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"So much to see and so little time." We've all heard that before. How much of the "real" Europe you see depends in great part on how you choose to see it. Traditionally, this was done either by tour or by car.

The escorted tour, when you have limited time, is great. You see a lot of places in a specified period of time. To reach the selected locations on your itinerary you have no flexibility to deviate even a little.

You'll be able to visit the market in a small town then have a picnic when you find a particularly scenic spot. You'll probably miss the fun of getting lost exploring a quaint village or the ruins of an ancient castle. But when you can see it all!

Driving in Europe is easy and fun. Being able to stop for a picnic by a quiet river can be a highlight of your vacation. Roadsigns are similar to here in the U.S. and very easy to understand. Maps from Michelin are extremely accurate and kilometers go by fast.

Don't wait to rent a car until you arrive. Prices are usually much higher for the walk-in customer. Some on-the-spot sales are very good but you can't always count on one being offered at the time you arrive.

Call the major rental companies or your travel agent and get several quotes. You can also go to the internet and locate a rental car consolidator. They'll take your request and sort through the many companies available for the best rate. Many European companies as well as U.S. travelers are now taking advantage of the services and savings the rental consolidators offer.

Rental rates can vary widely by country, size of vehicle and even by rental company. Many full-size cars have the same interior room as a mid-size car, one just offers different styling and a much higher cost.

Full-size and sporty cars are at a premium and you will pay accordingly. Unless you have the money to burn, a sports car on the autobahn just isn't a value. In most cases, unless you have a lot of bags, a mid-size is fine for four people. And, although a minivan may be a good idea at home, it also carries a premium rate in Europe.

Insurance should play a major role in your decision- making process. Decide if you will need additional comprehensive insurance as well. Many times your gold or platinum credit card provider has included this as one of your cards' perks. If you accept full coverage from the rental company you could see the overall cost as much as double.

You'll also want to determine several other things as well. If you can drive a manual transmission you will save an immense amount of money. Automatics carry premium rates and are not as efficient on gas. This can be a major consideration when gas is over $8.00 a gallon. You might also request a diesel vehicle. Although you could lose some power in the hills and mountains the efficiency is a lot better.

You will also want to find out if any, and what, taxes and if unlimited miles are included. They should be! The value added tax or VAT in Europe varies from country to country. In some countries the VAT can be has high as 23%. If this or the unlimited miles are not included you could be in for a real shock when you return the vehicle and are handed the final bill.

Look over your rental contract before signing. Did you unknowingly buy insurance when you didn't want it? If you do, there is rarely any recourse after the fact. Watch carefully where the counter agent asks you to initial. Ask if you don't understand. Agents make higher commissions when you purchase extra insurance. Ask for a supervisor if any part of the process isn't understood fully.

Check also for a local or toll-free number to the rental company (and are they bi-lingual?). It's very reassuring knowing you can call someone if there is a mechanical problem or other issue. Nothing can disrupt your vacation more than being stuck waiting on repairs.

Plan your route in advance, too. But always keep some flexibility for that unscheduled detour to discovery. Driving into a village during a festival is a photo opportunity that can't always be pre-arranged. Stopping to pick grapes and joining everyone for lunch isn't on a bus driver's agenda. But it can be on yours! And how are you ever going to get to that small guest house or hotel in that quaint village you heard about.

Enjoy Europe up close next!



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