You’re driving along a cliff-hugging road in Italy, stealing glimpses at the Mediterranean below, when you realize that the tank’s nearly empty. Wait: which is it, gas or diesel? If only you’d remembered to ask when you picked up the rental. Making the wrong choice at the pump will cost you, and insurance won’t cover it.
There’s a lot to know before you get behind the wheel in Europe, where car fleets, road signs, hidden traffic cameras—even the preference for stick shift—can be intimidating to American drivers. But don’t give up and book that bus tour just yet; we’ve done the research to make it easy for you to embrace the freedom of the open European road.
Insurance, for starters, is a major area of confusion for travelers. Learn the ins and outs of the collision damage waiver (CDW) and make sure you’re not paying for coverage that your credit card account already includes—just beware of one European country that’s the exception to this rule.
You should also get familiar with the short-term-lease option, which can make sense if you’re traveling for longer periods, and find out which companies can arrange it. Name-brand rental agencies such as Hertz and Avis aren’t your only option. Europcar is the Continent’s biggest agency, and its counters can be found from the northernmost reaches of Norway down to the islands of the Mediterranean.
Once you’re motoring, keep in mind the rules for where police are permitted to collect fines on the spot (no, it’s not a bribe) and where drivers cannot consume a single alcoholic beverage. Hopefully it’s just the breathtaking scenery that forces you to pull over, but just in case, be aware of what to do if you get into a Continental collision.
We’ve covered these scenarios and more, so read on for everything you need to know to negotiate Europe’s roads—and then get moving! —Jennifer Coogan