A road trip is one of my absolute favorite ways to travel in Europe! You have so much more flexibility and can get to those off-the-beaten-path spots where trains and buses won’t take you. Planning a European road trip is really simple these days. With GPS available, either from the rental agency or on your phone, all you need are a few tips and you’ll be ready to hit the road!
Honestly, I enjoy driving in Europe much more than in the US. People are better at driving and the landscapes are insanely gorgeous! Over the last thirteen years, I’ve driven all over the continent. I’ve managed to drive and camp around the entire island of Iceland, figure out driving on the opposite side with a stick shift in the UK, find my way through crazy mountain roads in the Balkans, and cover hundreds of miles across Western Europe. If I can do it, I promise you can do it too!
In this article, you’ll learn what you need for renting a car, the steps to planning a European road trip, and tips for making a stress-free experience. Are you ready? Let’s do this!
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Steps to Planning a European Road Trip
- Choose your starting and ending points (look for cheap flights first!)
- Book your rental car
- Brainstorm routes between the two points
- Choose your route and build your Itinerary
- Go have a grand adventure!
What to Know About Renting A Car in Europe
Renting a car in Europe is almost as easy as renting a car at home, if you’re from the US. Below you’ll find answers to the most common questions I get about planning a European road trip. Let’s get to it! Kayak is where I start my research for rental cars then I typically make the reservation directly with the agency.
Do you need an international drivers license?
Nope. Your US driver's license is all you need to rent a car in Europe. You don’t need to have an international driving permit. If you’re under 25 you may still be able to rent a car from some companies but it’s going to cost significantly more.
Will my regular car insurance cover my rental in Europe?
No, but you may have a credit card that covers the incidental insurance (usually called CDW - collision damage waiver). This means you won’t have to purchase it from the agency, which they’ll always try to sell you. The easiest way to find out is to log into your credit card account and look for “benefits”. If you can’t find it there, call the customer service line and they’ll be able to tell you if you have the coverage. You may need to print paperwork to take with you, but they’ll give you all the details. Be sure to ask which countries the insurance includes.
Are there differences in driving from country to country?
Yes! Some countries have a permit or vignette that you need to purchase for driving in that country. When I was on my Balkans road trip, I had to buy a separate pass for both Slovenia and Hungary but not the others. The passes are inexpensive and can usually be purchased at the local gas stations once you cross the border. Usually all you need is the license plate number of your rental car. They may register it electronically so you won’t have anything to display or you may receive a sticker to put in the windshield.
Can I take the rental car from one country to another?
It depends. When you’re making the reservation, look for a place to enter the countries you want to visit or for a list of places you can take the rental car without penalty. In Western Europe you don’t have to worry about border crossings and showing paperwork. However, once you reach a place where neighboring countries aren’t all EU (the Balkans especially) you’ll have to stop at the border and show the necessary paperwork. Just ask the rental agent which papers you’ll need to show. I’ve done this across many borders and never had a problem!
Planning A European Road Trip Step 1: Choose Your Starting Point
One of the most difficult parts of planning any international trip is choosing where to go! Europe has so many incredible places to see that it really is a challenge. You may already know exactly where you want to go and what you want to do. If that’s the case, feel free to skip this section! If you’re not sure exactly where you want to go, don’t worry, I’ve got some tips to help you figure it out.There are a few things that help narrow down your choices. First, knowing what type of traveler you are can help you decide what kind of experience you’ll enjoy most. Next, look for cheap flights! I’m a huge advocate for building your trip around affordable flights! If you still haven’t figured out a starting point after going through those, here’s an article with more tips on how to choose a destination.
Planning A European Road Trip Step 2: Choose Your End Point
Once you know where you’ll start your road trip, it’s time to decide where your trip will end. There are a few ways you can do this. You can pick up and drop off in the same location and simply make a loop with your itinerary. If there’s another destination you really want to visit, you can make that your end point and build your itinerary with stops in between.
If you found a cheap roundtrip flight to and from the same destination, then doing a loop makes sense. You can also search for one-way flights -- one to your starting point and one home from your desired end-point. Like I said before, I’m a fan of building my itinerary around cheap flights. There are so many wonderful things to see that you can come up with incredible itinerary ideas between any two points in Europe!
One thing to know is that if you choose to pick up in one location and drop off in another, there’s typically a one-way rental fee associated with it. It’s usually around $150 but prices do vary.How much distance you can cover on your road trip will depend on how much time you have to spend. Personally, I don’t really like one-night stays. Packing up and moving every single day gets old and it’s more difficult to really immerse yourself in the destination. My recommendation would be to brainstorm itinerary ideas that allow you at least two nights in every place you’ll stop. I use Google Maps for mapping out my itinerary ideas. Here’s an article about planning your trip using Google Maps.
Planning A European Road Trip Step 3: Build an Itinerary
Now that you’ve determined your beginning and ending points, it’s time to decide what you want to see in between. When you’re planning a European road trip there’s no shortage of incredible options for your itinerary! For me, it’s easiest when I can see all the different route options in one place so I’ll create a custom map in Google Maps and make each itinerary idea its own layer.
When I’m planning a European road trip, I look at the drive time between each stop. Personally, I don’t want to spend more than four hours in the car on any given day. This means I don’t cover as much ground but that I get to spend more time in each place. As always, this is about creating your ideal experience so go with what sounds most awesome to you. Just keep in mind the balance of driving and exploring.If you’re going to be traveling in the summer months, you’ll probably want to pre-book your accommodations since that’s the busiest time of year for tourism. If you’re traveling during the slower times, you can decide as you go and find your accommodations last-minute. There’s no right way to go about it so choose whatever like the most fun and gives you the peace of mind you need to enjoy the experience. Here’s an article with everything you need to know about planning your Europe trip to help with the rest of the details.
What You Need to Know About Driving in Europe
There are a few things to keep in mind when you’re planning a European road trip. These tips will prepare you for driving anywhere on the continent.
Driving on the Opposite Side
Depending on your destination, you may find yourself driving on the opposite side of the road than you’re used to. It’s not that difficult I promise! A friend once gave me the best possible way to remember where you’re supposed to be -- the driver should always be closest to the center line. Keep that in mind and you’ll do just fine!
Regional Differences in Driving
Some countries, like France, have toll roads that you’ll have to pay for. Other countries, like those in the Balkans, don’t have much highway so you’ll spend most of your time on two-lane roads where you’ll definitely want to pass that slow truck so be prepared. In places like Rome, you’ll need to keep a close watch for scooters zipping in and out of traffic. All of these situations are easy enough to navigate as long as you’re paying attention.
This is my #1 pet peeve with American drivers and you’ll find yourself with horns blaring and headlights flashing behind you if you don’t observe this one -- stay out of the left lane unless you are actively passing another car! If you’re on the Autobahn in Germany and don’t observe this rule, you could be endangering yourself and others. Some people are driving so fast that they’ll go from a spot in your rearview to on your bumper in a matter of seconds.
Roundabouts are more common than traffic lights in many places. You may encounter some with multiple lanes and traffic lights all at the same time, which is an adventure of its own! Make sure you brush up on your roundabout knowledge if you’re a little rusty. Here’s a super short video that gives you all the info!
Fueling Your CarUnlike in the US, many passenger vehicles in Europe run on diesel fuel so be sure to ask about the fuel type when you pick up your rental. Just to make things extra confusing, the nozzle colors at European gas stations are the opposite of the States. In Europe, green is typically used for unleaded standard fuel and black is for diesel. Slow down and make sure you fill with the correct fuel type to avoid having a costly and time-consuming breakdown. Fuel prices in Europe are typically double what you’ll pay in the US so choose the smallest rental that will work for your needs and plan for the cost in your travel budget.
3 Tips to Make the Most of Your Road Trip in Europe
When you’re planning a European road trip there’s more to consider than just renting the car. You’ll need to think about parking, accommodations, and navigating. Here are a few tips to make sure your road trip goes smoothly.
- Save the rental agency’s phone and their roadside assistance numbers in your contacts in case you need it.
- Look for accommodations with free parking. This may be trickier to find in the middle of the city so look for places outside the center near a public transportation stop. This article has tips for finding and saving on accommodations.
- Use the accommodation wifi to map your route in Google Maps before heading out. It will download the route and navigate you even if your data is off. You can also opt to get GPS with your car (usually €5 to €15 per day) or purchase an analog road map from the gas station.
Like I said at the beginning, the freedom that comes with driving is one of my absolute favorite ways to explore the continent. I hope you feel more confident about planning a European road trip after reading this article!
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If planning it all on your own is a little overwhelming, I’ve got you! You can talk to a real person (me!) about your travel plans and get a little help figuring out the details. If that sounds helpful, check out these travel consulting services designed specifically for indie travelers. You’ll keep full control of your trip and get only the help you want!
Now get out there. The world is waiting for you!
Have you tried planning a European road trip? How did it go? What questions do you still have?
Share your experience or ask your questions in the comments!
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As someone who has been to Europe many times, I must say this is a great guide! I love that you included detail about rental cars from country to country…it can definitely get a bit confusing, so that was very helpful.
Ah, I’m so happy to hear this was on point! 🙂
The biggest bummer about a road trip right now is the high cost of gasoline. It is over $5 a gallon in the US. But I love to experience new locales through slow travel, like car or train.
I agree, the gas prices may be prohibitive right now. I’m hopeful that this won’t always be the case. 🙂
We are road tripping through Ireland this summer! Not my first road trip across Europe, but my first on the left side of the road. GREAT tips! I am saving this post for future reference.
Ooh, road tripping in Ireland is so much fun! You’re going to have a wonderful time. 🙂
Oh yes! It is extremely important to find accommodation that has free parking on the premises. I recently visited a hilly city in India, and it was a nightmare when it came to parking. The parking space was 100-200 meters away from where I stayed. And it is quite tiring to walk on sloppy roads.
Oh wow, that sounds like a nightmare! It’s one of those things that’s easy to forget so I wanted to make sure I mentioned it. 🙂
Thank you very much Annie…!
You’re so welcome! Thanks for reading, Joseph!