Rental companies that need to relocate vehicles will let people take them almost for free. (Scroll down for the quick FAQ.)
Laura and I recently returned from a road trip through western Europe. We started in Rome, drove north through Tuscany, visited Switzerland, spent some time in France’s Alsace region, blew through Luxembourg and Belgium, and finally ended in Amsterdam.
The trip covered a total of more than 1,500 miles and lasted about two weeks. And we paid almost nothing to get around.
The key is finding a rental company that needs to relocate vehicles. In our case, we discovered Wicked Campers, which rents “camper vans” — similar in size to Chevy Astro vans in the US — that have been modified to have sleeping and kitchen facilities in the back.
We picked our van up in the town of Anzio, a short train ride outside of Rome. All of Wicked Campers’ vans are themed, and we got the “raptor van.”
Because Wicked Campers had too many vans in the Rome area and not enough in Amsterdam, we got the rental for 1 pound per day (it’s a British company). That meant our only transportation costs were for gas and toll roads, which we tended to avoid.
Gas of course isn’t cheap, but the overall costs were still lower than flying or taking trains to all those destinations. And we were able to visit areas off the beaten Eurail path. (We also could potentially have slept and cooked in our van, though we were unprepared for the cold and ended up getting hotels.)
It was really quite an adventure, especially because Wicked Campers vans all have their steering wheels on the right side. Though that was initially very stressful, we eventually got use to it.
I’ll have more to say about the surprising pleasures of driving in Europe, but for now, here’s the rundown on how to get nearly-free vehicle rentals:
Where do you find deals:
We found our rental on Imoova.com, which specialized in relocation deals all over the world. The booking process was fairly simple with Imoova, though I had a lot of questions after completing the process (things like insurance, how to communicate with the rental agency, etc). To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure everything was going to work out until we finally got the van. In the end though, everything went off without a hitch.
It’s also possible to go directly through some rental companies. Wicked Campers theoretically has a relocation page on its website, but I couldn’t get it to work. I have also read good things about Spaceship Rentals, though it only serves the UK and Ireland.
How long do you get the vehicle?
The rental company will give you a certain number of days to relocate the vehicle. In our case, I believe it was seven. Some deals also have mileage limits.
It’s important to check your route to make sure you can get it all covered in the allotted time. And keep in mind that you’ll be stopping, sightseeing, taking detours, and hitting traffic along the way. Our route theoretically only involved about 16 hours of driving, but it took us many days because we zig zagged on country back roads and stopped every time we saw a castle on a nearby hill.
Do you need a special license or insurance to drive the vehicles?
Typically, no. Anyone 21 and older with a US license can drive in Europe, but of course research your specific situation. We did not get any special licenses and we drove through six different countries without any trouble.
In our case, insurance was included in the rental and we did not pay extra for it. We also booked the rental with a credit card that offers insurance as well, so we were double covered.
What’s the downside?
It’s going to be easier to find these deals during the off season. It was no coincidence that we found a cheap camper van when it was essentially too cold to camp (we were driving through the Alps, after all.) Europe is a popular place, so as you plan your trip keep in mind that the best deals can be found by going against the grain.
Who is best suited for these kinds of trips?
People with flexibility. Even though driving gives you tons of flexibility, you’ll still have to tailor your trip’s timing and destinations to the needs of a rental agency. It may also be necessary to act quickly when a deal pops up. That said, I’m a firm advocate of not over planning so this was not a problem for us.
• Have a functioning phone. Aside from the obvious benefit of using Google maps (which works all across Europe), we had to call the rental company to both pick up and return our van. So either make sure your phone is set up for international use, or buy a SIM card when you arrive.
• Google maps has an option that lets you avoid toll roads. Though sometimes tolls were unavoidable on our trip, activating the “avoid tolls” feature generally sent us on much more picturesque side roads and highways.
• Bring along a guide book that includes European road signs. Signs are generally standardized across Europe, but they often look nothing like US signs and their meanings are not at all obvious if you’re not familiar with them.
— Jim Dalrymple II