5 Tips for Renting a Car in Europe
Here’s a secret: the two main reasons I spent a college semester in Paris were nine years of French lessons and National Lampoon’s European Vacation. I saw it when I was very young and could not wait to explore Europe…by car, of course.
In a classic case of careful-what-you-wish-for, that first spring-break road trip—through Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic—was indeed decidedly Griswoldesque.
But I’ve rented cars in Europe since then, and each trip goes more smoothly than the last. So as I prepare for another European road trip next week and ponder past hits and misses, I’ve come up with my top five tips for seeing Europe through the windshield. If you follow these guidelines, I’m confident you’ll discover the joys of renting a car abroad.
1. Pack your papers
Weeks before you go, apply for an international driving permit through AAA or the National Automobile Club at a cost of $15; the certificate is recognized in almost every country on earth. Keep your permit and passport handy, and prepare to show your car papers (provided by your rental company) at borders, though some countries will not require any documentation. And before you attempt to cross any border, make sure it’s not an issue with your rental company.
2. Know your car
First, when you’re requesting your rental, keep in mind that it’s far cheaper to rent a manual car in Europe; make sure you know how to drive a stick shift. Better yet, make sure your friend knows how to drive one. Then, when you pick up your car, familiarize yourself with it before you leave the parking lot. It seems like operating a rental anywhere should be intuitive, but believe me, you will regret it if you don’t practice putting it in reverse, opening its gas tank, and memorizing its height before you hit the road. Speaking of gas tanks, make sure you know whether your car takes diesel or petrol. By the way, I’ve found that all of this is a lot more fun if you name your car. Bonus points for naming it in the local language.
3. Err on the side of being over-prepared
Know your emergency numbers, your speed limits, your directions. Don’t disobey traffic signs, or you will be pulled over. Don’t run out of gas. Don’t run out of toll money. Don’t run out of gas money. Seriously, don’t run out of gas; a surprising amount of gas stations close come evening. Which brings me to the next tip…
4. Arrive at your destination before dark
It’s tempting to stop at every interesting roadside attraction between here and there, and that freedom is part of the charm of exploring Europe by car. But do keep in mind that finding a hidden hotel in a new city—or even finding the new city—is a whole lot easier in daylight. Plus, I’ve rushed through the sights of one too many cities after dark, and that’s a shame; I probably would not recognize Munich by day, and it’s not because of one too many beers at the Hofbräuhaus.
5. Savor the perks
There’s a reason I keep going back for more—in my opinion, a rental car is the best way to see the back roads of Europe; to explore at your own pace, free from timetables; and to discover those in-between places you’d never see if you swished by on a Eurail pass. With a car, I’ve found myself hiking the grounds of a tucked-away monastery, getting an intimate tour of the Alps, hugging the curves of Monaco’s cliffs—so above all, have fun, and don’t let minutiae like parking spaces and tolls plazas detract from the glories of the road.
Photo courtesy of IgoUgo member raymond longaray
My name: Michelle Doucette
How I earn my keep: I'm an editor at IgoUgo.com.
Favorite way to get around: Some of my favorite trips involved renting cars in foreign countries and driving through the countryside, stopping on whims. You get a feel for the culture away from the big cities and meet interesting people on the road, including, I must admit, an embarrassingly high number of local policemen. I suppose it would be prudent to learn all of the traffic laws ahead of time.
Best meal I've had while traveling: Since a succession of gelato cones probably doesn't count as a meal, my favorite must have been a fresh crabmeat lunch prepared by a St. John sailboat captain while we took a break from snorkeling in the Caribbean. Sharing baklava as the sun came up over Paros, Greece, (while, once again, not technically a meal) was also memorable.
Travel ambitions: Since climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I've figured out that I'd like to keep trekking while traveling. I've got my eyes on epic hikes in Nepal, Bhutan, and Peru.