Backpacking through Europe has become somewhat of a rite of passage in every traveler’s life. While most backpackers opt for a combination of train, bus or plane, an often overlooked option is the rental car. Consider the flexibility that a road trip offers versus other types of transportation: you can come and go on your own timetable; impromptu stops are part of the fun; and, best of all, you can control your own air conditioning and radio station. Here’s how to make the most of a European road trip!
Book in Advance
Most people assume that renting a car will be prohibitively expensive, but that isn’t always the case. To get the best price, book WELL in advance—three months or more is ideal. Shop around for the best rates; the difference between companies can be significant. Don’t forget to account for gas and tolls in your budgeting.
The Smaller, the Better
Things in Europe tend to be a little bit smaller, including parking spaces and garages. Some companies assume North Americans prefer larger cars and may offer a free upgrade. You’d be wise to politely decline. As a bonus, smaller cars tend to be more fuel efficient.
You’ll notice that there a lot of scratched up cars in Europe—trust me, you’ll want insurance. The insurance offered by the rental company can be quite expensive—I was once offered insurance that was more expensive than the rental itself! Many credit card companies offer insurance on car rentals, just be sure that you charge your car-rental related expenses to that same card (including your initial booking and deposit).
Make Sure Your Itinerary is Car-Friendly
Everything seems close together in Europe, but maps and atlases can be deceiving. If you’re planning on exploring Europe from end-to-end, a car might not be your best option. But if you plan on focusing on a specific geographical area, a road trip could be the way to go.
Find a Trusty Co-Pilot and a Compatible GPS
The three most invaluable road trip tools: a good (and patient) road trip partner; an updated GPS with European data; and a stack of good old fashioned maps, just in case. You’ll want a dependable co-pilot to help navigate—you won’t want to be glancing down at your GPS as it mangles foreign pronunciations while you’re winding up tight switchbacks.
Learn the Local Rules
Driving laws vary, so do some homework to find out what laws differ from what you are used to. Some of the most important rules are unspoken, like how to properly navigate a roundabout and when to pull to the side to let a speedster pass you. Master these skills to avoid angry honks and expletives.
Be Able to Drive Stick
Not only are standards rental cars cheaper than automatic, but it some places, they might be the only option. You don’t want to be learning how to drive stick in a foreign country, so if you’re not already proficient, start practicing!
Plan for Spontaneity
You never know what kind of bizarre tourist attraction (crocodile farm!) or spectacular scenery you might pass by on the road. When planning your days, allow plenty of extra time to explore your surroundings. With a car at your disposal, there’s no need to jet from city to city! Maybe you don’t want to spend a whole day in a tiny village, but how about stopping for a picnic and to stretch your legs?
Consider Your Parking Needs
When booking hotels and hostels, be sure to inquire about parking availability and rates. In large cities, it’s usually easier to leave your car parked and explore the sites by foot or by using public transportation.
Driving between Germany and Austria on a Sunday? You’ll see some charming buildings and fields upon fields of sheep, but don’t expect to pass any service stations (or even open cafes) en route. Carry plenty of car snacks along, and pop some bread, cheese and cured meats into a cooler for an easy lunch.