A Road Trip in Europe: 14+ Things to Know Before Renting a Car

BIG STATEMENT HERE: There is no better way to explore Europe than by renting a car and heading out on an epic road trip.

 

Unlike taking a bus, train, or plane, a car gives you the true freedom to go basically anywhere you please anytime you please. 

You don’t have to base your itinerary on transit schedules, which can be less than ideal. (The first time I realized this was when planning a day trip to Hallstatt from Salzburg, Austria. Taking the train took nearly 2.5 hours each way, while driving would’ve taken just over an hour! The Canadian in me immediately responded: “Yeaahhh, no.”)

When driving, hundreds of new towns, villages, lakes, mountains, beaches, and more become viable travel destinations because they were a little too difficult or inconvenient to reach by transit from your current destination. 

Let’s just take a look at getting to the Eltz Castle from Cologne, Germany. By car it’s a 1 hour and 30 minute drive. On the other hand, 1.5 hours by train from Cologne will get you to Treis-Karden, which is a town by the Moselle River close to the castle. From there, you have the option of catching a seasonal bus to take you to Eltz Castle (approximately an additional 40 minutes). 

But I’d say that out of all the different modes of transportation, driving a rental car in Europe can be most daunting. Not only are you fully responsible for navigating your way on familiar roads from Point A to Point B, you’re also going to encounter and have to quickly adjust to different road rules, traffic signs, and driving etiquette. 

Despite these challenges, having access to your own car to explore Europe is more than worth it. And to make your planning process smoother, I’ve put together this post of Europe road trip tips.

I’m actually extra motivated and pumped to be sharing all these details because I hold 2 Driving Licenses – a Swedish driver’s license from when I lived in Europe and the Canadian one I got after moving back (Fun Fact: Swedish licenses don’t transfer over in Canada, so I’ve technically had to go through Driver’s Ed twice. Fun.)

Enough about me though. Here are…

14+ things you need to know before planning a road trip and renting a car in Europe. And in the name of budget travel, I’ll also be covering how to budget and save money while on your Europe Road Trip.

 

Any specific money-saving tips will be marked with a 💸

Things to Know Before Renting a Car in Europe

Please note that this post contains affiliate links. If you purchase/book any of the linked products or services, I will earn a small commission. There’s no extra-cost for you. Any earnings will simply be used to keep snowtoseas.com going. Thank you for your support!

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1. Car Rental Requirements in Europe 

Also known as: is your driver’s license enough?

1.1 Are you old enough?

Many car rental companies won’t rent to someone under the age of 21 depending on which country you’re picking up your rental from. Until you turn 23 or 25 (again, country dependent), you’ll also most likely end up having to pay an additional fee for being a young driver.

1.2 Do you need an International Driving Permit?

An International Driving Permit, IDP, is an additional document that validates your current driver’s license if you plan on driving outside the country that issued your license. If your license is not written in the Roman Alphabet, you will typically need to apply for and get an IDP before renting a car in Europe. Otherwise, you need to carefully check the rules and regulations of the countries you plan on driving in to see if having one is a requirement. For example, if your license is not Austrian, you need to have an IDP in Austria

Government websites in your country of residence, such as the Government of Canada site, generally have information about getting an IDP.

1.3 Have you had your Driver’s License for Long Enough?

Some countries, like Slovenia, not only require you to be at least 21 years of age in order to rent a car, but you also need to have held your full license for at least 2 years.

1.4 Are YOU ready?

Rental requirements stating that you need to have held your license for a more extended period of time, such as 2 years, may seem a little unexpected at first glance. But they’re honestly there for a good reason. 

From my own experience, driving in Europe can be very different from driving in North America. European roads, especially country roads, are a lot windier, and hairpin turns up and down hills are very common. Roads are often more narrow, and it’s not rare to NOT see a painted line dividing your lane from the oncoming traffic lane in rural areas. Of course, cities and towns are full of roundabouts. 

The confidence and ability to safely handle new situations that comes with more driving experience is key.

Europe Road Trip Tips

Exhibit A: Hairpin turns up and down steep hills in Europe. Please note: this is NOT a one-way road. 

Amsterdam, Netherlands

In our driving skills we trust.

2. Check Different Car Rental Company Rates

This one is a given. Before you reserve any rental car, do your research and check the rates offered by different companies for your desired dates. Not all companies have the same price for the same car.

TIP: check what your final estimate will be after any add-ons you may need, such as an additional driver fee, theft protection, collision damage, and more. These extra costs also vary from rental company to rental company.

Popular rental car companies in Europe are not limited to but include: Budget, Avis, Sixt, Europcar, and Hertz.

3. The Car with the Cheapest Rate Not Be the Cheapest in the Long Run 💸

When choosing your ride, make sure to always take a look at the vehicle information and check its mileage. A car with a cheaper base rate may actually consume more fuel than the slightly more expensive one. When booking our car with Budget, we noticed that the less expensive “Economy Manual” option actually had a higher mileage than the “Compact Manual.”

Renting a Car in Europe Tips

Our rental car. Considering the HUGE distances we were planning on driving, we went with Budget’s “Compact Manual” option because the mileage was better.

4. Plan on pick-up and dropping of your car in the same location 💸

Our ideal plan for last summer’s Europe trip included renting a car in the Netherlands and dropping it off somewhere in Northeastern Italy.  After that, we hoped to fly off to Poland for a few days. After a bit of research, this plan became a far-off dream.

It’s possible to pick-up a rental car in the Netherlands and drop it off with the same company in Italy, but you’re going to be charged a one-way fee. Just while writing this little section, I checked the fee for a one-way rental via Avis for a car from Amsterdam, the Netherlands to Verona, Italy (the duration of the rental was 2 weeks). The fee was a mind-blowing $1,744.45 CAD or $1,336.97 USD.

And the base rate to have the car for 14 days? Only $339.00 CAD (258.81 USD) prior to tax.

Moral of the story: pick-up and drop off your rental car at the same place. 

Lago di Braies, Italy

Fortunately, having to re-think our original itinerary gave us the opportunity to check out some new, incredible places, such as Lago di Braies, Italy. 

5. You may save by avoiding airport pick-up and drop off locations

If the one-way fee wasn’t enough, there’s also usually a fee for picking-up and dropping-off your rental car at the airport. 

For the same trip quoted above, the airport fee was estimated at $416.69 CAD ($319.36 USD). The pick-up location was set to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, and the drop-off location was Verona’s Airport. The airport fee becomes $67.80 CAD ($51.96 USD) when you set the pick-up and drop-off location to Schiphol. 

That being said, I’ve noticed that some airport rental locations have lower base rates for their cars than inner city ones. If you’re on a mission to save as much as humanly possible, I would double-check the final quotes for picking up a rental car from the airport vs. not. 

6. Stick Shift/Manual Transmission reigns supreme – especially if you want to save 💸

Stick shift, manual transmission, standard, or whatever else you want to call it is infinitely more popular and common in Europe than it is in the United States or Canada. Manual cars are vastly cheaper to rent to the extent that you may see the base rate for an automatic car be double the rate of a standard car.

I’ve driven both extensively, and I would highly recommend that if you’re new to manual transmission and wouldn’t feel comfortable driving around with traffic at home, don’t go for it abroad. I knowwww the price may look really tempting, but all in all, safety has got to reign supreme. 

Driving in Europe Tips

Navigating tight hairpins while getting familiar with stick shift isn’t recommended. 

7. Always check how to reverse, park, and tank up your car before leaving the lot 

This is especially important if you rent a stick shift vehicle. 

Typically, cars with manual transmission will have some sort of additional step or “trick” in order to shift the car into reverse. Common steps include pushing the stick shift down or holding an actual button on the side of the stick shift while switching it into reverse. 

When parking a manual transmission car, you always want to make sure to use the parking brake when leaving the car (sometimes it’s a lever, and sometimes it can be a button), and you never want to leave the car in neutral. (If you do, it’s probably going to roll way). 

As well, always know what fuel your rental needs. 

If you’re ever unsure about any of these things, ask a rental car rep before driving away. They’ll be happy to help!

8. Go all-in with insurance

As with travel medical insurance, when there’s the risk of paying thousands upon thousands in unexpected expenses, I’ll always say it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

While rental companies will always offer you their insurance, you can always check if your credit card or existing car insurance provider automatically covers anything for rental cars. For example, my Aventura VISA can provide me with car rental collision/loss damage insurance.

I also always recommend paying attention to the fine print and speaking with a rep if you need any clarification. It’s good to be aware that some basic policies may only cover more significant damages to your car, like fender benders or theft, but can’t do anything to help with cracked windshields or if you get a flat tire. (Fortunately, many rental car companies offer a roadside assistance add-on for these situations). 

Jamaica Beach, Lake Garda, Italy

Vacations are for relaxing, not stressing. (Pictured: Jamaica Beach, Lake Garda, Italy). TIP: If Google Maps tells you can drive through Sirmione right up to this beach, don’t believe what it tells you! I’m sure if we had tried, we would’ve had to place some sort of Roadside Assistance call.

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9. Can you actually drive in every European country you want to visit?

First things first, when booking your rental car, you’ll want to select one that offers unlimited free miles/kilometres. Step 1 done.

Online car rental bookings often don’t ask for your trip itinerary. However, I recommend either calling ahead or letting the rental counter know about your plans in case they need to add on a cross-border fee that extends your insurance to other countries from (or make any other modifications). 

When we rented our car from Budget, they didn’t add any extra fees for our itinerary. However, they were able to advise us about paying road tolls. 

Varenna, Lake Como, Italy

To this day, I’m eternally grateful that we were able to take our rental car across borders without any hassle. Having access to a car when we reached Lake Como was beyond essential. In the midst of summer travel season, lines to catch the ferry across the lake were over an hour long. We were able to save time and skip the line by driving from Menaggio to Varenna instead. 

10. Don’t drive on European “motorways” (highways) without paying the tolls

To drive on the majority of European highways, commonly known as motorways, you need to pay a toll. Fortunately, most tolls aren’t too wild and the payment process is super straightforward. Italy’s Autostrade still use the system of grabbing an entry ticket when getting on and paying the final toll via a ticket machine when getting off. Other countries, such as Switzerland, Austria, and Czechia, require you to buy a vignette (small windshield sticker) before getting on a highway. 

10.1 Buying Vignettes in Europe

Vignettes are typically available for purchase at gas stations (petrol stations). Depending on the country, you may also be able to buy them at Post Offices and Newsstands. 

Many countries, such as Austria and Czechia, will have vignettes that are valid for approximately a week, a couple of months, and a year in order to meet the needs of residents and visitors alike. To get specific, the 10-day Vignette in Austria costs only about €10 ($14.50 CAD, $11.10 USD). 10 days in Czechia cost about €12.50 ($18.10 CAD, $13.85 USD).

If you’re planning on visiting Switzerland and want to save as much as you can, I would carefully consider if you could manage to swing your itinerary by sticking to country roads instead of getting on any highways. This may take more time, but Switzerland only sells an annual vignette for cars under 3.5 tonnes, and it costs 40 CHF (about $54 CAD, $41 USD) even if you’ll be spending only a handful of days in the country.  

READ MORE: How to pay less for SBB train fares in Switzerland

Tisa Rocks, Bohemian Switzerland, Czechia

Vignettes in Czechia? Worth it. They made the trip from Prague to Bohemian Switzerland (Tisa Rocks pictured above) super fast and easy.

11. Want to save more: how you drive affects your fuel consumption 💸

Fun Fact: Sweden’s Driver’s Ed program goes into a heck of a lot of detail about driving efficiently in order to burn less fuel (=produce less pollution). They call it eco-driving. AND if you can’t show that you know how to eco-drive on your road test, it’s likely that you won’t pass. 

Some general driving tips to reduce fuel consumption include:

  • Avoiding too many stop-go scenarios. Stopping and then moving the car (i.e. having to use the first gear) burns more fuel. 
  • Engine Braking 
  • Keeping a steady speed (excluding insanely high speeds). 

12. Check Local Traffic Rules Before You Drive

There are definitely quite a few differences between North American road rules (including traffic signs) and European ones. There can also be differences between each country. Just as an example, turning right on a red is illegal in Europe. However, unless there’s a sign prohibiting it in Ontario (Canada), you can go ahead and turn if it’s safe to do so. 

I’m no authority on European driving rules, so I recommend checking government pages, official tourism board sites, and car rental company guides for further information. (Speaking of which, rhinocarhire.com has put together some great starter guides on driving in European countries. Check out Switzerland’s by clicking here)

13. Make sure the accommodations you book have some sort of parking 💸

Parking, especially in urban areas, isn’t always cheap or easily available. Scouting out accommodations with nearby parking, especially free parking, can be a huge money and time saver. Most accommodation listings on Booking.com, Hostelworld, Airbnb, and more will say something about their parking situation. If they don’t reach out and ask in advance!

Petite France, Strasbourg, France

In Strasbourg, we stayed at the Ciarus Hostel for 1 night, which had public street parking out front. Fortunately for us, overnight parking was free! (Daytime parking got a little pricey, but we had plans to check out the Triberg Waterfalls in Germany, so we didn’t need to make use of that paid parking spot for too long).

Driving in Europe Tips

Alternatively, Camping Jungfrau Alpine Lodge in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland had 100% free parking for campground guests!

READ MORE: Top European Hostels according to Snow to Seas!

14. Winter Tires

Some countries, such as Austria, may require you to have winter tires between November and April. If you pick up your car from a destination with a milder climate, your car may not be equipped with them. 

Planning a Road Trip in Europe Tips

Even if a country, like Switzerland, does not officially require cars to have winter tires during the colder months, I always recommend checking for any caveats or fine print. For example, cars still need to be equipped for winter conditions in Switzerland, so basically, winter tires are needed.

Yeah, I’m with you: there are a whole ton of factors to consider when planning on renting a car in Europe. For a first-timer (Paul and I back on summer 2019), it may not seem like the most straight-forward process. But we quickly learned that the majority of our questions, concerns, and confusions only came up in the planning phase. The car rental agents we were able to talk to were extremely knowledgeable and helpful. By the time we had the rental keys in our hands, we had the answers to X, Y, Z. We were free to explore central Europe as we pleased!

Have you ever rented a car in Europe? Would you like to go on a European Road Trip? Share your thoughts, experiences, and tips in the comments section below!

Happy Travelling

 

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