How I Got A Parking Ticket In Zagreb

It’s really easy to run afoul of parking regulations in Europe. This is especially true in Zagreb, where signage for paid parking isn’t always clear and parking meters can be a block or more away from where you actually parked. So, I was annoyed but not particularly surprised to see a parking ticket sitting on my windshield after parking outside a friend’s apartment overnight.

Zagreb parking ticket image

An unwelcome decorative item on my windshield

Zagreb, however, is unusually fair about how parking tickets work. Basically they bill you the full charge for parking in the space for a 24-hour day, starting from the time that the ticket is issued. Parking is split up into zones identified by color. This parking ticket was for a yellow zone, for which the 24-hour charge was about $10. Displaying the ticket on my dashboard entitled me to park in any other yellow zone space in the city until the expiration date. So, this actually didn’t end up costing me any more than just paying normally for parking would have, because I needed to park overnight in the same space again anyway. However, it’s painfully expensive if you didn’t plan to park all day.

The main problem was figuring out how to actually pay for the ticket. The information in English on the back of the ticket isn’t very helpful; it just says that you have to pay within 6 days or it’ll go to collections. And my Croatian employees don’t drive, so they had no idea how to deal with the problem. However, one of my Croatian friends does drive, and told me that I could just pay the ticket at, among a long list of other places, the post office.

My Croatian friend tried to convince me very hard not to pay the parking ticket. “Your car is from Budapest? They’ll never track you down,” he said. I wasn’t so sure, and didn’t want to risk not paying the parking ticket. I really don’t recommend that you risk avoiding traffic fines in Europe either. Generally speaking, the parking authorities will just send the fine–with hefty late payment charges tacked on–to your car rental company. They will pay the ticket on your behalf, tack on their own fines and handling fees, and bill your credit card “for your convenience.” There is no disputing or getting out of any of these charges, because you explicitly agree to them in the rental contract and generally initial a separate provision acknowledging that you understand this. Actually, I have personal experience with this. I was tracked all the way across the Pacific Ocean from Australia a year later after receiving a parking ticket in error, and had to argue the fine vehemently with Sydney parking authorities before it was finally rescinded (in this case, I had genuinely been ticketed in error and could provide proof that I was authorized to park in the space).

Fortunately the Croatian post office is pretty good and they have locations all over the city, including one within easy walking distance of my friend’s apartment. They are friendly, efficient and speak English. 65 kuna and 5 minutes later (including the fee for making the payment), and I was on my way with a payment receipt.

If you ever get a parking ticket in Zagreb, I hope this is useful! It’s best not to get one in the first place, though. Always double check whether you’re in a paid parking space. Very few spaces on the street are free, and you might have to hunt around for a parking meter to pay. They don’t take credit cards, and generally only take Croatian coins, so be sure that you carry plenty of change in the car. And, of course, don’t drive if you can avoid it. The hassle and expense are rarely worth it.

Don’t Get Stung By Fuel Prices In Europe

I wrote earlier about the unexpected hassle of getting between Budapest and Zagreb. Renting a car is the easiest way to do it, but it’s certainly not cheap. Actually, the cost of the car rental is the cheapest part of the equation. If you’re coming from essentially anywhere else in the world, you’ll probably have to sit down when you find out how much the fuel is going to cost you. Fuel prices range from about $6 per gallon to over $9 per gallon in Europe.

Gas station in Hungary

When you do the conversion, the price might knock you off your chair.

Still, while fuel isn’t a bargain anywhere in Europe, there are still ways to save. Here are a few tips that I have learned from experience driving all over Europe:

A car can be a liability. Consider whether you really need a car. If you don’t, skip the rental counter. Public transportation is much better in European cities, parking is an expensive hassle, and traffic cameras lurk everywhere waiting to cite you for even the smallest transgressions. It’s really better not to have a car at all, if you can reasonably avoid it.

Think small. A smaller and lighter vehicle not only saves fuel, it’ll be a lot easier to navigate and park on narrow European streets. Keep in mind, though, that the smallest European vehicles are tiny–and they’re not particularly fun to drive. Also don’t trust rental agencies’ promises regarding the number of bags a car can accommodate. Subtract one from the published number, unless you travel extremely light and carry only small bags.

Choose a diesel vehicle if possible. Diesel fuel is usually cheaper than gasoline, and a gallon of diesel takes you farther than a gallon of gasoline. Even if it costs more to rent a diesel vehicle, you can more than make up the difference in fuel cost savings.

If you can drive stick, rent a manual transmission. Not only is it cheaper to rent a vehicle with a manual transmission, but it’s also more fuel efficient.

Don’t fill up along the motorway. Granted, it’s hard to beat the convenience of fueling along the motorway, where it’s a breeze to pull off and back on. This convenience will really cost you, though. Fuel costs an extra 10% or more versus filling up in town.

Buy fuel in major cities. Transportation costs more in Europe than it does in other places. Accordingly, the farther you are from a fuel transportation hub, the more you’ll pay. This is different than, for example, the US where fuel can cost much less in the countryside.

Run for the border. If you’re near Andorra, Luxembourg, Bosnia or Ukraine, it might be worth ducking across the border to fill up. These countries have some of the lowest fuel prices in Europe (Russia and Belarus have relatively low fuel prices, but also officious borders and visa hassles–they’re probably not worth it). However, you can still save money–even if you’re not in one of the cheapest countries–by paying attention to which side of the border you are on. Diesel is much less expensive in The Netherlands than it is in Germany. Gasoline is cheaper in France than in Belgium.

Pay with local currency, or use a no foreign transaction fee credit card. Traveling from Austria to Hungary? Cheaper Hungarian fuel prices might end up more expensive if you pay in Euros. The currency of Hungary is the Forint and you won’t get a good exchange rate at a gas station. Ditto in Bosnia. They use Bosnian Convertible Marks and most gas stations don’t take credit cards. However, they’ll gladly take your border currencies (euros or Croatian Kuna) at a horrible exchange rate. If you can pay with a credit card, you’ll get a semi-honest exchange rate by using a credit card with no foreign transaction fee. I use a Capital One Visa card which not only has no foreign fee, but also pays me 1.25% cash back. This card isn’t at the top of my wallet in the US, but it’s great for international use.

What was the bottom line? I rented the smallest car available from the rental agency, which was an Opel Corsa. My trip from Budapest Airport to Zagreb, round-trip, cost about $160 in gasoline. The 7-day car rental cost me a few dollars less on top of this, for an eye-popping grand total of $317 in transportation cost, not counting parking and tolls (which added roughly another $40 to the total). Granted, I did drive around Zagreb some, but it’s not a large city and I didn’t use a lot of fuel. I put about 500 miles on the car, total, for a cost of 32 cents per mile driven. Your mileage will vary, obviously, depending upon the number of people in the car and the speed you drive. I was alone in the car and drove strictly at the speed limit (the majority at 130KM/h), wary of speed cameras.

Was it worth it? Marginally. I was able to travel more or less exactly on my schedule, but it was a colossal hassle with the rental agency. An hour after renting the car, I discovered that the headlight had burned out, so I was unable to travel any farther than the outskirts of Budapest. It was an epic battle with the rental company to make things right. While they eventually did, having to battle over a maintenance issue was really the last thing I needed after 15 hours of travel from Los Angeles. It would have been a net loss versus arranging other forms of transportation, but having the use of the car in Zagreb with my team there (in my real life I am the founder of a mobile applications company) made up the difference. We had immediate and convenient transportation whenever we wanted to go somewhere. And I actually saved travel time versus flying in from Budapest, because the airport in Zagreb is neither close nor convenient to the city.

I hope these tips help you save money on your next trip to Europe. Happy driving!

Avoiding Rental Contract Tricks Abroad

Renting a car outside the United States can be a lot different than renting one within it. There are plenty of pitfalls that can trip you up and cost you extra. I just rented a car from a small, local company in Budapest and there were even more traps than usual. So, although the last thing that you may want to do after a long international flight is sit down and read the tiny print of a rental contract, it pays to go through it.

First, when you rent a car abroad, all of the normal stuff that you need to watch out for in the US applies. Be sure that you inspect the car for damage before you get in and drive off. Don’t believe anything the rental agent says about the damage not mattering–be sure that it’s carefully noted on the rental form. Also don’t be afraid to take a quick photo of the agent with the car, especially if there is visible damage. This will go a long way towards ensuring there are not arguments later.

Other things to watch out for are insurance scams and additional driver charges. Unless you rent with a rate that includes multiple drivers, you will probably have to pay extra for each driver. And then there’s insurance. It works differently abroad. In the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, all rental cars include both comprehensive and liability insurance. However, there is typically a 10% deductible and also an “excess,” which is an amount that you have to pay before any coverage kicks in. Many credit cards include insurance that will entirely cover any damages to the rental car, so you don’t need this coverage. However, this doesn’t typically stop rental car companies from trying to insinuate that the insurance is required, or that you will have problems using credit card insurance. There definitely can be insurance problems if you use a credit card, but these can be avoided by reviewing the coverage in advance. Note that all bets are off in Israel, Jamaica, Ireland and Northern Ireland where no credit cards offer coverage for rental cars.

However, some charges are out of left field. Have you ever taken a rental car to a car wash? Make sure that the contract doesn’t require it, and that there isn’t a car wash fee. In the contract, there was a 15 euro car wash fee, unless I washed the car myself! Since the car wasn’t actually clean when I rented it, I got the rental company to waive it, but I doubt they would have done so if I hadn’t asked up front. Additionally, there can be a border crossing fee. I needed to cross into Croatia from Hungary, and paid an additional 19 euro charge to do it. However, the vehicle was monitored via GPS, and if I hadn’t paid this, the rental car company would have fined me 150 euro as a penalty–and that charge is per border I crossed. In Europe, countries can be roughly the size of postage stamps, so this can add up in a hurry. Finally, there was an administration fee. If I had run up any tolls, traffic fines, or parking fines, these would all be individually billed with a 50 euro surcharge per item.

Read the fine print when you rent, and avoid nasty surcharges! There are few nice surprises when it comes to renting cars.

How I Save Money Renting Cars In Europe

I’m off to start a round-the-world trip on Saturday. As you might remember, a few months ago I landed a phenomenal deal, and the trip is costing me under $219. One problem, though, is that it’s not taking me exactly where I want to go in Europe. I could only get the deal to Budapest, and I’m actually going to Zagreb. Now, you’d think that this would be a relatively small problem. After all, it’s only 343km between the two cities, and they’re two of the most major cities in the region. So, I figured I’d just buy a cheap ticket on a low cost airline and take the 55 minute connecting flight down.

Well, my brilliant idea that would have been perfectly rational in western Europe totally didn’t work between Budapest and Zagreb. There are lots of cheap flights to and from Budapest on low cost carriers, but none headed to Zagreb. Low cost flights tend to go to the Croatian holiday destination of Split, a few hours away from Zagreb. However, these flights are also seasonal. The Dalmatian coast is beautiful but it’s pretty cold in the winter, and there is essentially no demand for leisure flights. Sure, you can fly between Budapest and Zagreb, but it’ll cost you. The flight was actually pricing out at more than the rest of my entire round-the-world trip. Obviously, this was impractical.

“OK, fine then, I’ll take the train” I thought. Except that isn’t really an option either. There is only one train a day, which isn’t particularly reliable and it takes a circuitous route that takes nearly 11 hours to complete. It’s also a surprisingly expensive ticket. Ultimately, I couldn’t get the times to line up at all with when I needed to be in Zagreb, and I wouldn’t have wanted to pay the price anyway.

Picture of Croatian train

Trains in the Balkans are slow and infrequent.

I started looking for bus options, with some trepidation. In this part of Europe, bus travel makes riding Greyhound in the US seem fancy. Usually, people won’t get on the bus with a live chicken (which is pretty common in some parts of the world) but bus travel seems to attract elements of society you don’t really want to interact with if you can possibly avoid it. There is one bus company operating between the two cities, but the way that you buy a ticket–from all the research I was able to do–is to find the driver and buy a ticket directly from him. No way to buy the ticket online. And there is one bus approximately every other day. While this would have worked for me, these arrangements tend to work best when you know the local area really well, and I don’t.

Ultimately, the best option was to rent a car. However, this is usually a very expensive proposition in Europe. You have probably heard that fuel is more expensive (costing as much as $11 per gallon, depending upon which country you’re in), but it’s also a lot more expensive to rent a car, particularly if you’re in eastern Europe and you intend to cross a border. If you plan to do this, your car needs to have a “green card” and it’s a virtual guarantee that the rental rate you’re quoted doesn’t include this. Add an extra 20-30 euro a day to the rate in some cases.

European green insurance card

You need a “green card” to go across borders with your European rental car. It specifies the countries in which you’re allowed to drive.

Unlimited mileage, also typical on car rentals in the US, also isn’t a typical option. Distances tend to be shorter and you won’t want to drive much inside city centers (where a car is more of a liability than an asset), but you can still get stung by overage charges if you’re not careful. And this is before you get into fines for missing vignettes in postage-stamp sized countries (I was fined $250 in Slovenia for this–it’s a complete and total scam) or questionable traffic violations. Overall, it’s enough to make you never want to drive in Europe, ever.

Still, there are occasions where this will be necessary and I recommend that you never pay retail if you can possibly avoid it. Two companies consistently offer very good “voucher deals” where you pay in advance and receive a voucher for the car rental. These are Economy Car Rentals (a Greek company not to be confused with the generally scammy rental agency using the same name in Latin America) and UK-based Travel Jigsaw. These companies technically operate as tour companies selling tour packages, so they can sell special rates on rental cars. With either of these agencies, be sure to read the fine print! You can cancel your reservation, but you won’t receive a refund if you cancel less than 48 hours in advance. Also, they email you a voucher and you actually do need to print it out and present it when you pick up the car. In exchange for prepaying, you can get some pretty good deals. You won’t always know the company you’re renting from in advance, but I have typically gotten cars from Sixt and Enterprise. In Budapest, my car is coming from a smaller local company.

The upshot? I am paying 139 euro for a 1 week car rental from Budapest including the notoriously difficult and expensive to arrange “green card.” This is about half the price that I was able to find anywhere else. I also get unlimited mileage. I’ll enjoy the convenience of getting around Zagreb easily and my overall cost will be about half what I’d otherwise have paid for a flight. It’ll also take about the same amount of time, all things considered; the Zagreb airport isn’t particularly convenient to the city center and transportation connections are slow.

I’m almost fully packed for my second trip around the world this year. It’s going to be an interesting month of November!