Tips for Driving in Europe
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
If you’re touring Europe for three weeks or more, getting a short-term lease may be a better bet than renting. France’s three main automakers, Peugeot, Renault, and Citroën, all offer “buy-back” programs that give non-EU residents the chance to lease a car for as few as 21 days (17 in the case of Citroën). The rates are more affordable, the mileage is unlimited, and the insurance is comprehensive. Caveat: Book ahead. You will need at least a week to arrange a pickup in Paris, and at least three weeks for delivery elsewhere.
Select an Agency
Most name-brand U.S. rental companies have an extensive presence in Europe, especially at airports and railway stations, but local agencies may offer better rates and greater availability outside the major cities. Got a complicated itinerary involving several countries? A broker such as Auto Europe can arrange everything, from a chauffeured airport pickup to an SUV with snow chains.
Choose a Car Class
Thanks to high fuel prices and ancient city streets, Europe’s rental fleet tends toward the petite. A Chevrolet Aveo, one of the smallest cars available for rent in the States, is 12 inches longer than a Renault Twingo, a member of Europe’s mini class. Factor in your luggage when selecting a car. A Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf is ample for two passengers and their bags, while a party of four may require a Peugeot 407 or an Opel Insignia.
Book an Automatic Well in Advance
Manuals are cheaper, but don’t let an attractive rate fool you into reserving a car you can’t drive. If you’re not comfortable driving a stick, make sure you book an automatic—and do it well in advance, since the supply dwindles, especially in southern Europe during the summer months. Also be aware of whether you are getting a diesel or gasoline engine. Putting the wrong type of fuel in your rental can harm the engine, and insurance will often not cover drainage and repairs.
Make Sure You’re Covered
Certain destinations require different insurance considerations. See “European Car Rental Insurance,” ahead, for more details.
Plan Your Return
Many rental depots are closed on Sundays, except those at airports and train stations. And keep an eye on the fuel gauge: filling stations may be closed on Sundays, especially in Italy and Spain.
European Car Rental Insurance
Before you go, check to see if your credit card carries a free Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) on auto rentals. If so, make sure to reserve and pay with that card. You must explicitly decline the rental agency’s CDW at the counter, otherwise you void your coverage with the credit card company. Most cards exclude coverage in Ireland (including Northern Ireland) and many do not cover premium cars, including certain Mercedes models. If your credit card doesn’t offer coverage, you will have to buy it from the agency. Make sure you read the fine print and understand your deductible. It may be worth paying an additional $10 a day for a “zero-deductible” supplement so that you don’t have to pay $1,500 in the event of a fender bender. Theft coverage is a separate requirement in Italy, so don’t be surprised if you have to pay extra (approximately $6–$7 a day) at the counter.
If You Have a Car Accident
Before You Leave: Check travel.state.gov for driving conditions in your destination and whether local law requires you to carry an International Driving Permit in addition to your driver’s license. You can download the necessary forms for a permit at aaa.com.
At the Car-Rental Agency: Be sure you have proper insurance coverage. In case of an accident, you’ll need to have warning triangles, reflective vests, and a first-aid kit in many countries (or face a fine of up to $180), along with a blank European Accident Report if the car gets damaged. Check to make certain your vehicle has them.
At the Scene of an Accident: Don’t sign anything except the European Accident Report, which allows each driver to explain what happened but doesn’t assign blame. In a one-car incident, find the owner of any damaged property to complete a report; if none can be found, leave a note at the scene and be sure to report it at the nearest police station.
After an Accident: Submit the accident report to your rental agency as soon as possible. Failure to submit either the form or a police report could result in your being held responsible for any damages. You should also immediately contact your insurer, if different from the agency, and follow its instructions to ensure coverage.
Top European Car Rental Agencies
Hertz, Avis, and National should cover most of Europe, but here are some alternate options: France’s Europcar (europcar.com) has the most extensive presence on the Continent, while Germany-based Sixt (49-180/525-2525; sixt.com) is a low-cost alternative.
Rental broker Auto Europe (888/223-5555; autoeurope.com) has an extensive network of locations and a wide range of vehicles. All rentals of at least seven days include a free GPS.
Eurocar TT (888/285-8384; citroen-europass.com) arranges short-term leases of brand-new Citroëns, available for pickup at most major airports in Western Europe.
Family-owned Dooley Car Rental (800/331-9301; dandooley.com) has 18 locations across Ireland and fully inclusive rates, so there are no surprises at the counter.
Traffic Rules: Cell Phone Use
The use of a handheld cell phone while driving is prohibited throughout many Western European countries, with some exceptions, including Iceland and Sweden.
Traffic Rules: Children
In most European countries children younger than 12 who are shorter than 4'5" must sit in the back in a booster or car seat. Kids over the age of three in the United Kingdom and older than four in Ireland are allowed in front with a car or booster seat, though be mindful of air bags.
Traffic Rules: Alcohol
Most countries permit blood-alcohol levels of between 0.1 and 0.5 percent (or one to two drinks) while driving, but there are notable exceptions: Russia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, among others, all have a limit of zero.
Traffic Rules: Traffic Speed
Expect highway speed limits to range between 120 to 130 kilometers per hour (75 to 81 miles per hour). The Netherlands recently reduced highway speed limits to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) to combat air and noise pollution.
Traffic Rules: Fines
Be aware that in certain countries—Italy, France, and Spain among them—police will charge you traffic fines on the spot, so be sure to carry ample cash or a credit card or you could face impoundment.
Traffic Rules: Restricted-Traffic Zones
In Italy, many historic centers are open only to cars with special permits, a rule enforced with hidden cameras. In Athens, cars with odd-numbered license plates are allowed in the city center only on odd-numbered dates (and vice versa), while drivers entering central London are subject to the city’s $14–$19 congestion charge.