Renting a car anywhere can feel like a daunting task, but especially so if you’re driving in Europe. Between the rules of the road, the possibility of driving on a different side and the varying laws, there’s a lot to consider. Despite some of the initial challenges of navigating, however, driving a car is a great way to see many European countries. This is especially true if you’re traveling to country without a well connected public transportation network or seeing places off the beaten path. Plus, renting a car can be an easier and more cost effective mode of transportation if you’re traveling with a family. Keep reading for several things to consider when you’re renting and driving a car in Europe.
Note: These tips apply to anyone, but they’re especially useful if you’re a US driver planning to drive in Europe.
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Check Which Side of the Road You’re Driving On
While we’re used to driving on the right side of the road in the United States, it varies in Europe. Our first experience driving in Europe was on a trip to Germany, and fortunately we were able to stick to the right side of the road. Ireland is a whole different ball game. Not only do you need to drive on the left side of the road, but the traffic patterns are a bit confusing and there are so many roundabouts. Nothing like stepping off an overnight flight where you got zero sleep, right into a left driving lane. (I owe my husband big time for that!)
For a full list of which countries drive on the left or right side, see here.
Book Car Rentals in Advance when Driving in Europe
I’ve found that rates can get higher for any rental car company or location if you wait to book. (This applies in both the US and Europe.) I always try to book my rental car as soon as I book my trip with a flexible option that allows me to modify my booking if my plans change. If your plans are set in stone and you’re booking a rental car closer to your trip, however, you can often save money by paying for your rental car ahead of time. Keep in mind that most people in Europe drive cars with a manual transmission, which means automatic cars are at a premium. If you need an automatic car in Europe, it’s even more reason to book early.
Be sure to also notify your rental car provider if you plan to cross boarders during your trip. There can be additional fees to drive outside of the country you’re renting from.
Rent the Smallest Car You Can to Hold Your Group and Luggage
Unless you’re sticking to main highways in Europe, many of the roads can be tight and winding. Plus, parking can be tricky and limited to cramped street parking, even in the smallest of towns. The easiest way to maneuver the roads and parking in Europe is to rent a smaller car.
Just be careful that the car isn’t so small that it won’t fit your luggage. Many smaller cars that seat 4 only have enough truck space for 2 full size suitcases.
Consider Using a US Based Rental Car Provider in Europe
We typically use Enterprise Rent-a-Car or Avis in the US. Given that we belong to those loyalty programs, we’ve also used them when traveling to Europe. Using a US-based rental car provider also makes it easier to contact them when you’re having issues with your booking and travel. (This held true for us on our recent trip to Ireland when we had to reschedule our rental at the last minute due to our flight out being cancelled.)
In addition to Avis and Enterprise, Hertz is another US rental car company that also offers rental cars in Europe.
Check Your Insurance Coverage before Driving in Europe
I’m not an insurance expert by any means, but there are several things you need to consider when renting a car in Europe.
- Although your US based personal auto insurance will typically cover you (at least partially) if you’re renting a car in the US, that doesn’t apply to Europe.
- Some countries in Europe offer basic liability coverage in the rental fee, but this varies from country to country.
- Be sure to understand your options and coverage from both a personal liability and collision and damage perspective.
- US Credit cards aren’t consistent about including European continues under collision and damage waivers. Be sure to check if the country you’re driving too is covered under your credit card’s rental car insurance. Chase Sapphire Preferred is our favorite credit card when it comes to travel and coverage. If you’re interested, sign up through my referral link here to get 60,000 points after qualifying purchases.
I definitely recommend confirming your rental car insurance coverage in Europe prior to your trip. This will help ensure that you’re not overpaying or under covered while driving in Europe.
Be Prepared if Anything Happens When You’re Driving in Europe
Similar to rental car insurance, you should also read and understand what’s covered by the rental car agency if you have an issue or your car breaks down. (Most offer some form of roadside assistance.) On our recent trip to Northern Ireland, we had a car battery die unexpectedly. We were fortunate in that the local auto shop was able to jumpstart our car. Had we not been in a small, friendly town where everyone was willing to help, we definitely would have had to call roadside assistance.
To this end, I also recommend making sure your phones are activated for use in Europe in the case of emergency. Given how much driving we were doing and that I needed my phone for activities related to this blog, I used Verizon’s Travelpass to have ensure I had the same coverage while in Europe. Depending on your phone usage needs and coverage, pre-purchased SIM cards are also an option. (And often a much less expensive choice.)
Find out if You Need an International Driver’s Permit
In Germany and Ireland, you’re able to drive just with your US driver’s license. This varies from country to country however, and some countries require you to obtain an International Driver’s Permit. You can get an International Driver’s Permit at AAA for a fee, and you only need proof of your US driver’s license to apply. (There’s not a special test or anything of that nature to get approved.)
For more on getting an international driver’s permit, check out the US Driving and Road Safety Abroad Page.
Know the Rules of the Road in the Country You’re Visiting
It’s definitely worth doing some research in advance of your drive so you’re not overwhelmed when you get in front of the wheel. On the autobahn in Germany for example, drivers strictly follow the passing on the left rule. (That means you’ll never find people lingering in the left lane like we do in the US. Unless they’re a tourist who doesn’t know any better!)
In Ireland, since you drive on the left, you pass on the right. Ireland is also infamous for the ever confusing roundabouts, which can be especially tricky as you’re adjusting to driving on the other side of the road.
Turning right on red is also against the law everywhere in Europe, unless there’s a sign that indicates this is allowed. This is the opposite of the US, where turning right on red is legal unless a sign forbids it.
Additional Considerations for Driving in Europe
- Check the carseat laws if you’re driving with kids. Most countries require a car seat for kids under 3 and then booster seats or other child safety restraints for older kids. (Taxis are excluded from this in many European countries.) Our favorite travel car seat is this lightweight car seat that can be used rear facing or forward facing.
- Many countries have toll roads that allow you to pay with cash or credit card. Some countries like Austria, Switzerland and Hungary require vignettes. These are driving stickers that need to be displayed in order to drive in that country.
- Getting gas in Europe can vary. Typically, you can self pump your gas in Europe, but you need to pay for it inside before pumping.
- Bring a map as backup if you get lost. Most countries work well with Google Maps or even offline maps on your phone, but you never know when your phone will die or become unreliable.
- Parking in Europe differs by city and country, just like in the US. When we were in Northern Ireland, parking was free almost everywhere that we visited. (Including the Belfast neighborhood we were staying in.) In Dublin, parking was free on the weekends where we were staying, but a parking permit was required from Mon-Fri.
- Be on the lookout for scenic overlooks so your driver can stop and enjoy the views too!
Have you driven in Europe before? What are some things you would add here?
Related Post: How to Survive Long Car Rides with a Baby
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