Driving in Europe: Renting, Leasing, Rail/Drives and the Rules of the Road

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Rent a car in Europe from some one you trust--like Enterprise!Rent a car in Europe from some one you trust–like Enterprise!

>By Rick Steves

Behind the wheel you’re totally free — not limited by train tracks or schedules. You go where you want to, when you want to. Sound good? Here are some tips for renting, leasing and driving around Europe.

Your actual costs will be higher than the price of the rental, due to taxes (18 to 25 percent), gas ($4 per gallon), freeway tolls for France and Italy (up to $8 per hour), special highway permits ($25 for Switzerland, $8 for Austria), parking (about $20 per day in big cities), theft protection coverage (up to $15 per day, required only in Italy), and Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) insurance.

www.travelguard.com). You might be covered automatically if you pay for the rental with a “gold” credit card; check with your credit card company.

SPECIAL RENTING CONSIDERATIONS

If you want to visit several countries, rental cars come with enough insurance and paperwork to cross borders effortlessly in virtually all of Western Europe. Ask for specific limitations if you’re driving through Eastern Europe. Don’t count on being allowed to take your rental car from England to Ireland or the Continent. High ferry costs make renting two separate cars a better deal; two single weeks of car rental usually cost the same as two weeks in a row. Get an International Driver’s License if you’ll be driving in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Greece, or Eastern Europe. IDL’s are available through your local AAA office — $10 plus the cost of two passport-type photos).

RAIL AND DRIVE PASSES

If you’d like to mix rail and car travel — using the train for long hauls and a car for exploring the countryside — consider the various Rail & Drive passes. These passes give travelers a set number of days of car rental to mix in with a set number of days of train travel (e.g., any four rail days and two car days within a two-month period).

VANS AND MOTORHOMES

Whether buying or renting, consider a van or motor home, which give you the flexibility to drive late and just pull over and camp for free. Campanje, a Dutch company, specializes in used VW campers fully loaded for camping through Europe. Rates run about $470 per week for a four-person camper van (less for long-term rentals), including tax and insurance. Ask about discounts for early booking and off-season and long-term rental.


Learn the signs. When entering a city, look for signs directing you to the “old town” or the center (such as centrum, centro, centre ville, or stadtmitte). The tallest church spire often marks the center of the old town. Park in its shadow and look for the tourist information office. The tourist office will usually be clearly signposted, normally with an “i.”

  • To save time, use the freeway. The shortest distance between any two European points is the autobahn/autostrada/autoroute. Although tolls can be high in Italy and France ($30 to get from Paris to the Italian border), the gas and time saved on European super-freeways justifies the expense if you’re in a hurry.
  • Don’t use a car for city sightseeing. Park in huge, cheap lots on the outskirts or pricey downtown garages. Use public transportation to zip from the garage or parking lot to the various sights.
  • Go metric. On the Continent, you’ll deal with kilometers. To convert kilometers to miles, cut in half and add 10 percent (90 km/hr = 45 + 9 miles: 54 mph — not very fast in Europe). Britain uses miles instead of kilometers. Gas is sold by the liter (four to a gallon).

ricksteves.com is the host of the PBS series Rick Steves’ Europe and the author of 20 European travel guidebooks, including Europe Through the Back Door, all published by Avalon Travel Publishing.

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