Unlike the United States where it take days – if not weeks – to drive across the country, in Europe you could potentially drive through several countries in a day. And while Europe may have an excellent and widely used rail system, driving in Europe is also an easy way to get around.

Most people in the United States may think it’s bizarre to use ground transportation to travel between various countries. Although the US has some limited rail service provided by Amtrak, people don’t typically travel by train in the states. And driving, well, Americans do love to drive. But only in a land where you drive on the right side of the road and all the signs look the same as they do back home.

Depending on where in Europe you’re driving, you could find yourself way out of your comfort zone. But don’t let that discourage you from driving in Europe.

Our experience driving in Europe

We took a road trip across Central Europe that started in Germany and ended in Czech Republic. Although Europe is the smallest continent, a road trip in Europe can still take some time. For example, on a map Frankfurt is about 1″ away from Munich, but I promise it takes longer than you might expect to travel between the two cities. That’s why on our European adventure we decided to HIRE a car! Yes…we hired a car. In Europe they don’t say “rent” a car, they say “hire” a car. And our experience driving in Europe was…AWESOME!

Parenthood and Passports - Driving in Europe

So here’s how our itinerary went: Frankfurt–> Rothenburg ob der Tauber –> Munchen (Munich) —> Salzburg —> Wien (Vienna) —> Bratislava —> Brno —> Krakow —> Prague

Although our itinerary took us through some of Central Europe’s most famous cities, there are other Central European itineraries you might want to consider, as well. We could have easily taken a train between all the cities we visited because Europe has an incredible rail system. But this trip was different. You see, we had a little girl (18 months at the time) who was still testing out how loud she could scream. So we felt it would be better for her to exercise her vocals in a car rather than on a train.

It was the best thing we could’ve done.

Highway driving in Europe

There are some things you need to know if you’re driving on the highway in Europe.

Roads

The road system is quite good and the highways are just as good, if not better, than what you’ll find in the states.

Construction

There’s a reason the highways are in great shape. They like to do construction on them! You’ll come across a few construction spots and sometimes it can be kind of scary. In America we have concrete walls that separate traffic in construction zones. In Europe sometimes there’s just a small piece of concrete that is a few inches high that separates you from oncoming traffic. Yeah…that was kind of scary. But we managed to survive. With that said, give yourself a bit more time to get to your destination, because you could will hit some stop and go traffic.

Parenthood and Passports - Driving in Europe
Driving in Europe on a typical highway.

Border crossings

Driving from one country to another is just 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 that is usually blue, has some stars on it, and says the name of the country.   

Parenthood and Passports - Driving in Europe
Border crossing in Europe.

Gas stations

Gas stations are easy to find, and there are many that are right on the highway. You don’t have to get off at an exit and drive through town to find them.

The Autobahn

Parenthood and Passports - Driving in Europe
Driving on the Autobahn in Europe. Don’t try this at home.

This is specifically for Germany and Austria: Respect the Autobahn! The left lane is for passing only! Do not, I repeat, do not hang out in the left lane. Not everyone drives lightning fast… actually…only a small percentage do. But chances are you will find them. Americans won’t get this right away. But after a few minutes of driving on the Autobahn you will encounter a driver coming up on you fast. There are no speed limits on the Autobahn when you’re outside of the towns. We didn’t see a single accident, either. There’s no speed limit, yet people know how to drive.

There is no litter on the side of the road

This should go without saying. The highways are remarkably clean in Europe. No litter. So keep your trash in the car!

International Driver’s License

It’s best to get an International Driver’s License. These are easy to obtain from AAA. I got mine within about 10 minutes, but you will need to physically go into the office to do so, and there is a small fee associated with it.

Road Signs in Europe

Parenthood and Passports - Driving in Europe
Road signs in Europe.

The hardest thing was learning the traffic signs. Most don’t have words on them, only numbers and drawings. Make sure you understand these BEFORE you drive.   

Driving in Towns

Here are some things you need to know while driving in a European town (big or small):

Parking

Parenthood and Passports - Driving in Europe

Parking in small towns is pretty easy. Just like in the states.  But parking in Europe is expensive! You’ll pay no matter where you go.

City Streets

Parenthood and Passports - Driving in Europe
Pedestrian only area in Munich

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.

Other things you just need to know about driving in Europe

  • Your car could likely require diesel fuel, even if it doesn’t look or sound like a typical diesel vehicle.
  • Know your gas pumps! In the states a green pump means it’s a diesel pump. In Europe green means regular gas. Black means diesel!
  • Some countries make you buy a driving pass. They’re call Vignettes. There are plenty of places to buy these when you enter a country.
    Parenthood and Passports - Driving in Europe

Pros and cons to hiring a car 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 get a BMW for Euro 25/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 recent trip it cost us Euro 700 to hire 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 — Prague, Czech Republic.

For anyone else who has road tripped across Europe, what would you add to this list? Did we miss anything? Leave us a comment and share your own experience or advice.

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Parenthood and Passports - Driving in Europe

12 thoughts on “Driving in Europe: What You Need to Know”

  1. This article made me laugh because it took me back to my time driving in Europe! Trying to remember to drive on the “wrong” side of the street, remembering KPH instead of MPH, trying to figure out street signs. Such a struggle that was so stressful then but hilarious to think about now!

  2. Although mainland Europe mostly drive on the opposite side of the road to us (I think! I don’t really know, I can’t drive haha) a lot of the rules and little tidbits are very much the same, so as a Brit it was really interesting reading this from an outsider’s perspective.

    1. Most Americans seem to worry about driving in other countries and not knowing traffic laws, etc (at least the ones I’ve talked to)… But we found driving in mainland Europe was pretty much the same as in the states. We had to get used to the metric system, and we had to remember to buy those driving passes at most of the border crossings. The UK was probably the most confusing, though, from an outsider’s perspective. Just getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road took a little effort.

    1. We found the UK the most stressful actually! Just because of the opposite side of the road thing… But it was exciting, and a new experience for us. All of the roundabouts in the UK were another confusing aspect to driving there.

  3. I’ve always been afraid of driving in countries where they drive on the other side of the road. These tips are extremely helpful and eases a little bit of my international driving anxiety. Thanks!

  4. I remember driving around Europe for the first time and learning the left lane rule the hard way haha Great tips in here! And love how they say ‘hire’ a car! Great tip also on the green and black on the gas pump handles. That can be a real doozy!

  5. I’ve driven in a number of countries as I find it a little more freeing than catching public transport, but it’s always good to be reminded of the struggles we have forgotten about. I’ve never found it difficult to change sides of car or road to drive, but things like remembering the correct fuel can be a very expensive lesson, as the couple in Portugal who rented the van before us found out when they put petrol into a diesel engine…
    One thing I would add to your list, as a result of their experience, don’t skimp on insurance! Take full comprehensive coverage if your credit card doesn’t cover it for you!

  6. Oh I miss my roadtripping through Europe days. When I lived in Belgium we drove everywhere. I loved being able to stop whenever I wanted to get a picture of the view.

  7. I have driven in Europe quite a bit, mainly in France, Spain and Greece, and for me that is the wrong side of the road!! It’s quite enjoyable though as I find the roads so much less crowded that in the UK. I guess that Americans will also have an issue if they hire a manual car as all the cars I have had in Europe have been manual!! I prefer manuals but then an automatic was nice when I was doing loads of miles in the US 🙂

  8. We drove in Croatia, Bosnia, and Greece last summer. Thankfully we didn’t run into any problems, but I’d imagine it to be difficult if we had to drive on the opposite side of the road!! I think the biggest issue was finding automatic cars. We’ll be going to Italy next year and can’t decide whether we want to chance it since it’s on the opposite side… yikes!

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