If you're heading for a European driving vacation this summer, you have several options. Ordinary rentals are still reasonably priced in most countries. If you're 70 or over, and staying 17 days or more, look first to a "French Lease" with no age maximum. And if you book quickly, you can take advantage of some "early bird" discounts.
The complete report on European car rentals I used to do for Consumer Reports Travel Letter took almost 10 times the amount of space I have for these columns, so I can't cover the subject as completely as I'd like. Finding the best deal still requires diligent research. However, here are a few suggestions you'll probably find helpful.
The big US-based online agencies -- Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity -- make it easy to compare total prices for rentals at major European airports and cities. Orbitz and Travelocity are a bit easier to use, in that they allow you to specify at the beginning of the search whether you want manual or automatic transmission, and air-conditioning or not. Expedia doesn't let you specify automatic/manual; it lists both options for some but not all car classes.
As with other travel services, you must always check the sites of individual rental companies you prefer to use -- especially if you have some sort of discount. Also, check with Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com), the largest independent European rental company based in the U.S.
Hotwire lists very limited rental options in Amsterdam, Barcelona, London, Madrid, Paris and Rome. Rates are good, but the site wouldn't let me reserve more than a month in advance. Priceline doesn't list European rentals.
Several readers have asked why I haven't covered Opodo (www.opodo.com), the big European online site. (I did, but some time ago.) When I checked for a few sample car rentals, I found its fully inclusive prices were, in fact, generally lower than I could find on the U.S. sites. However, all Opodo rates include collision damage waiver (CDW), an expensive option that many Americans who rely on no-cost coverage from their charge cards, don't need to take. If you don't take the CDW, you're better off with the lower rates at other online agencies.
Rental rates are generally lower in Germany than in Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands or Switzerland. If you have a choice of gateways, consider Frankfurt or Munich. However, the rate differentials aren't large enough to justify flying to Germany just to get a good rental rate -- especially if you have to drive a day or two to get to/from your real destination.
Air-conditioning has become widely available throughout much of Europe, even on economy and compact cars. Automatic transmissions on the other hand, still command a big premium in the lower-end price classes. Presumably, as a senior (at least as a senior my age), you learned to drive on a manual and wouldn't mind driving one in Europe. The major exception is in the UK, where shifting with the "wrong" hand can add to the tension of driving on the "wrong" side of the road.
When I last checked, none of the European governments imposed maximum driving ages, but many European rental agencies capped driving at 70, 75 or 79 years. If you're 70 or over, be sure to let the rental company know before you make a deal. Auto Europe, among others, will search for rental offices that accept drivers over 70 except in Ireland, where apparently nobody over 70 can rent a car no matter what.
The "French Lease" purchase-repurchase system imposes no maximum age limit. Renault USA (www.renaultusa.com), the most active leasing agency, is offering some "early bird" specials and special deals for cars with GPS navigation systems. Lease rates are all-inclusive. Minimum leases are for 17 days and, unfortunately, those rates are generally higher than ordinary 17-day rentals. For longer periods, however, the lease looks attractive.