Tips for Renting a Car in Europe

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Last updated Feb 7, 2023

Depending on the country you are visiting and how many different places you want to visit, renting a car may be your best option for getting around.  Even countries with well-developed public transportation systems may not have options that will get you to all the places you want to go within the time you have available on your journey.

Renting a car in a foreign country is a great way to explore, but it can be intimidating to know all the rules. There are some important things to be aware of to ensure a safe and pleasurable experience.  Follow these tips to have a smooth experience! 



TIPS BEFORE YOU BOOK YOUR RENTAL

Find out if you need an international driving permit (IDP)

If you are an American or Canadian citizen, in most European countries, all you will need is your passport and driver’s license to rent a car, but it never hurts to get an IDP just in case.  An IDP is a valid form of identification in many countries and contains your name, photo and driver information translated into 10 languages.  It must be issued in your home country before you travel. 

The American Automobile Association (AAA) is one of only two private companies authorized to issue an IDP in the US and the cost is $20.  For more information on how to obtain an IDP, here is the link to the AAA website on the topic.

Key differences in foreign rental cars

Most cars outside of the US are manual transmission and are much smaller.  If you are not comfortable driving a manual transmission (keeping in mind city driving in busy traffic or driving in a hilly and mountainous area), most rental companies will have automatic transmission options, but be prepared to pay a premium! Even if you are comfortable driving a manual transmission, keep in mind you will be shifting with your left hand while driving on the left in the UK and Ireland. 

In addition, because gas is much more expensive in most other countries, the average car is much smaller than you may be used to.  Be sure to consider how many people are traveling with you and your luggage capacity before selecting a car size!  It is also important to note, you will encounter challenges maneuvering and parking in most European cities if you choose a larger car.

Driving through the Pyranees
Example of a road through the Pyranees between France and Spain

Rental pickup & return location

Most major airports and train stations in Europe will have plenty of car rental options similar to the US.  We always reserve our rental cars ahead of time because during the busy season it is common for cars to be sold out.  A few things to consider before selecting a pickup location:

  • Airport and train station locations typically are more expensive due to surcharges.  It may be to your advantage to take public transportation to your hotel and pickup the car at a local office.
  • Depending on where you are travelling to, parking can be confusing, expensive and difficult to find.  We normally arrange our trips so we first spend time exploring the city we are arriving to and then get a car only when we are ready to head out into the countryside.  This saves on rental and parking costs since most cities will have better options for getting around then driving.
  • It can often be advantageous to pickup your car in one location and drop it off in another.  If picking up and dropping off in different locations within the same country, the fee is often reasonable and maybe the most economical option.  Trying to do this across different countries is always extremely expensive, and there has always been a better option in our experience.

Use a credit card that provides rental insurance

More than likely, your personal automobile insurance policy will not cover you in a different country.  Some credit cards offer rental car insurance coverage, we always use VISA which does.  You must pay for the entire rental using that card and decline the rental company’s additional coverage options. 

Unfortunately, we have had to use this feature a few times and can tell you that having photos, damage estimates, receipts and an official police report of the theft/damage are crucial.

Make sure you can drive your rental into all the countries you plan to visit

Finding the answer to the question “which countries am I allowed to drive the rental car to?” can be challenging and varies with the rental company and the car category.  This is not typically an issue in Western Europe but driving into the old “Eastern Bloc” countries is a different situation. 

Additional fees and/or a green card, which is a document needed at some border crossings proving you have adequate insurance, may be necessary to be allowed to drive into the country.  The bottom line is, do your research and make sure you inform the rental company of which other countries you plan to drive in.

Countries that currently need a Green Card are Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Israel, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, Russia, Tunisia, Turkey, and Ukraine. This list changes frequently.

Check the mileage allowance being quoted

Most of the time the rental companies will quote you prices that include unlimited mileage (or kilometerage if that is a word!), but on multiple occasions, we almost made a reservation that did not which would have been rather unpleasant surprise when paying the bill.  Make sure you check the fine print!



TIPS WHEN PICKING UP YOUR RENTAL CAR

Traffic Pedestrians Cars

Bring both your passport and driver’s license with you to the rental office

Many countries require both documents to rent a car. It is different than requirements in the USA. We have had luck using the photo of our passport, but that was only because the guy felt really bad for us.

Bring a printout of the road signs used in the country you will be driving in or study them ahead of time

Driving in another country can be stressful, no reason to make it more stressful by not knowing whether a sign means “Do Not Enter” or “No Parking”.  “One-way” street is another important one to make sure you recognize!  Luckily STOP is pretty universal.  Here is a link to a good resource for this.

Map vs. GPS

Think through where all you will be driving and the likelihood of you passing through areas with poor cell service or where mountains may block the GPS signal.  We have had this experience of “flying blind” more often than we would like to remember, although it can lead to some interesting unplanned adventures! 

You may want to consider a good old-fashioned map, a printout of your route, or getting a GPS system from the rental company.



TIPS WHILE DRIVING YOUR RENTAL CAR

Understand traffic circle (roundabout) driving etiquette

If you have only ever driven in the US, you may find yourself frustrated with these in the beginning, but I promise you, in time you will be asking why don’t we have more of these at home?!  There is plenty of detailed information online already, but here are a few high-level things to keep in mind:

  • When entering, make sure to yield to traffic already in the traffic circle (they could be coming from your left or your right depending on which side of the road you are driving on).  In countries that drive on the right, traffic will flow counter-clockwise and be coming from your left when you enter and vice-versa for countries that drive on the left.
  • Look out for pedestrians!  Try not to focus so much on what the other drivers are doing that you don’t see the person walking across the road when you are trying to exit.  It is very common to have a cross-walk immediately following the roundabout.
  • Don’t stop!  It will make entering and exiting the roundabout much more challenging, because unlike a traffic light, cars coming from the other way will never stop so you can go.  Some roundabouts even have traffic lights within them or at the exits.  I have still yet to figure out the logic behind this design.
  • Choose the correct lane.  If you are making a right turn, stay in the outer lane.  If you are making a left turn, get into the inner lane.  If you are going straight, you can choose either lane.  If the roundabout only has one lane, the decision has already been made for you!

One study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that fatal crashes decreased by almost 90% at intersections where stop signs and traffic signals were replaced with roundabouts.  This is because right-angle and head-on collisions are the deadliest and these types of collisions are nearly impossible with a roundabout.

Traffic Pedestrians Cars
Driving in Portugal



Be aware of vignettes and toll roads

In Europe, some countries use tolls, some use vignettes, and some both to charge for using the roads, bridges, tunnels, etc. Toll roads are more dominant in Western Europe, whereas vignettes are more used in Central and Eastern Europe. See the table below for the list of countries and the cost of vignettes. The sticker-type vignettes can be purchased at a border crossing or the gas stations close to the border and e-vignettes online.

CountryTypeDurationCost for Passenger Vehicle
AustriaSticker10 days€ 9,40
BulgariaE-vignettesWeekend10 BGN
Czech RepublicSticker10 days€ 12,50
HungaryE-vignettes10 days3,500 Ft
MoldovaSticker7 days€ 7,00
RomaniaE-vignettes7 days€ 3,00
SlovakiaE-vignettes10 days€ 10,00
SloveniaSticker7 days€ 15,00
SwitzerlandStickerAnnual40,00 CHF

As for the tolls, they can be paid with cash or a card. And they are expensive!

Understand where the traffic signals are

If you are used to driving in an area where the traffic signals are always overhead above the road, you might easily miss traffic signals on lower poles off the side of the road.  This location is very common in other countries and if you are not paying close attention you could drive right through a red light (I’m speaking from experience here).

Hopefully, these tips will make your experience renting a car in a foreign country a stress-free and pleasurable experience.  Please leave us a comment if you have any other questions we could help you with.

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