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Driving in Europe

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ABOVE: A vintage cabriolet on a corniche road in Luxembourg. INSET BELOW: Minicars in Montmarte, Parisian parking.

photoCar travel in Europe can be a joy or a nightmare, depending on where and when you drive. During August, when countless millions of Europeans pack up their family cars and drive to the beaches or mountains, traffic jams can rob even the most scenic European touring routes of their charm. And at any time of year, driving in a major city like London, Paris, or Rome can be nerve-wracking (or at least unpleasant) to the foreign tourist.

When to come

Spring and fall are the best times for a motoring vacation in Northern and Central Europe. In Southern Europe, winter can also be pleasant if you avoid the Christmas break. If your vacation is tied to the school calendar, try visiting in June, before the summer season reaches its peak.

Where to go

photoMany tourists, especially those from North America, make the mistake of planning car itineraries built around Europe's largest cities. They end up having to cope with nerve-wracking traffic, scarce parking, and unfamiliar regulations--all while trying to catch a glimpse of the sights through a mass of cars, motorscooters, bikes, and tour buses.

Other driving strategies are more practical:

  • Take the train between major cities. Rent cars for local or regional excursions, or for legs of your trip (e.g., Paris to the Riviera) where you  want to stop and enjoy sights along the way.
  • Plan a motoring tour around smaller cities and towns. Enjoy your week in London or Paris without a vehicle, then pick up your rental car and start driving. Save other big cities for a future trip. (And don't be tempted to stay in a suburban hotel and commute into the city center--you'll miss out on the essence of the cities you're visiting.)
  • Visit a country like Denmark, Norway, or Sweden where even the largest cities are relatively car-friendly and you can leave town for driving excursions with a minimum of hassle.

Tips on renting a car

Peugeot Traveller

ABOVE: The Peugeot Traveller van on a European highway. Residents of countries outside the U.S. can save money with short-term tourist leases from Peugeot.

  • Comparison shop. Check prices at European brokers that specialize in leisure rentals and short-term leasing programs. Check each company's age restrictions if you're under 25 or over 65, and see "Lease for longer trips" below.

  • Plan carefully. Rent a car for only as long as you'll need it, to avoid early-return penalties. If you're on a budget, avoid drop-off charges by planning a circular itinerary.

  • Book ahead. If you live outside Europe, you're likely to get a better deal by making arrangements from abroad.

  • Lease for longer trips. A short-term car lease can save money on rentals of 21 days or more. Such "buy back" or "purchase-repurchase" leases are especially useful for students and senior citizens, since age restrictions are minimal.

  • Buy a pass. A Rail 'n Drive Pass combines the speed and comfort of train travel with the convenience of a vehicle for local excursions.

  • Think small. Fuel is expensive in Europe, streets are narrow in many cities, and small cars are easier to park than large ones. Unless you need a large car or van, stick with a small to midsize car.

  • Shift for yourself. Cars with automatic transmissions can be hard to find and expensive to rent in many countries. They also use more fuel. (Exception: If you're uncomfortable with the idea of shifting gears with your left hand, a car with automatic transmission may be worth the extra cost in Britain and Ireland.)

  • Important note: If you're picking up a car outside the European Union, you may encounter bureaucratic hassles if you later decide to drop the car off in an EU country. To avoid potential problems, ask for a car that's regisftered in the EU if you plan to drive there.

Tips on driving in Europe

  • Prepare at home. European regulations, driving customs, and road signs can be confusing to foreigners, so use the information resources below to learn the basics ahead of time.

  • Be alert. If you're from North America, forget about turning on the cruise control and floating along in the left lane while listening to Santana and slurping coffee from your MegaMug. You could have a panic attack when a BMW comes tearing up behind you, left flasher blinking, at 250 km/h (156 mph) or faster. And if you've never had to enter or exit a traffic circle (a.k.a. rotary or roundabout) in heavy traffic, get ready for a new experience--especially if local laws give priority to traffic coming from the right.

  • Carry an International Driving Permit. This passport-like document (sometimes called an International Driver's License) is a translation of your home license. It's required in some countries and optional in others, but it's well worth having to avoid problems if you're stopped by the police or want to rent a car in a foreign country. See our International Driving Permit article.

Related articles

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ABOVE: The Peugeot Partner is a popular crossover vehicle in Europe.

Car Rentals: When to Rent, When to Lease europeforvisitors.com
Use the comparison chart in this article to help determine whether you should consider a traditional car rental or a short-term lease.

Rental-Car Insurance europeforvisitors.com
Do you need liability insurance in Europe? Should you pay extra for a Collision Damage Waiver, or can you rely on your credit card's free coverage? This Europe for Visitors article has the answers.

Car or Train? europeforvisitors.com
Should you tour Europe on four wheels or ride the rails? Use this quiz and related resources to make a wise decision.

International Driving Permit europeforvisitors.com
The IDP is an official document that certifies the validity of your home driver's license in 150 countries. (But beware of so-called "International Driver's License" scams.)

Europe by Van and Motorhome europeforvisitors.com
Relive the '60s in a VW van or cruise the Continent in a land yacht.

General information

European International Road Signs and Conventions
The interface may be more confusing than a Parisian roundabout, but be patient--and scroll down for links to pages on traffic signs.

European Parking Guide
Icarehireinsurance has put together an infographic that shows parking signs and markings. The page also discusses parking laws and etiquette in several Western European countries.

Which Side of the Road Do They Drive On?
Brian Lucas describes his informative and entertaining article as "an attempt to list which side of the road people drive on around the world, and to find some reasons why."

Country Information

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ABOVE: A classic Mercedes 300SL gullwing sports car outside the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

France

Driving in France
Jeff Steiner, an American resident of Strasbourg, wrote these pages for Americans in France.

Germany

Car Tourism in Germany
Read our articles about car museums and factory tours, a high-speed "race taxi," a self-drive "Trabi Safari" tour in Dresden or Berlin, and more.

Autobahn Online
If you can't read the German text, try The Autobahn, from Brian's Guide to Getting Around Germany, and Hyde Flippo's Autobahn articles from The German Way and More.

Tank & Rast  
See what facilities are available at the 338 gas stations, 382 service areas, and 51 hotels on Germany's Autobahn network.

Greece

Driving in Greece: Renting a Car
DeTraci Regula's article is at Tripsavvy.com.

Italy

Autostrade per l'Italia
Use the journey planner to design an itinerary or check traffic conditions at the official Italian motorway site, where you'll also find a handful of articles in English.

Driving in Italy
Joseph F. Lomax wrote this article for InItaly.com.

Portugal

Driving in Portugal
Learn basic rules, regulations, and other facts from Portugal-info.net.

Spain

Driving and Motoring in Andalucia
Most of this advice from Andalucia.com is applicable to Spain as a whole.

Switzerland

Driving in Switzerland switzerlandforvisitors.com
This article is from our Switzerland for Visitors subsite.

United Kingdom

VisitBritain: Guide to Driving in the UK
The country's national tourist office tells everything you need to know before hitting the road in Britain.

VW Toureg photo

ABOVE: You can drive a VW Touareg on the off-road course at Volkswagen's Autostadt in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Route planner

ViaMichelin
Use the "Driving Directions" form to plan your trip, or request an online map from the ViaMichelin database.

Rental and short-term leasing firms

The following companies are partners of Europe for Visitors. (Note: "Buy Backs" or short-term tourist leases (see our article) are likely to be your best value if you reside outside the European Union, are driving in Europe for at least 21 days, and are able to use the car company's pickup and drop-off locations.)

Renault Eurodrive our partner
Renault has been in the tourist car-lease business since 1954. It offers a full range of vehicles, from subcompacts like the Dacia and Clio to the Espace 7-seat luxury crossover and the Trafic 9-seat van. GPS is standard on all models.

Peugeot Open Europe Lease our partner
Peugeot is represented by our partner, Auto Europe. Peugeot's car models range from econocars to luxury sedans, vans, and the Peugeot Partner, which squeezes a lot of interior space into a boxy SUV-like body.

Auto Europe our partner
Rent a car in any of 4,000+ locations, with guaranteed low rates for equivalent cars.


Other articles about driving in Europe:
Car rentals: When to rent, when to lease
Rental-car isurance
Short-term car leasing
Car or train? (A quiz to help you decide)
International Driving Permit
Europe by van and motorhome