouble locating a car or understanding why you are not getting the rental you want, sometimes it’s best just to pick up the phone. Before you do, be prepared.
First, make sure you know your exact dates, the locations and hours of your pick-up and drop-off, and the opening hours of the location. Second, you must have a lot of patience, especially when dealing with foreign words, and service agents whose first language is not English. This will require bladder control, and tons of charm, so do it on your best hair day when you feel as though you’ve had friendly woodland creatures dressing you, because even the slightest negativity will be amplified a thousandfold.
A helpful agent can add on perks for you, and tell you about any discounts you might not be taking advantage of by booking online. Also, though some agents are delightfully informed about all the special offers they have going on, and discounts available to you, it pays to remember to ask about…
The travel industry is a large, complicated, tangled web of partnerships and alliances that rarely work well together. One exception that is both simple and a great value is the partnerships between rental agencies and airlines or hotels. Before making your reservation, check out the frequent flyer program pages of airlines on which you have miles, as well as any hotels, and see if any of them offer discounts at rental agencies you are thinking of using.
A quick look at our American Airlines AAdvantage page revealed that members of their frequent flyer club receive discounts on almost all the major brands, and we even scored 20% savings on Avis and Hertz in Germany and Austria when we mentioned this as we made our reservations directly with the car companies, so it pays to do a little research.
Don’t Assume The Reservation Is Made
A lot of times when reserving online, especially with companies like Europcar and Sixt, it looks like you’ve made a reservation, but in fact, your reservation is just on hold until they can confirm the car is in their inventory at the location you’d like on the dates you need, and often, it takes several days to find that out.
As we learned the hard way, though, you should always follow up by phone and talk with a live person to double check that all your information is in their system. Not only did our original online reservation request for an automatic in France this summer not go through, but then when we called to make the reservation on the phone with a person, the dates they entered into the system were completely wrong…which we only discovered by checking the online record of the reservation.
Each time the reservation did not go through properly, there was a 2-3 day wait period. That meant we were set back almost a whole week in planning time, and by the time we got everything straightened out, we barely lucked out by finding an automatic at an out-of-the-way rail station in the countryside. Sure, everything worked out, but it was a nerve-wrackingly close call.
The GPS Trick
Now we’re going to have a little fun and let you in on a sneaky little trick that has scored us a nicer car, twice, without having to shell out any extra euros.
No matter how familiar you are with another country, it always pays to have a GPS system in the car as backup, especially if you like to scamper off to secluded spots—be it a hidden beach or a remote winery. Making a reservation with this feature, which can cost up to 10 more euros a day, could also score you a better looking ride.
An example? When we walked up to the reservations desk at Avis at the Frankfurt airport to pick up our rental, we were informed that the car we had originally rented, a compact automatic with GPS, was no longer available. But the kindly desk agent continued on, saying that they would honor the reservation by giving us another car with GPS. Unfortunately, the only other car in the lot at the time that fit the bill was a new, tricked out Volvo XC90 SUV. Would that be okay?
With a grin that resembled a canary-eating cat’s, we signed on the dotted line. Sure the gas tank cost a lot more to fill up, but boy were we styling as we cruised down the autobahn. Who says driving only automatics has to make life harder?