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Planning a road trip through Europe? This European road trip guide includes everything you need to know about driving in Europe, including traffic laws, necessary documents you need to drive in Europe, and the best Europe road trip tips and advice.
Unlike in North America where it can take several days, if not weeks, to drive across a country, Europe is much more compact. In fact, you can potentially drive through several countries in one day. While many parts of Europe have excellent rail systems that are widely used, driving in Europe is also an easy way to get around.
Train vs. car travel: Which is better in Europe?
The United States seriously lags behind Europe when it comes to public transportation. The USA does not have a developed rail system that interconnects states, cities, or even major urban areas.
While some cities like New York City have metros and rail travel via Amtrak is becoming a more popular across the US, cars are still basically a necessity in the United States. For this reason, many Americans may not be as familiar or comfortable with train travel, particularly between countries. People simply don’t typically travel by train much in the states.
Traveling by train through Europe
In Europe rail travel is more prevalent. It is also relatively inexpensive and convenient to travel by train through Europe. Trains in Europe run fairly regularly and connect many major European cities. The schedules are dependable, and the train cars are typically nice and clean. The seats are somewhat spacious and comfortable, and for a few dollars more, you can usually upgrade to a higher class rail car.
Traveling by car through Europe
While rail travel in Europe is easy and convenient, there are still countries and parts of the continent, like West Sweden, Ireland, Iceland, and the Iberian peninsula, that aren’t well connected by rail. Rural areas, particularly, may have limited rail service, making it easier to rent a car and road trip through Europe.
Our experiences road tripping through Europe
Although we have traveled by train through Europe many times, there have been several places we have visited where driving was more convenient. But depending on where in Europe you’re driving, you could find yourself way out of your comfort zone. Don’t let that discourage you from driving in Europe, though.
We have taken road trips through Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe, Iceland, and the Iberian Peninsula. All of our Europe road trip itineraries had their challenges. But through multiple experiences, there are a few things we’ve learned about planning a driving holiday though Europe.
We decided to share our top Europe road trip tips and advice to help you plan your dream road trip across Europe.
Europe road trips tips: Renting a car in Europe
Renting a car in Europe is a fairly straight forward process, and luckily it is easy to do online. We like to compare prices and rates on AutoEurope first to find the best car rental company to use. It is similar to using Skyscanner to find the best prices on flights.
Choosing a rental car company
Each region of Europe is different, so even if you have a preferred rental car company, they may not be the best option for your European road trip. Although we typically use Hertz rental cars in the United States, we’ve used Thrifty, Sixt, and Hertz when planning a road trip through Europe.
Pricing, availability and locations will vary depending on the region of Europe so we recommend doing your research on AutoEurope and booking in advance.
Consider pricing ‘extras’ when renting a car in Europe
Renting a car in Europe may seem relatively inexpensive at first, but be aware of the extra charges that may come up.
Manual vs. automatic transmission
Many rental cars in Europe have manual transmissions or stick shifts. These cars are typically smaller and much more affordable to rent. However, if you have only driven an automatic, or are not comfortable driving a stick shift vehicle, you may want to upgrade to an automatic transmission car.
Dropping off in another country or location
This is one of the most expensive rental car fees in Europe, but it is necessary if you are planning a road trip through Europe. Dropping off a rental car at a different location can double the cost of renting a car if not triple it. The fees go up even more if dropping off your rental car in a different country. When possible, it is less expensive to pick up and drop off your rental car at the same location, but understandably that is not always ideal. So, be prepared for the price to jump significantly when you factor in a different drop-off location.
Use a credit card that has rental or travel insurance
Some credit cards offer special benefits that specifically apply to travel. We always reserve rental cars using our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit car because it provides the best collision and travel insurance you can get. This helps us avoid paying extra for the rental car company’s insurance. If your credit card does not offer this type of coverage, we strongly recommend purchasing travel insurance as part of the pre-travel planning process.
Europe road trip tips: Highway driving in Europe
Although driving may vary throughout different areas of Europe, there are a few commonalities to consider when planning your Europe road trip itinerary. We’ve included our Central Europe itinerary below, which took us through some of Europe’s most famous cities. Here are some other Central European itineraries you might want to consider, as well.
We could have easily taken a train between most of these cities, but this trip was different. We were traveling with our toddler who was 18 months old at the time. So, we felt it would be better to not be tied to a schedule. So, we opted to explore Europe by car rather than by train.
Much of this Europe road trip itinerary was on highways. If traveling on Europe’s highways, here are a few things you need to know.
Road conditions in Europe
The road system is well maintained in Europe and the highways are just as good as those in the United States.
There’s a reason the highways are in great shape. On several of our trips highway construction seemed commonplace. You may come across a few construction zones where the lanes become extremely narrow. In the United States, there are often concrete barriers that separate you from oncoming traffic in construction zones. In Europe, sometimes there was just a small piece of concrete a few inches high that divides the traffic. Give yourself a bit more time than your mapping app says to to get to your destination, because you could hit some stop and go traffic, even on the highway.
This Europe road trip tip is specifically for those who are planning to travel to Germany and Austria: Respect the Autobahn! The left lane is for passing only! Do not drive in the left lane unless you plan on driving fast. There are no speed limits on the Autobahn when you’re outside of towns. Only a small percentage of people drive like they are competing in NASCAR, but after a few minutes of driving on the Autobahn you will likely encounter a driver or two zip by at around 120 miles per hour or more.
Also, something to keep in mind when renting a car in Europe, the speedometer will be listed in kilometers as are the speed limit signs.
Border crossings in Europe
Driving from one country to another is somewhat like driving from one state to another. You really won’t even know you’ve done it unless you happen to see the small sign next to the road. The signs are usually blue with yellow stars, like the European Union flag, and the name of the country you are entering.
We have come across some border crossings where we had to exit the highway and a border patrol agent did a glance of our car, but even that process was relatively quick.
Don’t forget to purchase a highway vignette
If road tripping across multiple European countries, chances are you are going to have to stop and buy a vignette. A highway vignette is a pass you place in your windshield allowing you to drive on the highways in that country. You can usually purchase them at the first rest stop or gas station after you cross the border into a new country. They are usually only a few dollars or Euros per day.
Gas stations across Europe
Gas stations are easy to find right on the highway. You don’t have to get off at an exit and drive through town to find a place to fuel up.
Your rental car may require diesel fuel, even if it doesn’t look or sound like a typical diesel vehicle you see in the US. Whether your car requires diesel fuel or normal petrol, make sure you are selecting and putting the right fuel in the vehicle. In the US, green pumps are diesel fuel, and black are regular petrol, but in Europe it is the opposite. Green means regular gasoline, and black means diesel!
There is no litter on the side of the road
This should go without saying, but don’t litter in Europe or anywhere else you go. The highways are remarkably clean in Europe. Unlike in the United States, where you’ll sadly see fast food bags and Styrofoam cups that have been tossed out of a car window, in Europe, the roadways are clean. So, keep your trash in the car and toss it when you get to your destination.
International Driver’s License
Some countries in Europe require an International Driver’s License. These are easy to obtain from AAA. It took us about 10 minutes. You will need to physically go into the AAA office to obtain your license, and there is a small fee associated with it. But the license is good for 10 years.
Road Signs in Europe
Learning what road signs mean is always one of the hardest thing about driving in a new country. Most of the signs along the roads in Europe don’t have words on them, only numbers and drawings. Make sure you understand these before you start your road trip.
Europe road trip tips: Driving in cities and towns
While highway driving in Europe comes with it’s own set of traffic rules, cities in Europe can be even more challenging to navigate. Here are some road trip tips for European cities and towns.
City parking in Europe
Parking in small towns is pretty easy. Just like in the United States. In larger cities, parking becomes more of a challenge. Parking in Europe is also expensive! You’ll likely have to pay for street parking, regardless of where you go.
Rather than stop signs or street signals, European cities tend to have a lot more roundabouts. They keep traffic moving and they’re easy to get used to. Although roundabouts can be tricky if road tripping in one of the European countries where you drive on the left.
Streets are narrow in Europe
Rental cars in Europe tend to be smaller than the cars people may be used to driving in the United States. There is good reason for the more compact vehicles, too. Europe, as a whole, tends to be more compact. That generalization definitely includes streets in Europe. If you are planning a road trip in Ireland or plan to rent a car and drive in cities like Lisbon, be aware the streets are much more narrow than you may be used to. It can be stressful, but if you follow one of our top Europe road trip tips, and book with a credit card that has insurance, you won’t be near as stressed.
Pedestrian-only streets in Europe
There are a lot of one-way streets. It’s best to get a GPS device. And as you approach many of the city centers you may find they are pedestrian areas only. Do your research when booking a hotel, as some of them do not offer parking because, well, they’re located in an area of the city where cars are not permitted.
Street cars and trolleys
As mentioned earlier, public transportation is widely used in Europe. Many cities have both metros and street cars or trolleys. If you’re from an area of the world that does not have trolleys, sharing the road with them can be intimidating and confusing. But just know, if you are driving in any major city in Europe, there is a really good chance you will be navigating around trolley cars.
Many European cities seem to have more bicycles than cars on the street. So if planning a road trip through Europe, be prepared to share the road with bicyclists, as well. I always love seeing so many people riding bikes in European cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. However, if driving a car in one of these cities, watch out for cyclists who often ride very close to the cars.
Europe road trip tips: What to do before you leave
There are a few things you should do when planning your road trip through Europe that will make driving in Europe easier.
Download Google Maps or the Maps.Me app
Before your trip, download the offline maps you’ll need for your entire road trip from Google Maps or Maps.me. Both can be used to navigate when you are offline, without requiring WiFi or having your smartphone’s data turned on.
Get an international phone plan
Whether you have to call to check into an apartment or you need to use data to access the internet, an international phone plan is a big help when traveling internationally, particularly if you are visiting multiple countries on your trip.
Download Google Translate
Although many Europeans speak English, you may encounter a scenario in which you need to use the native language. While I always recommend learning a few key words and phrases in the language of any country you visit, Google Translate can be a lifesaver. Download the app and the offline translations for whatever language you may need to use.
Get your international driver’s license
As previously mentioned, many countries require an international driver’s license. This is something you need to secure prior to your trip. If you are American, you can find the application and list of countries that require an international driver’s permit here.
Pros and cons to renting a car and driving in Europe
Pros: You get to see the European countryside, and if you want to stop and snap pictures…you can! You’re on YOUR own time! Not a train’s time. Hiring a car is cheap, at least if you are staying within the same country, and returning the car to the same location. You can often get a BMW for 25 Euro per day.
Cons: If you are hiring a car one-way, and dropping it off in another city or country, prepare to pay a lot more! On our Central Europe road trip, it cost us 700 Euro to rent a car for nine days — 350 of that was a one-way drop-off fee. We picked up the car in Frankfurt, Germany and dropped it off in the country next door — Czech Republic.
For anyone else who has driven through Europe, what are your top Europe road trip tips? Did we miss anything? Leave us a comment and share your own experience or advice.