There’s nothing like the freedom a car affords you when it comes to travel. If you’re the kind of person who likes the feel of a scenic road trip and being able to pull off whenever you want for lunch or a nice vista, then renting a car might be an attractive option. That being said, renting a car in Europe comes with a lot of caveats and may not always be the best choice.
Do you need a car in Europe?
That depends. If you’re spending the majority of your time in major cities like Paris, London, or Rome, the answer is categorically no. Large European cities are usually walkable and well-covered by public transportation, so having a car is a huge disadvantage. You’ll be stuck in traffic in some narrow alley while everyone else moves around quickly and efficiently underground or on trams that have their own lanes. Some European towns, like Hallstatt in Austria and Zermatt in Switzerland are completely car-free.
On the other hand, if you’re traveling to some remote part of Europe that is otherwise only accessible by a lengthy combination of regional trains and buses, then a car is probably a better option. These areas may include national parks, ski resorts, lakes, wineries, and campgrounds. If only part of your trip includes this kind of excursion, it might be wise to rent a car only for those days rather than for your entire trip to Europe.
Important things to consider when renting a car in Europe
You may need to obtain the International Driving Permit
You may need an International Driving Permit (IDP), which is only possible to obtain in the country where your license was issued. Though it’s possible to rent a car from some places with just a valid driver’s license, many countries in Europe legally require an IDP, which is a document that translates your driver’s license into many different languages. If you’re traveling through multiple countries in Europe, it’s probably a good idea to check what they require even if the country you’re renting from doesn’t require an IDP. If you get stopped by police in another EU state, you might still need it to show police.
Caveat for foreigners living in Europe: If you’re from a country that does not meet European driving license standards (US, Australia, etc.), you must obtain a local license after 90 days of European residency. This means your passport and an IDP will no longer allow you to legally rent a car.
Most European cars have manual transmission
If you don’t drive stick, it’ll be a little harder to rent a car. Most European rental agencies have a wider selection of manual cars than automatic. And automatic cars are more expensive to rent. If you don’t know how to drive manual, you probably should not attempt to for the first time with a European rental. If you need to rent a car with automatic transmission, make sure to book it far in advance, especially during peak season.
Renting a car in Europe may be more expensive than you think
The cost of renting a car decreases in proportion to the number of people splitting the cost of driving. But if you’re driving alone or with one other person, a car might be the most expensive way to get around Europe. That’s because there are a lot of extra costs that aren’t part of the base rental price. This includes gas, tolls, and parking.
Americans coming to Europe might think gas is super cheap, but that’s because gas prices in Europe (and everywhere else for that matter) are quoted in liters and not gallons. So when gas is $1.68 per liter, that’s actually $6.34 by the gallon. If you’re driving especially long distances, the cost of refueling could add up.
Highway tolls are paid two ways in Europe. Some countries like France and Spain have toll booths where you pay as you drive through. Other countries like Austria and Switzerland have toll stickers, known as vignettes. These stickers can be purchased at a gas station when you cross the border into the country, and you have to buy them for predetermined periods like seven days, a month, or a year. This means you still have to pay for a week’s worth of tolls, even if you’re only driving through a country for a day.
The last major cost of driving in Europe is the parking. European cities are small, and most people get around using transportation, so parking availability may be scarce and expensive. Parking around popular areas of town is usually pricey as well as time-consuming since you may have to go round and round until you find a spot. If you need to park at a hotel, you could be paying up to 20-25 euros per night. As a general rule, if your hotel offers free or very affordable parking, you’re probably nowhere near anything interesting to see or do.
Border crossing fee
If you’re traveling from an EU country to a non-EU country with your rental, the agency may charge a fee. You’ll want to check if this is possible and if there’s a charge for it in advance. You obviously can’t pretend you didn’t do it; there will be an official record of your crossing.
Insuring your rental in Europe
Most rental cars in Europe already include basic insurance, which is a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW). However, reading the fine print is important. This insurance may not always cover all damage to the car such as tires or windows. It also may only cover damage up to a certain limit. Most companies offer additional insurance to cover injury and additional costs to the vehicle or other motorists. While this is not mandatory, it’s certainly not a bad idea.
The only time when you may be better off not paying for coverage is if your credit card covers car rentals. However, you should ensure that rentals are covered in Europe, or specifically the countries you plan to drive in. When in doubt, fully insuring the car means you can drive it off a cliff and walk away with no financial responsibility. Of course, buying insurance adds considerable cost to renting a car.
Local companies may be better than major chains
You may be tempted to book with the first company you recognize like Hertz, Sixt, or Enterprise. Not so fast! On top of being more expensive, these companies tend to have horrible service compared to local European rental agencies. For one, since these companies are more popular, there’s a greater chance that you’ll arrive to find the only car available is a cargo van with manual transmission when you reserved an automatic sedan.
To this, I can speak from experience because I once worked as a car rental agent. Rental companies accept every reservation that comes in regardless of their ability to fulfill it. They just assume (correctly so in many cases) that at least 1/3 of reservations will never show up. They prioritize reservations that have been pre-paid and hope for the best for everyone else. During busy times of the year, this could mean you find yourself carless altogether.
Smaller companies have nothing but word of mouth to attract customers so they’re less likely to be reckless about reservations. So if you look at rental agencies available in a specific city (you can use Google Maps for this) and Avis has an average rating of 2.7 and a company you’ve never heard of has a 4.9, go with the unknown.
Consider a one-way rental if it’ll save you time or money
If you want to drop off your car in a different location from where you picked it up, there is always a fee. Depending on how far it is, this cost may be steep. However, it may still be cheaper than traveling hundreds of kilometers back to your starting point to drop off the car. If you’re traveling to multiple countries on the same trip, you’ll also be losing a lot of time by doubling back.
Important note: If you need a one-way rental, it may be better to rent from a larger company with an international presence.
Navigating European traffic laws
Though the EU is generally unified, there are many local differences in traffic laws. For example, in many countries with above ground public transportation, trams and buses always have the right of way. It may be illegal to use the right lane to pass slow vehicles. And generally speaking, drinking and driving laws are fairly strict in Europe. It’s either zero or something so insignificant like 0.02%, that it may as well be zero.
It’s important to become acquainted with the specific traffic laws of the countries you’re planning to drive through. This might give you a better idea of what some of the unfamiliar signs mean and ultimately save you from making an illegal mistake out of ignorance. For instance, one important traffic law that is basically uniform across Europe is that it’s illegal to turn right on a red.
Getting used to European driving
There are two elements of European driving that you should prepare for, the roads and the drivers themselves. If you do find yourself taking a hatchback through tiny alleys, make sure you know which signs mean “do not enter,” “one-way” or “local traffic only,” which means you need a permit to drive through. It helps to constantly use GPS, since it will automatically keep your car out of areas where it doesn’t need to be. Using Google Maps can also help you gauge how busy a particular route may be so you can find less stressful or faster alternatives.
In some countries, drivers are kind of insane, using their one-lane roads in the best way they can like Italy and Greece. I once saw a van in Greece scrape the side of a parked car and knock off the mirror. The driver got off, popped the mirror back on, and kept driving. If the idea of getting into a heated fender bender with an angry Italian scares you, just take the train.