Renting vs Leasing a Car in France

Attention séjour families! If you rent a car in France, you need to know this: Many credit card companies will provide collision insurance free of charge - for 30 days only. Before day 31, you'll need to turn in the car, close out the account and rent a new car. It's a real pain in the neck. That's why I prefer to lease a car instead. Here's the lowdown:

Long-term Rental Cars

Renting a car online is fairly straightforward. It’s the insurance issue that makes it complicated and costly. Buying insurance from the rental agency can run anywhere from $10 – $35 per day. And when you need a car for 2-3 months, the costs add up fast.

  • It’s worth calling your credit card companies – they will often provide some coverage free of charge. But be sure to read the fine print carefully for rules and exclusions. For example, the American Express Premium Plan will provide collision insurance free of charge – for 30 days. But before day 31, you’ll need to turn in the car, close out your account and then rent another car.
  • Before you leave the lot, make sure you know if you can leave the country.  If you get into an accident in Spain, when you weren’t supposed to leave France, you’ll be responsible for the damages.
  • And make sure you know how to drive a stick!

Short-term Lease Cars

A great alternative to the cost and hassle of renting a car is to lease a new car (also called Purchase/Re-purchase or Lease/Buy-back). There are regional companies (for example, Renault and Peugeot) who make the process fairly simple for foreigners and the benefits are huge:

  • Less hassle and no hidden fees. Unless you really love standing in line at the rental car company and trying to figure out which “extra options” (hidden fees) you need and which ones you don’t. With leasing, the process is simple and the price is all-inclusive.
  • Better insurance, no deductible. With lease /buy back plans, the insurance is included in the price and there is no deductible. Most leasing companies also provide free 24hour roadside assistance.
  • It will probably be cheaper. If you need a car for 17-30 days, you might be able to find a cheaper rental– if your credit card covers some of the insurance costs and you only have one driver. But if you need a car for a month or longer, it will most likely be cheaper to lease. In either case, the longer you keep the car, the more reasons number 1-2 matter.
  • Pick-up and drop-off flexibility. Pick-up in one French city, drop-off in another. No extra fees.
  • You can return the car with no gas in the tank. (although to be fair, you will also receive the car with next to no gas in it.)
  • You get a brand new car!

Here’s how the whole thing works: Europeans must pay a hefty Value Added Tax on new cars – Americans do not. So the leasing company lets Americans take temporary possession of the car – thereby making it cheaper and easier to sell a few months later (to a European or to a rental car company). Since it’s in their best interest to make sure nothing happens to the car, they offer great insurance coverage.

Leasing companies to use

Each of these companies have US-based customer service reps available to answer questions. You could do the process online, but talking to someone is helpful if you aren’t that familiar with the process.

  • Peugeot via AutoEurope – easily my top choice. They have what I’m looking for in a car lease company: a good track record and excellent customer service.
  • Renault via EuroDrive – apparently a very good option. I’ve read many positive reviews about this company and people apparently have had very good experiences.
  • Honorable mention: Europe by Car –Rick Steves recommends this company, so it must be pretty good. Europe by Car offers leases from both Renault and Citroen.

Driving in France

  • Choose a small car – Europe isn’t set up for a giant Costco-sized SUV. If your car is too big, you’ll never be able to park it. Get a car that’s just big enough to hold your luggage.
  • Manual vs. automatic – In some cases an automatic may not be available. If an automatic is available, you’ll likely pay a higher price for it. Learn how to drive a stick!
  • Gasoline vs diesel – Diesel is far more common in Europe than in the US. You’ll find diesel at most petrol stations, and it’s usually a little less expensive.
  • Required items - The following are required in all cars driving in France: 1) hazard warning triangle and a 2) neon vest (to be kept inside the car, not in the trunk). Ask the leasing/rental company if these are included in your car.
  • International drivers permit – Although technically not always required, it’s a good idea to have one. It’s super easy to get – just go to any AAA office, have your picture taken and fill out an application. There’s no test or anything – it’s basically a translation of your license into several languages. (You don’t have to be a AAA member.)
  • Drive with cash – Most Autoroutes in France (blue signs) are toll roads (péage), so get cash before leaving the airport. Your American-style credit card will not work in unbanned tollbooths. You will also likely pay to park in bigger towns and cities. Paying by cash is usually possible, or by EMV credit card.