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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.

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.

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.

Europe road trip tips
Crossing a bridge in Denmark. Photo by lucdecleir on Pixabay

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.

Renting a car in Europe
Picking up our rental car at the Thrifty counter in Frankfurt, Germany.

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.

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.

Here is our central Europe road trip itinerary: Frankfurt–> Rothenburg ob der Tauber —> Munich —> Salzburg —> Vienna —> Bratislava —> Brno —> Krakow —> Prague

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.

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

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.

The Autobahn

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.

Parenthood and Passports - Driving in Europe
Driving very fast on the Autobahn in Europe.

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. 

Poland border crossing in Europe
Crossing the border into Poland from Czech Republic.

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!

Europe road trip tips when pumping gas, black pumps are diesel fuel, unlike in the United States
In the US, green pumps are diesel fuel, and black are regular petrol, but in Europe it is the opposite

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.

Parenthood and Passports - Driving in Europe
Road signs in Europe often have pictures only.

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.

When driving in Europe, street parking is limited. One of the best Europe road trip tips is to make sure your hotel has parking.
When driving in Europe, street parking is limited. One of the best Europe road trip tips is to make sure your hotel offers parking.

Roundabouts

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.

Pedestrian only street in Europe
The start of the pedestrian only street in Munich.

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.

The trolley cars in Prague, Czech Republic. Image by Andy Leung from Pixabay

Bicycles

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 - plan to share the road with bicyclists
Bicycles are very common in European cities like Copenhagen.

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.

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12 thoughts on “Europe road trip tips for planning a road trip through Europe”

  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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