It is a common assumption for most Americans that they can jump in a rental car and drive to wherever the spirit is willing to go. This makes sense as there are few restrictions in North America regarding international travel. The major car companies will usually let you travel into Canada from the US and vice versa. So it must be okay to travel to your heart's content in Europe as long as it's connected by road, right? Wrong. Dead wrong. And by dead wrong I mean rotting-in-a-Czech-jail-because-you-tried-to-bring-a-Mercedes-over-the-border type of wrong. These things happen. Believe me I know (from a client's experience not my own thank God).
Some restrictions are allowed to be lifted with the proper information or documentation. Some restrictions are punishable offenses if you get caught engaging in them. And some restrictions will get you thrown in a Czech jail. The best way to deal with all these restrictions is of course to know about them in advance, which is what we will cover in this article.
First I'll cover the most common of the misconceptions, which is ferry crossings. Most people believe that since there's a place on the ferries for vehicles that rentals are included amongst those allowed. While it is true that the ferry operators will not care if your car is a rental, the company you rented it through surely will. So this is a two-fold issue. Let me first state that I do not in any way condone the transportation of rental cars by ferry, because it is an imposed restriction, and also because your rental insurance becomes null and void the minute you set your tires on the deck of that ship. If the ship happens to sink while your car is on it, then guess what? You now own a $ 30,000 metal reef. Hope you brought your scuba gear.
Many people still take their rentals on a ferry simply because they either do not know (if it's not on the terms and conditions) or they think they can get away with it. Sometimes it's even allowed on certain island-hopping countries, such as New Zealand, where you are expected to go from the north island to the south. There are times when nothing comes from it, and there are times when the rental company catches you, like when they have a location at the terminal and they notice one of their cars is being loaded onto a boat (the color of the license plate on a rental is typically different) or in the instance that you bump another car while on the ferry. If this happens you can bet that your bill at the end of the rental will be much higher than you initially thought.
So the ferry crossing issue is more a matter of judgement than anything else. Either you take your chances and save yourself from having to drive farther or rent two vehicles by putting your car on a ferry, or you reconsider your current itinerary. Sometimes, especially when you are traveling to smaller islands, it is best to drop the vehicle off at a port office or somewhere close, and use public transportation when you get there. The cost for placing a vehicle on a ferry by itself, coupled with the rental cost, is going to be significant as it is. Placing yourself at risk for doing so makes it double the problem.
The next restriction is more recognizable and easily understood. Although the former Eastern Block countries have recently started to join the EU, they are still rife with war-torn areas and high levels of crime. I have been chastised on many occasions by many clients who are from certain Eastern European countries that swear that these nations have a rich culture and beautiful landscape, and I do not disagree with them. However, political stigma is a hard thing to shake, especially when incidents verify the claims. Since most travelers visit the populated cities, and since these cities are the breeding grounds for criminal activity (a good example of this is Prague) then the rental companies have no choice but to impose these restrictions. The good thing is that sometimes you can pay a fee to enter these countries, but you will most likely receive a "low-risk" model, such as an Opel or Skoda. Make sure to mention to the rental company if you are planning on entering Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia or any country east of these.
The Eastern Block isn't the only country that has restrictions. Italy, for one, will not allow BMW, Mercedes, Audi or high-end VW models in from outside the country (or they will, but the rental company won't) and some countries require you to have an international driving license to pick up the car or travel on the highways. The countries where you need an IDL to pick up are Austria, Greece, Russia, and most of the Eastern Block. If you get pulled over and you don't have an IDL you will be fined in Spain, Italy, and the countries mentioned above (if entering from outside). Please note that although you may not have to provide an IDL in some cases, it doesn't mean you shouldn't get one. They only cost 15 to 20 dollars and you can get them made from your original license at AAA (or CAA in Canada). The IDL is just your license reprinted into several different languages.
Age restrictions are more obvious on the low end (25 years and you're okay, in some cases younger but check with your rental company as it differs per country) and less apparent on the high end (Ireland has a 75 year maximum but some of the rental companies impose it at 70 years or less) so if you are between 25 and 69 you are probably fine. If you are outside of this range, definitely ask your rental company. Some outfits charge a young or senior driver fee. Some age restrictions are tighter when you request high-end car classes. Some vans capable of holding more than 9 passengers require that you have a special license.
Of course, every city has its own restrictions (such as the congestion zone in London or pedestrian areas of Rome) so its best to brush up on your city knowledge before you go. Also, restrictions between cities exist for some cars, so if you are planning on doing a one-way rental, make sure the vehicle you have is allowed. Again, always tell the rental company what countries you are planning to visit. In conclusion, the more we know about what we can't do allows us to do more of what we can do.