12 tips for renting a car and driving in Europe

There are so many ways to explore Europe - by car, train, plane, bike, or even by canal boat. Unless we’re just sticking to one big city, we typically prefer renting a car so we can have the freedom to go where we want, when we want. 

While driving in a foreign country does come with its challenges and stressful moments, such as having to navigate impossibly tight underground parkades or crossing through several lanes of traffic with scooters appearing out of nowhere at the Arc de Triomphe, having a car allows you to travel at your own pace and make those exciting detours to discover hidden gems along the way. 

For each of our trips to Europe over the past decade we have chosen to rent a car for the duration of our stay. We've mostly rented cars out of different cities in France, but have driven through several countries in Western Europe. We are by no means car rental experts, but we have accumulated some best practices over the years. These are our top 12 tips for renting and driving a car in Europe. 

1. Go through travel agent 

When renting a car in Europe, we’ve mostly booked through a travel agent. We’ve found this the best way to go, especially post-pandemic when rental car stock has been low and prices quite high. We don’t pay anything extra to book through a travel agent (they make their commission off the rental), and they can keep an eye out for the best deals. This summer, prices were fluctuating on an hourly basis and our travel agent let us know directly when she saw a good deal and we were able to book right away. Travel agents are also great resources if anything goes awry, like if your flights get delayed or you get contacted for a random fee a year after your rental (more on that later).

2. Get an international drivers licence

While not all rental agencies will ask for a copy of an international drivers licence, it’s always good to have one on hand, especially if you will be driving through a number of different European countries. The international drivers licence is an official document that translates all the pertinent information into a number of different languages. This document would come in handy if you ever get pulled over! We are able to get one same-day in Canada through BCAA for a nominal fee. 

3. Opt in for the extra insurance

We always opt in for the additional insurance. It’s one less thing to worry about while you’re on vacation. Sometimes credit cards will offer additional insurance when you use them to pay for the rental. If you plan on relying on the credit card insurance, make sure you have a thorough read of the policy and exemptions. And if not, expect to pay a bit more when you pick up your rental for the piece of mind.

4. Take pictures of everything

Before you even get into the rental car, take pictures of the entire car, inside and out. You will want to document any scratch, dent and the state of the interior. You will also want to do this again when you drop off the car at the end of your trip. Remember to always capture the gas gauge and the odometer to avoid any potential discrepancies over additional charges later on. 

5. Inquire about roadside assistance

God forbid you get stranded somewhere in a rental vehicle, but if you do, it’s always handy if you have roadside assistance. When we were driving through Alsace a few years ago, we started hearing this horrible screeching sound coming from one of the tires. Afraid it was something serious, we contacted the roadside assistance number the rental agency had provided us. Within an hour, someone was there to help us out and get us back on our way. Turns out a rock had gotten lodged in between the rim and wheel well and they had to take the tire apart to get it out. 

6. Specify automatic or standard

Most vehicles in Europe are stick shift, so if this is not your preference, it is important you are very clear about needing an automatic ahead of time. You can always expect to pay a premium for an automatic vehicle, but with the current rental vehicle shortage, the prices can be even higher. 

7. Know if the car takes gas or diesel

Things can go very wrong very fast if you put the wrong type of fuel in the car. If you’re unsure, do yourself a favour and clarify with the rental agency before you hit the road. Beyond that, you should also look into what each type of fuel is called in the countries you will be travelling in to avoid confusion. For example, in France diesel fuel is often referred to as “gazole” and gas is referred to as “sans plomb.”

8. Review the rules of the road

It’s always a good idea to brush up on the rules of the road for the country you will be driving in. While the general gist of driving in Europe is the same as in North America, there are some differences to be aware of. For example, France has the “priorité à droite” rule. This means cars on the right have the right of way. This can be particularly confusing and dangerous when you are traveling on a main road and a car comes flying out at you from a crossroad. It is also important to be mindful of road speeds and signage.

9. Plan for parking

Parking can be challenging in Europe if you’re used to all of the wide spaces and giant parkades in North America. But beyond having the ability to squeeze your way into the tightest spots, you also need to be aware of the parking rules. In certain places you may only be able to park on one side of the road on certain days and the other side of the road on other days. On narrower roads it is expected that you park over the curb, as opposed to adjacent to it. You may also be allowed to park facing either direction on either side of the road. While travelling through the Alsace region in France, we discovered every car there had its own “parking disc” in their windshield. This blue disc has little clock dial on it that indicates the time they parked their car. We wound up having to draw one up on a scrap piece of paper, but we found out later  you can purchase them at a local Tabac.

10. Highways can take a toll on your pocketbook

While there isn’t a standard toll system across Europe, most countries will have some type of tolling along their highways or at major tunnels. This is also something you will want to look into ahead of time, especially if you are crossing borders with your rental car. Some countries like Switzerland have a vignette system, which is a sticker you can purchase and put in your window. Other countries have toll booths along the way, at which you can typically pay by credit card or cash - just make sure you pick the right lane. If you are driving around France, the Sanef website is great to determine the cost of tolls along your route. 

11. Research major events along your route

Unfortunately, we have been caught more than once by random events in the city we’re staying in or along our travel route. If you can, try to look up events posted on city social media pages, tourism boards and other sources. In one European city we stayed in, we found out by a stroke of good luck in the middle of the night that the entire city was shutting down all the roads first thing in the morning for Car Free Day. We had been planning to leave that day, but wouldn’t have been able to until late in the evening had we not found out when we did. The other time we encountered road closures was when we were in Germany and had planning on spending the entire day popping into all the charming little towns along the Rhine. Unfortunately, when we arrived at our starting point, we learned both roads on either side of the river were closed for an annual bike race. 

12. Additional charges may come after your trip

Several months after one of our trips to Europe, we started getting what looked like spam emails saying we owed money for our car rental. There was no context in the emails, no professional or official-looking footer and they weren’t coming from the rental agency. Fortunately, we had booked through a travel agent and he was quickly able to follow up and sort out the issue on our behalf. It turns out the emails were coming from a collections agency and we owed a fee for some tax or toll. Paying this fee online was a whole other story, but we had we not sorted this out, we wouldn’t have been able to rent from that agency again in the future. It is possible that certain taxes, fees, and any tickets you incur will be charged to you months or even longer after your trip. So keep your eyes open and follow-up with customer service or your travel agent for clarification. 

Have you rented a car abroad before? What other tips would you add to this list?



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