Updated: May 21, 2022
Well established rail networks, comprehensive air travel corridors, river cruise itineraries and extensive bus services have really opened up corners of the European continent you may not have considered in years past.
Yet despite all roads leading to Rome, many people forget that Europe is also a continent of well connected roadways and some of the most respected auto manufacturing on the planet. Self drive vacations can be a great way to explore a great destination!
Why a Road Trip?
Did you hear about a cute little cafe to try only a few miles off your current route? Enter the address into your navigation system and away you go!
Want to add a stop or skip ahead during your itinerary? Go for it!
When you're driving, you're more in control over how long you spend in a destination or how you enjoy the journey between stops. From a certain perspective it becomes less a matter of do we have time to see it? and more how do we get there now?
Many rules of the road or even local driving habits are similar to those we enjoy at home here in the US, at least outside of any big cities. But your trip could rapidly become a little more Pig in a Poke if you don't plan for success before you show up at the rental counter.
As always, a few lighthearted suggestions from me to help you make better memories and to avoid unnecessary stress or disappointment.
First things first, you’re going to need a vehicle. No point planning a road trip if you can't get a set of wheels to whisk you between cafes & castles!
1. Renting a car might require an IDP or International Driving Permit
An international driving permit is primarily a translation of your licence into the local language where you're headed, making it easier for your rental company workers and local authorities to understand your driving permissions and limitations. It must be accompanied by your valid US driver's license.
You may not be asked for it when you pick up your rental, but you may regardless be required to present it if your actions behind the wheel have been a bit naughty and you've caught the attention of the local police!
Nearly half the European Union requires an international driver's permit at this time. That list includes many popular vacation destinations such as Austria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Spain.
But Europe is famous for its paperwork, things can be a bit more complicated if you're looking to rent anything other than a car.
For example, European licenses tend to be broken up into cars and vans seating fewer than 10 passengers, with motorbikes, scooters, or quad bikes featuring their own distinct license categories or endorsements.
In Greece, for example, without an IDP you'll be limited to a bicycle or maybe an electric assist bicycle if the rental place has them. Any plans you had of a relaxing morning in your hillside villa, then a scooter ride down to the beach through the town... they're not happening without a permit.
If in doubt, the IDP shouldn't cost you more than about US$20 and your time. It'll take a few weeks to process by post, so either secure yours in advance or double check your destination-specific needs about 10-12 weeks before you start packing.
Endorsement can have different meanings
Another note: the term endorsement means different things in different countries.
Where your Greek scooter rental kiosk will ask if you have the right endorsement for the scooter you're trying to rent, in the UK endorsement means you've got a penalty against your driving record!
2. You'll see a lot of roundabouts and not many stop signs
You might know them as traffic circles. They help reduce congestion and are meant to improve safety where you may change direction without crossing oncoming traffic.
But when you're putting your left turn signal on to make a right hand exit following 3/4 of a full circle, you're going to be wondering if it could get any more confusing!
You may also find your foot reaching for the brake at many intersections as there are few stop signs in many cities. Instead you'll be expected to know which vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, tractors, farm animals, etc. have the right of way!
Don't get stuck driving in circles, plan ahead.
There are correct lanes and signals to use depending on where you plan to exit the roundabout and there are even double roundabouts or other complex junctions to contend with. Right of way may be indicated with signage, but you have to know the symbols to understand them.
It might be a good idea to brush up on some of the rules before you hit the road. Sometimes the right of way is called the priority. Review the priority rules and check out a few examples of street signs you might see on the road.
Fun fact: Right of Way comes from the UK's roundabouts, where traffic enters the circle and watches out for/gives way to those already in the circle and approaching from the right!
3. You can drive to some islands
Unless you live in a coastal community, it might seem like something straight out of a
Dr Suess story: My car only floats when it's on a boat, my van takes the train when it's not in the rain...
It's a great convenience being able to drive your vehicle onto a ferry, no longer are island communities out of reach and you can actually drive from Ireland to Scotland or England, continue on to France.
Want to drive through Copenhagen from Berlin and onward to Oslo? No problem, there's a ferry for that.
The Channel Tunnel, or Chunnel as it's affectionately known, is another great option offering a speedy crossing of the English Channel. Connecting Folkestone to Coquelles (roughly Dover to Calais) in as little as 35 minutes of travel time.
Not bad for 30 miles (50km) under the sea! There aren't many places you can just drive onto a train car and come out the other side of a tunnel in another country. It's an interesting experience if lacking in amenities or views.
When you've planned a ferry or tunnel crossing make sure you plan sufficient advanced arrival, similar to air travel; you'll need to drive to a holding area and wait while the vessel approaches, disembarks arriving passengers, and then queue your car up to park on deck.
Depending on your destination, the journey may not be a swift hour or two. Many services offer overnight journeys and even include onboard accommodation. It won't likely be as luxurious as a cruise journey, but some of the amenities may be familiar.
And what do many Europeans like to do when they've got a few hours to themselves in the evening? Wine, beer, something to eat and a bit of a social outing!
4. Drinking? No driving. Not even after one in some places
Europe's famous for its wines, its beers, and sometimes the stronger spirits. There's also a pretty casual approach to enjoying a wee tipple with your meal or afterward. Or at almost any time of day it might seem...
But some of the places with the tastiest brews have a more strict view toward consumption if you plan to drive. With even a single drink accompanying a great meal causing you to blow over the limit.
Popular destinations such as the Czech Republic and Hungary take a very dim view of drink driving, with a zero tolerance approach to a 0.00 blood alcohol limit. Likewise for Slovakia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria, too.
I might joke that many of these nations are those which produce a particular plum brandy known as slivovitz... and if you have to ask, well!
Bottom line: Be careful. Be responsible. Be respectful. Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy yourself and plenty of time to sufficiently recover. If in doubt, don't drive.
If libations feature as one of the core motivations for your trip to Europe, maybe talk to our team about a wine-themed river cruise of France or Portugal, or a long weekend Oktoberfest celebration for you and your friends!
5. The Autobahn was made for drivers
For many of my clients, driving the Autobahn has been the sole purpose of their trip or at least the highlight of a road trip across Europe.
I lived in Germany for a number of years, the Autobahn is an amazing feat of engineering and an absolute pleasure to drive at any time of year.
Even as a concept, the Autobahn is perhaps one of Germany's biggest soft-influence exports, nearly everyone knows there's no speed limit, right?
The German way of precise, practical thinking is exemplified in this roadway. But let's start small - the word Autobahn is simply "motorway" or "highway" to you and I. And up until recently, Germany had more highways than any other country on the planet bar the United States. Much of it without a regular posted speed limit, it's true.
But what they don't tell you is that there are suggested limits, sections with actual posted limits, and a sort of practical limit should any sort of incident occur.
Where you enter a city's limits or where highways merge & exchanges are formed there may be posted speed limits as low as 60 km/hr (about 37mph) or less. There will typically be a series of posted limits starting at 120 km/hr and working their way down as appropriate, but this isn't always the case.
In addition to those posted limits there are also suggested limits. These may be differentiated where limits end in a "0" or a "5". Zeroes for posted, fives for suggested.
As I understand it, outside of obvious merges and other hazards German efficiency has the whole system measured in camber against the gravitational forces exerted on your car through a bend.
They try to keep you under 0.22 Gs. Pretty cool, right?
Enter the Richtgeschwindigkeit. Now say that in your best Arnie accent and try not to laugh!
The practical meaning? A suggested speed limit of 130 km/hr (roughly 81mph) where it is not otherwise signposted.
We want you to be safe and to have a happy experience. That means driving responsibly and within your abilities and those of your vehicle, respecting other road users and the driving conditions at the time. Try to balance that with your speed.
I cannot attest to the certainty of lawful outcomes, but if you do find yourself in a collision and the vehicle data or investigation can show that you were driving in excess of this speed it may be determined that your choice to drive at such speed was a contributing factor to the incident.
Every country has its bad drivers, but the German people are also used to driving the Autobahn and they drive it in a certain way. It's a no nonsense approach to lane discipline and to (typically) safe, responsible driving.
That means that German drivers tend to stick to the rightmost lane until they're ready to pass, then they quickly return to that lane - they'll also themselves be passed by other drivers driving faster than the passing drivers if there are successive lanes on the Autobahn.
Back to that 3.5 years of mine in Germany - no matter how fast I was driving there was always a faster car. Don't be surprised if that faster car is a station wagon with a family in it.
Again, enjoy your driving experience but please be safe!
6. Winter driving can feature special rules
Although many destinations throughout Europe see their busiest periods align with the warmest weather, it's easy to forget that Europe is a lovely place to visit throughout the year.
It's also the birth place of the après ski and home to some of the most luxurious ski resorts on the planet. You could visit a new one each year for the next 1,000 years and barely scratch the surface.
Winter in Europe can be similar to winter in the northeast, you may encounter familiar driving conditions. You may also find that your chalet resort town doesn't permit vehicles at all or that the roads are closed from October to May.
Among snow-capped vistas and winding roadways far more narrow than what you're used to back home, it may be safer to trust the driving to a local driver, not to mention less stress. They'll know the roads and routes, and can effortlessly navigate changes in driving conditions.
If you're determined to drive, be aware of special rules or local requirements. That can include mandatory winter tires or the requirement to carry snow chains.
You won't be expected to fit winter tires to your rental, although they may feature as an optional upgrade. But you will be expected to put the chains on or take them off yourself.
I've yet to meet a client who'd describe fitting snow chains by the side of the road up a mountain in Italy as fun.
7. Rental cars and travel insurance
It may not be the most glamorous part of the planning, I can in fact hear the collective eye rolling of 1,000 readers as I type this, but it's an important part of protecting yourself and your trip investment while you're away from home.
Try not to let it become an afterthought to your trip planning.
When it comes to renting a car in Europe, there's one thing I've noticed with increasing frequency: Rental companies requesting proof of existing coverage where you might want to decline their optional insurance elements, such as the Collision Damage Waiver.
I myself have twice been stopped during the last 18 months, having to dig deep into policy documents to show evidence of existing coverage. Despite having my policy documents to hand, it was still a delay and I can imagine some disappointment if I hadn't had a copy with me - or if I had not secured insurance at all!
But how do you know what coverage you need?
That's a question only you can answer for yourself, but I asked my colleague and friend Damian Tysdal over at Travel Insurance Review to help shed some light on choosing a travel insurance policy for a road trip vacation.
Neither this article nor Damian's commentary should be construed as advice, but here's what he had to say:
"Many plans do offer a Rental Car collision damage upgrade. This covers the rental car, but not other vehicles, property, or drivers.
Some credit cards also cover this if you use the credit card for the rental. I would assume that most rental companies are primarily concerned with their cars, so this type of coverage should be fine to satisfy their requirements.
However, it would be smart for travelers to make sure they have some sort of additional coverage for liability and the other missing gaps in the coverage to other vehicles, people, and property. This is something that an individual liability policy should cover, or an umbrella policy."
In the end, myself and the whole team here at Odyssean Travel would rather hear that your trip was more success, less stress, and that you made some excellent memories.
You might have more stress if you're determined to visit major cities or if you're not a confident driver to begin with. I'd also completely understand if you want someone else to worry about the parking!
Otherwise, have a safe drive and keep these tips in mind as you plan for trip success.