Driving in Europe
Revised June 2, 2012
Even though fuel prices are high in Europe, you should consider driving in Europe if you want to get off the beaten path and enjoy the beautiful countryside more than you can through the window of a train. If you are only heading to major cities or towns along the rail lines, the train is more convenient and probably more pleasant because traffic in the major cities can be stressful. But to really experience the continent, you should get to some of the small towns and it is often easiest and least expensive in a rented car.
Don't rent the car until you are headed into the country. If you land in Amsterdam, Paris, Rome or any other major city where you'll be spending a few days, head to your hotel by public transportation or limousine service; cars in the major cities of Europe are a burden--the trouble of negotiating traffic in a foreign country and paying for parking ($25/night in some cities) outweighs any convenience they provide.
If you are traveling as a couple or a group and headed to a number of destinations, a car is often cheaper than Eurail or public transporation. But the biggest advantage is the time it can save you, especially if you are in a region where train service is limited; saving the time you'd have spent making some connections will give you more time for sightseeing and vacationing.
The key to keeping the cost of your auto travel low as the dollar weakens and fuel prices rise is to do a good job planning your basic itinerary and carefully developing your sightseeing route every morning. Just like at home, you want to eliminate unnecessary miles.
Keep your tank filled, especially if you are heading through Eastern Europe. Gas, or diesel if needed, is easy to find in most big cities, but some countries have few stations in rural areas. The last thing you want is to run out of gas in a community where you don't speak the language. People may be helpful, but it clearly complicates your travel if you run out of gas.
There are many auto rental agencies in Europe, often part of or affiliated with an US-based company. To start your search you may want to try an online travel website who can check the prices of many different firms.
Motor Home Rental
If you want to visit a number of locations in Europe but don't want to worry about finding a place to sleep every night, a motor home or camper may be the answer. And, in some settings, they may be real money savers. If you can do the trip in a small van, which can easily hold two adults and children, you'll find the driving experience more comfortable. When I contacted Ideamerge for price on a small van, I was pleasantly surprised by the fees they charged, making a small camper van a very affordable alternative to staying in hotels and renting a car to travel. Do expect to stay in a campground wherever you go, it is rarely legal to just pull over to the side of the road for the night; but you'll be pleasantly surprised by the services available at and the prices of campgrounds in Europe
If you plan to visit any country in Eastern Europe or Italy, it is critical that you confirm that you can drive the car into those countries. Many countries still restrict travel into countries where auto theft is a serious issue. Double-check with the company you are booking with, get written assurances that you can use the car where you want and then use caution when parking your car. There is a financial reason that these companies restrict travel into Eastern Europe, meaning the risk of auto theft is significant. If you book online, be sure to get a written confirmation authorizing you to travel to all the destinations you plan to visit.
Leasing A Car
If you are driving for a longer period of time, you may choose to lease. Check with a travel agent or car rental company to see if the price of leasing is lower--unless you stay for at least 4 months, it usually does not result in cost savings.
If you have always appreciated the safety and durability in Volvo automobiles, you may want to buy your Volvo with their Overseas Delivery Program. In addition to having the car to drive through Europe, Volvo offers a number of incentives which may include the cost of airfare to Europe or travel. This is a great option for someone considering the purchase of a Volvo.
Generally your US or Canadian license and insurance is good in Europe. If you are going to buy a car, be sure to talk to your insurance agent before you arrange the purchase and make sure you have adequate coverage. Similarly, double-check the insurance issues on a lease and rental because there may be specific provisions that limit your coverage when you are out of the country. Some countries do, however, require that you have an "International License" which has some of your basic information on a document that is translated into many different languages. Among the countries that require an international driver's license are: Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Again, double-check with the rental agency about licensing requirements so that you have plenty of time to get the paperwork you need. On our last trip to Japan, an employee at our local AAA office said they were no longer necessary and none of the websites mentioned that I needed it. I picked one up at AAA for about $20, including the photo, and was lucky to have it at an agency that demanded it. Also, for $20, you have a document that you can hand to a police officer who may not read English. Not necessary in many countries, but an international license may be worth the investment.
European roads can be intimidating to some drivers. We had heard terrifying stories from fellow travelers about narrow roads, hairpin turns and fast drivers. They do exist, but you rarely encounter them all at the same time. On the major toll roads and autobahns, you could drive faster than we normally do in the US, but in congestion and traffic, Europeans seemed more cautious than the drivers we often encounter in the San Francisco Bay Area. On narrow roads, the speed was generally comparable to how we would travel on narrow roads in the states. But there are still drivers who are in a hurry to get somewhere and take risks that put other drivers in danger. I can only say that I feel more comfortable driving the roads in Europe than driving in California freeway traffic.
Guide books made the trips over some of the major European mountain highways sound very treacherous; if you are only comfortable on the straight roads of the Plains states, you might agree. After fearing the descriptions of Austria's Grossglocknerstrasse Highway and the winding road through the Julian Alps of Slovenia, the roads we encountered were surprisingly easy to drive; there are switchbacks that need your attention but the roads were wide enough and had pullouts at many points if you wanted to let other drivers pass.
On the other hand, parking and traffic in the major cities is comparable to our big cities--again, use San Francisco, Boston or New York as comparisons and then double the traffic and parking issues. It is possible to drive through the cities but if you don't need to have a car in the city, avoid it. Do the driving to get to out-of-the-way locations.