Geneva Airport Car Hire: French or Swiss Side?

A question that we are frequently asked by guests at Chalet La Giettaz is “what is the difference between hiring a car from the Swiss or French sectors of Geneva Airport?”

There are several factors to take into account, most notably in price and ease of access, so this edition of the blog will explain these differences and hopefully make your choice easier when it comes to booking a hire car for your next ski trip.

MAY 2016 UPDATE: please refer to the end of this post for information about potential changes to car hire regulations between Switzerland and France

Geneva Airport

1. Location

Geneva is in Switzerland, although the airport is situated right on the French border and part of the airport is technically in France.  When you land, you will pass through Swiss customs and immigration, but it is then possible to walk through the terminal into the French sector.

The Swiss car hire offices are located in the main terminal building, and the car park from where you pick the car up has direct access out on to the Swiss motorway network.  If you are travelling onwards to any of the French Alpine ski resorts, it is actually easier to pick up your car from the Swiss sector, as you can then go directly on to the A1 motorway that leads over the border and straight on to the French A40/A41 autoroute to the ski resorts.

The French sector is tucked around the back of the terminal building (accessed from the check-in level of the terminal, at the opposite end to the Easyjet check-in area, i.e. turn left when you come out of arrivals, go up one floor and follow the “Destination France” signs).  If you hire from the French side, you have two choices for your journey to your ski resort: you can either cross back into Switzerland and join the A1 motorway as before, or else drive through Geneva itself to reach the French autoroute.

The crucial point to make here is that in order to use the Swiss motorways, cars must display the annual toll “vignette” sticker on the windscreen.  This sticker comes as standard with all Swiss hire cars, however it is unlikely to be supplied with a French hire car.  The sticker costs CHF 40 (currently about € 37 or £26).  When you pick up the car, it is likely that you will be able to access the Swiss motorway without being stopped to buy the vignette.  However, when you return to Geneva at the end of your holiday, as you pass the main motorway border crossing from France into Switzerland, you are almost certain to be stopped and asked to buy one.

As we said before, it is possible to travel to and from the French sector of the airport without travelling on the Swiss motorway.  However, the most direct route travels through the centre of Geneva so is subject to traffic conditions and other delays, and could take up to an hour longer than simply following the motorway.   If you are not sure where you are going, a GPS or other sat-nav device is absolutely essential and you should allow considerable extra time for the journey.  It is possible to hire a GPS unit with your car, for an extra charge.

When returning your car, there are petrol stations directly before the entrance to the Swiss car hire area and also just beside the turn-off to the access road to the French sector.

2. Opening Hours

A further complication arises from the fact that the French car hire offices appear to keep shorter hours than their Swiss counterparts.  This means that if your flight arrives late in the evening, you may well find that the office has closed for the night!  The Swiss desks will not honour reservations made with the French office, even if it is with the same company, so you would then have to pay the standard Swiss rates to hire on-the-spot from them.

3. Price

Costs can vary between the two sectors, even with the same company.  We used to believe the French side was generally the cheaper of the two, however this is not neccessarily always the case and it is certainly worthwhile comparing between the two (and between multiple companies) to find the best deal.

Jan 2017 example: 1 week’s hire of a VW Golf/Ford Focus or similar: € 319 from the Swiss sector, versus € 350 from the French sector.

4. Winter Equipment

It is important to note that the Swiss cars have “winter cover” included in the rental price, which means they will have winter tyres fitted as standard and they will have snow chains ready for use in the boot.  This is not the case with French cars: these are rarely fitted with winter tyres and you will be charged a supplement for hire of snow chains.  It is compulsory to carry chains when driving in the mountains in winter, even if your car has winter tyres, and you can be fined and/or prohibited from driving further by the police if you don’t have them.  That said, winter tyres should normally mean that you do not have to fit chains, even on a standard front-wheel drive car, unless road conditions become very bad (although it is still necessary to have the chains in the vehicle).  The French company we viewed currently charge € 52 for 1 week’s hire of snow chains.

5. Conclusion

As you can see, there are several factors to take into account when deciding where to hire your car.  For convenience, the Swiss side is undoubtedly easier, but the flip side of that is clearly the higher cost involved.   If you have extra time and a GPS unit, then the French side may be the best option for you.  In all cases, it is advisable to shop around as much as possible, as we find there are always significant differences in price between the various companies in both locations, and one company is never consistently the cheapest.

6. May 2016 Update to Regulations

We have recently become aware of reports that new regulations have been put in place that prohibit EU residents from bringing a vehicle that is registered outside the EU into the EU (in other words, from Switzerland into France).  This is apparently to prevent vehicle smuggling and VAT fraud.  It seems ludicrous to us that this should apply to hire cars and at this stage there are many conflicting reports.  Some say there is an 8-day limit, others say that it is permissible if the driver is travelling directly to their own home.  We spoke to one person who had booked a vehicle with Avis at Geneva Airport; he was asked where he was going and when he said “France” he was not allowed to hire the car and he had to go to the French hire desks instead.  On the other hand,  when we spoke directly with Europcar at the airport on May 23rd, they said that as far as they are concerned, nothing has changed and they have had no reports of any problems with any of their vehicles.  We will continue to monitor the situation and update this blog accordingly, but in the meantime our advice would be to contact your car hire provider (ideally the office at Geneva airport or failing that their Swiss customer service operators) directly and clarify that company’s policy before you travel.

7. January 2017 Update

Following on from our update in May, in practise there do not appear to be any additional restrictions on bringing Swiss hire cars into France.  A number of our guests over summer 2016 and early winter 2016/17 have brought Swiss hire cars to the chalet with no problems.  A couple of people have reported being asked by the hire company where they were intending to take the car, but in all cases when they answered ‘France’ they were allowed to continue as normal.  Some companies seem to be supplying EU-registered cars but the majority of hire cars we have seen still have Swiss plates.  As before, if you have any questions then we recommend you contact your hire company at their desk at Geneva airport (contact details should be available on the relevant company website).

If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us via the Chalet La Giettaz website.

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “Geneva Airport Car Hire: French or Swiss Side?

  1. Hi Found your article very helpful. A new consideration since you published this would appear to be new Swiss regulations issued in 2016 apparently disqualifying EU residents taking a Swiss hired car across a border into France. Don’t appear to be the same restrictions from French side.

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