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