Driving in Europe – Tips For First Time Visitors

Driving in Europe for the first time is a challenging experience, but it can also be a lot of fun and sharpen your driving skills. There are a lot of articles and books that cover road signs, laws and standard information for driving in Europe, but very few talk about the least expensive way to rent a car, what happens when no one speaks English at the rental desk, driving on the autobahn, paying tolls, buying fuel, should you use a GPS, and what to expect from European drivers. These are some of the things I discovered when driving in Europe for the first time and tips that may make your driving experience more enjoyable.

Renting a Car in Europe

Arranging for a car rental while in the U.S. can be simpler, less stressful and cheaper than waiting to do it in Europe. I checked online with several worldwide (Hertz, Avis, Budget ) and European (Auto Europe, Europcar, Sixt) rental companies and found a wide range of rates for France. We wanted to pick up a car outside of Paris to avoid heavy traffic and delays, and decided to take a train to Dijon. I talked to an American Auto Association (AAA) travel agent, who was able to find a lower for France – better than those I had found on-line. AAA’s best rate was with Hertz booking at least thirty days in advance and there was a rental desk at the Dijon train station – perfect for our plans.

Renault Megane Hatchback is a great car for driving in Europe
Renault Megane Hatchback

We rented a Renault Megane hatchback, diesel, manual transmission, compact car, drivers over 25 years, 12 days for $257.00 (US). This was a great deal. To avoid paying for the required insurance, which could be purchased through Hertz, I used the auto insurance provided by my Capital One credit card at no additional charge.(Note: Also, the Capital One credit card did not have a service fee for charging in foreign currency.- a big savings when traveling abroad).

Manual vs. Automatic

When you are driving in Europe, requesting an automatic transmission car could almost double the cost of the rental – provided an automatic is even available. Manual transmissions vehicles are the most common in Europe, and many car rental locations do not have cars with an automatic transmission. With a manual transmission or stick shift you’ll have a wider variety of cars to choose from, pay more attention to your driving, the car will have better power in the mountains – and last but not least – it’s FUN! However, learn to drive a stick shift/manual transmission before going to Europe.

Narrow streets in Europe found while driving in Europe Driving in Europe on the Autobahn Driving in Europe

With heavy traffic on motorways, confusing roundabouts, narrow winding streets in villages, hard to read maps and road signs, impatient drivers, and hills and mountain roads – learning to drive a stick shift in Europe could end up being a nerve-wracking experience. You may have a bumpy ride with a lot of jerking and sputtering as you figure out how to use a clutch.

Diesel vs. Gas/Petrol

If possible, when driving in Europe, rent a car that uses diesel. Diesel is usually is less expensive that than gas/petrol in Europe and gets better mileage. We drove 2800 kilometers and the Megane diesel averaged 60-70 miles per gallon. I kept track of the fuel we used, and was amazed when I did the conversion after returning home. While driving I knew we were getting great mileage with only filling up 4 times, but it surprised me just how good it was.

When buying fuel, if you need diesel, and the pumps do not say diesel, ask. Gasoline will ruin a diesel engine. Plan on pumping your own fuel and at most stations I paid inside after finishing pumping.

Is GPS Helpful?

No mater how much driving in Europe you plan on doing, say yes to a GPS. I decided to use one because it just seemed like it would make life easier and we would not get lost – or at least not as often. Little did I know just how great it would be. We planned our trip using Google Maps on-line and had Michelin maps with us. But, the Garmin Nuvi with preloaded maps of Europe was a life saver. Each day we entered a destination – our next stop, the address of a hotel etc. and instantly saw a route. Along the way if we chose to wander or explore, we would enter recalculate and a new route based on the destination appeared. We could also recalculate a route if we missed a turn, ran into heavy traffic on a motorway and decided to take side roads or had to take a detour due to construction.

Using a GPS in cities lets you easily find museums, restaurants. attractions – almost anything with an address or well-known name. Driving in a foreign city can be stressful with long street names, heavy traffic, roundabouts, circle roads, bicycles, pedestrians and swarms of motorcycles, but thanks to the GPS we easily found our way in locations like Munich, Vienna and Salzburg. Without it would have had a next to impossible finding hotels in the old city centers of Annecy, Fussen and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, with their narrow, winding streets and minimal signage.

You can rent a GPS as an option with most car rentals. Before doing this compare the price of renting the GPS versus buying. I found last years’ model of a Garmin Nuvi with pre-loaded U.S. and Europe maps on sale at Amazon for less than renting one for 12 days. Try to find pre-loaded maps of Europe – it’s easier than adding them later.

Look up in the manual or on-line ahead of time how to turn on the maps when you arrive in Europe. If you start in the U.S. with North American maps, maps of Europe will not automatically appear when you get there. To switch between maps on my Garmin, I click on the wrench symbol, then the map icon and then “map info”. Two maps are listed with check marks next to them. Check the map you want to use. This switches between maps.

This is a good website for information about Garmin and other GPS units.

Final Tips if Your’re Driving in Europe

  • Be prepared for smaller cars. Economy class fit only two adults and three suitcases in the trunk. The back seat is tiny.
  • Have the right license. While a U.S. driver’s license is acceptable in many parts of Europe, some countries may require an international driving permit. You can get one through AAA. Also keep your passports close at hand. You made need them if you are stopped.
  • Be familiar with the metric system. Distance in Europe is measured in kilometers rather than miles, and gas or diesel is sold by the liter.
  • Know the meaning of red and blue on road signs. Red is a warning, while blue on a road sign lets you know there’s a service ahead, such as a garage, rest area or place to eat.
  • If you get into trouble, dial 112, the emergency number for the European Union.
  • Carry change in the currency of the country where you are traveling. Many toll booths are just machines and not all take credit cards.
Next time: Driving on the Autobahn. What is it really like?