Invaluable tips from a seasoned pro

Remember the journey is the destination on your Europe road trip — Photo courtesy of Oleh_Slobodeniuk / E+

There’s nothing like hitting the highway on a European road trip to get “in country,” be it on a high-speed motorway or a narrow, winding country lane. My husband and I have explored Europe by car more than 20 times and experienced the joys and sometimes headaches of driving in foreign countries. Here, we share our tips on planning a Europe trip by car to help you make the most of your vacation.

Tips for renting a car for a European road trip

Pick up a rental car at a more remote location to avoid navigating busy citiesPick up a rental car at a more remote location to avoid navigating busy cities — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne

Do I need a driving permit when traveling Europe by car?

Some (but not all) European countries require you to have an International Driving Permit (IDP) when traveling around Europe by car. Check the International Travel Page of the U.S. Department of State’s website, which provides information by country. You can obtain IDPs at your local AAA office (you needn’t be a member) or by mail.

We haven’t always needed it, and some car rental agencies are stricter than others. Our policy is “better safe than sorry.”

Should I get a manual or automatic transmission?

Most rental vehicles in the U.K. and Europe are manual transmission. Cars with automatic transmission are more expensive to rent, adding to the cost of your European road trip. But this is not the time to learn if you don’t drive a stick shift at home. You don’t want to be grinding gears and stalling out on the autobahn.

Do I need additional insurance?

Rental car insurance is expensive. Check what your home policies cover in advance (some credit cards may offer full or partial coverage) and adjust your rental coverage accordingly.

Inspect your rental car before you hit the road

It’s often tempting to jump in the rental car and zoom off on your grand adventure. But inspecting your rental (and documenting any scratches and dings) before you depart protects you from getting charged for them later. You don’t want to end your vacation on a sour note — or have this conversation in a language not native to you!

Additionally, take a moment to learn the location of headlights, wipers, hazard lights, and other safety features on your rental before starting your trip, so you won’t have to fumble for them while driving unfamiliar roads.

Rent a car in a remote location

For our road trip in Norway, we started in Oslo. However, instead of picking up our car in that crowded city, we took the train to a suburban location and picked up our car there to explore the fjords. With fewer cars on the road, it was a less frenzied start to our journey.

Use a combination of printed maps and apps

Use a combination of old school and new school navigation tools when driving in EuropeUse a combination of old school and new school navigation tools when driving in Europe — Photo courtesy of Yevtony / iStock Via Getty Images

Nothing ruins a European road trip like getting hopelessly lost. Depending on your destination, a GPS device in your rental car may be worth the price. We rely on a combination of GPS, apps, and paper maps for navigation. Old-school printed maps provide an overview of the area that a tiny screen can’t manage and often highlight landmarks or scenic roads worth a detour.

Data connections can be spotty (and expensive) in remote areas, so download maps and directions before starting out for the day. Also, note that apps such as Google Maps might not be as accurate in Europe as in the U.S. — as we learned the hard way when it routed our car down a steep hiking trail in a German national park. Yikes!

Anticipate the costs of driving in Europe

Many European highways charge tolls. Sometimes, you can pay cash or credit as you go; other times, it’s automated. Your rental car company can advise you on the best payment method. Also, fuel costs in Europe are approximately double that of the U.S., an important calculation to include in your Europe road trip planner. (Gas prices are listed per liter; multiply by 4 to approximate a per-gallon price.)

Other than avoiding toll roads, you can’t escape these costs. Consider it a necessary trip expense and enjoy your journey. Upon returning home, you’ll have a newfound appreciation for “low” gas prices in the United States.

Plan a general route in advance

Planning is key when it comes to a European road tripPlanning is key when it comes to a European road trip — Photo courtesy of Image Source / Getty Images

Think about the sights you want to see and the type of road trip that makes the most sense for you. Making a large loop, going from point A to point B, or taking a series of day trips from a “home base” are all viable options. This may impact your rental car costs, lodging choices, and onward journey.

Be realistic about distances

American road trips conjure images of zipping through wide open spaces along the interstate. When exploring Europe by car, it’s important to adjust your mindset to more densely populated countries with shorter distances (and those winding country lanes). You may not rack up thousands of miles, but you’ll likely find charming towns and interesting sights more frequently.

Don’t be caught “hangry”

Restaurants (even simple cafes) in many European small towns still observe traditional mealtime hours; don’t count on finding something open at any random time of day. If you don’t want to be tied to a rigid food schedule, pack a picnic lunch and a few nibbles to stave off grumbling stomachs and grumpy conversations.

The exception to this rule is rest stops on major motorways. These restaurants usually have flexible hours and serve up good food. When did you last see fresh salads and desserts served with china at a highway rest stop back home?

Know where you’ll sleep

Whether you’re staying in a hotel, an RV, or a tent, make sure you’ve arranged for accommodations as part of your European road trip planning. Travelers are visiting Europe in record numbers post-COVID; you don’t want to be stuck camping by a busy road or getting the last motel room next to a dumpster.

What is the best European road trip?

Visit charming villages, such as Meersburg, Germany, on a European road tripVisit charming villages, such as Meersburg, Germany, on a European road trip — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne

The best European road trip depends on what interests you. If you’re unsure where to start, here are some trips we’ve taken and loved.

Experience the Black Forest on a road trip through Germany

Enjoy a mixture of old and new with postcard scenery of the Black Forest’s quaint half-timbered villages (and famous Black Forest cake!), while cruising the high-speed thrills of the autobahn. Make pitstops at the headquarters of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. Vroom!

Best route: Start in Stuttgart or Munich outskirts.

Driving along the autostrada in Sicily during an Italy road tripDriving along the autostrada in Sicily during an Italy road trip — Photo courtesy of Larissa Milne

Explore Sicily on a road trip through Italy

Take a week or two to circumnavigate the island, visiting ancient Roman and Greek (!) ruins, the stunning Mount Etna volcano, and gorgeous beaches. Pizza, pasta, gelato, repeat.

Best route: Start and finish at Palermo Airport.

Tour Brittany on a road trip through France

Explore amazing Mont Saint-Michel, see dramatic coastlines with quaint harbor towns, and marvel at the prehistoric monoliths at Carnac, all while eating crepes and sipping cider.

Best route: Take the train from Paris to Rennes, then loop through the region.)

No matter where you choose to go on your Europe road trip, remember that the journey is the destination; indulge your curiosity. It’s the little detours and unscheduled stops that make the trip fun.

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