Driving in Europe:
Renting, Leasing, Rail/Drives and the
Rules of the Road
By Rick Steves
Every year, as Europe's train prices go up, car rental becomes more economical. Although car rental is pricey for solo travelers, twosomes pay about the same whether they rent a car or buy railpasses. Three or four people travel cheaper by car.
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.
Rentals are least expensive when arranged in the States; comparison-shop using the various companies' 800 numbers or Web sites (below). For the best deal, ask for a weekly rate with unlimited mileage. Those between 25 and 70 should have no trouble renting a car. If you're older or younger, check all the car companies (age requirements vary) or consider leasing, which has less stringent age restrictions.
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.
You're usually liable for the entire value of your rental car unless you get CDW insurance. Car rental agencies charge $10 to $25 a day. Travel Guard sells the same thing for $6 a day, and it's honored throughout Europe except for Ireland, Scotland, and Italy (tel. 800/826-1300, 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.
Take advantage of open-jaw possibilities (flying into one city and out of another) to save you rental days and avoid big-city driving. You can normally pick up and drop off a car at any of your rental company's offices in a country. Know the location of all the offices so you'll understand your options. There is usually about a $200 fee to drop a car in another country. You'll find some happy and outrageous ($700) exceptions.
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. Note that most rental cars in Europe have manual transmissions. Renting an automatic can tack on an extra $100 per week. Brush up on your shifting skills. It's better to lurch through your hometown parking lot than grind your gears over the Alps.
Get an International Driver's License if you'll be driving in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Greece, or Eastern Europe. IDLs are available through your local AAA office -- $10 plus the cost of two passport-type photos).
Travelers who need a car for three weeks or more may find it cheaper to lease. Europe by Car now leases cars in France for as few as 17 days for $500. Lease prices include all taxes and CDW insurance. Companies that rent cars usually also lease--ask.
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).
EurailDrive covers 17 countries in Western Europe (except Scandinavia); EuroPassDrive covers France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain; and country passes are offered by Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Scandinavia.
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.
For a brochure, write to P.O. Box 9332, 3506 GH Utrecht, Netherlands, call 31/30-244-7070, fax 31/30-242-0981, or visit xs4all.nl.
For more information, see Europe by Van and Motor Home by David Shore and Patty Campbell (2001, 250 pages, $17 postpaid, 1842 Santa Margarita Dr., Fallbrook, CA 92028, tel. 800/659-5222, fax 760/723-6184, e-mail: email@example.com).
BEHIND THE EUROPEAN WHEEL
Europe is a continent of frustrated racecar drivers. The most dangerous creature on the road is the timid American. But any good American driver can cope with European traffic. Here are a few rules of the European road:
- 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 leave a city, follow freeway signs (distinctive green or blue) that state "all directions" (toutes directions).
- 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.
- Observe autobahn etiquette. After a few breathtaking minutes on the autobahn, you'll learn not to linger in the passing lane. Stay to the right.
- 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.
- For overnight stops, choose a safe, well-traveled, and well-lit parking spot. Ask your hotel receptionist for advice. Leave nothing in your car worth stealing. Make your car look local. Take off or cover up the rental company decal and leave a local newspaper on the seat.
- 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).
Driving in Europe can be a fun, convenient way to see the sights. Be assertive, wear your seat belt, and avoid big-city driving when you can. If you're the one behind the wheel in your travel dreams, you can easily make them happen. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
Rick Steves (425-771-8303 or 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.