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On the Autobahn: Planning a European Road Trip

European Road Trip
How to plan a European road trip. Photos and collage by Beth Green.

Planes are fast and trains are fun, but there are times when the very best way to go on holiday is in your own car. The freedom of being able to stop where you want–when you want–gets you off the beaten track and earns amazing vacation memories.

Some destinations, such as the USA, Canada and Australia, lend themselves to car travel simply because of a lack of public transportation options. But, this summer, after too many times glimpsing interesting places from the window of a bus or train but not being able to stop, I’ve decided to look more closely at traveling by car in Europe.

Hopefully I’ll be doing some road tripping later this summer; for now, I’ve made this list of practical information for other travelers also hoping to hit the strasse, rue, or calle on four wheels.

What you’ll need

A car

If you don’t have your own car in Europe, you’ll want to rent one. The big international car hire brands operate in Europe, and rates can be reasonable. You’re most likely to get a good deal on the daily rental fee–and more choice of models of vehicle–if you book a few months in advance. Rental might be a good choice if you’re going with a larger group–getting a motorhome will cut much of your group’s accommodation cost.

When you rent a car in Europe with the idea of crossing borders, be sure you check the fine print closely. Once inside the Schengen Zone, you won’t find obvious borders or passport control, but some car rental companies still have restrictions on driving internationally.

Insurance

On the other hand, if you’re planning a trip in your own car, then you need to make sure that your insurance will cover a jaunt around Europe. You can purchase additional riders that will give you European Breakdown Cover as well as other kinds of trip insurance.

I should add, that even when renting a car, it’s prudent to get extra insurance. Paying out of pocket for a gravel-starred windshield in Australia taught me that.

A proper driver’s license and identification.


If you’re planning on doing a lengthy trip in Europe, or will follow up your European tour with road trips in other countries, it makes sense to do the paperwork and get an International Driving Permit (IDP). If you hold a UK or other European license, you won’t need an IDP in most of the European Union member states unless your driver’s license is the kind without a photo. American drivers are advised to get an IDP in all circumstances, but I’ve found through personal experience that rental agencies almost never ask (though the police might). If you’re unsure if you’ll need an IDP, the map in this Wikipedia entry may help.

Equipment

Some countries in Europe stipulate mandatory safety equipment that you should carry in your vehicle at all times. For example, in France and Italy drivers are required to have a red warning triangle in their car, but the same triangle is only recommended in Germany. To be on the safe side, carry:

  • A warning triangle
  • A high-visibility jacket (the kind that construction workers or crossing guards might wear)
  • A first-aid kit
  • A self-breathalyzer kit (if you’re going to France; though the government still requires this kit, it’s been reported that there are no longer fines for not carrying it)

Other things that are good to have on a European road trip:

  • A small icebox for road snacks, cool drinks and that stinky cheese you bought in France
  • An extra road map for your backseat driver
  • A phrase book for different Euro languages in case you find yourself without a signal on the smartphone
  • Sunshades for the windows (also keeps would-be thieves from seeing inside)

Things that might be good to have:

  • A GPS.

When I was planning my upcoming car rental in Germany, I was horrified to see that the fee to rent a GPS device was only two euro less than the (admittedly cheap) daily rental of the car itself. While having a navigator on unfamiliar roads can be a godsend, I tend to view getting lost as a fun part of a driving vacation. But, if you’ve got cranky family members in the back seat who you know are going to be asking you “are we there yet?” incessantly, perhaps a GPS is going to be a good investment. Just remember the plight of the *ahem* misguided Japanese tourists who drove off a pier in Australia before you give the device too much attention.

Next topic: What do you think are the best scenic drives in Europe? Let us know on Twitter!

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Beth Green

Beth Green is an American freelance writer who has lived in Europe and Asia since 2003. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, still enjoys a peripatetic life. She writes blogs, articles and suspense about travel, expatriate living, and many other topics. A social media addict, she’d love to hear from you about your favorite travel experiences.
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