Renting a car and taking off across a foreign land can be daunting even to the most seasoned of travelers. Visions of confusion at the counter mingle with dread of ending up lost, or worse, crashed and/or incarcerated until the entire prospect becomes unthinkable.
The first time we tried it, over twenty years ago, we certainly suffered from those anxieties, but work obligations made a vehicle an absolute necessity. So before the days of the internet we hunted down one of the very few companies available for international rentals at that time, then called, faxed, and even overnighted copies and documents across the continents to secure a rental.
After weeks of preparation, we arrived with a satchel full of papers and finally managed to sign what seemed our lives away and drove into the confusing mayhem of Paris.
Over the years we’ve repeated this process dozens of times, in dozens of cities, and each time it has been easier. Thanks to the internet, now all of the reservation process can be handled online in one short sitting, and almost all of the major U.S. companies have offices in most European cities. Today, renting a car in Paris is no more difficult than it is in Pittsburg.
That still leaves the driving of the car though. Here we found most of our fears to be unfounded. Other than the difficulty of reading signs in unknown languages, safely operating a vehicle is about the same on either side of The Atlantic. The same basic principles apply, obey the laws, pay attention, be careful, drive defensively. (see our guides on driving in Italy and the Czech Republic)
There are a number of big advantages to renting a car to visit Europe as opposed to other modes of travel. Driving is often the best way to see some of Europe’s most famous sites. How else could we have traced the route of the Monaco Gran Prix, or motored over magnificent mountain passes in The Swiss Alps?
The perfect vehicle for an alpine crossing because he had the biggest windshield of any car we’d ever seen. It extended all the way up to the middle of the roof. Kind of a sunroof / windshield combo. Perfect for viewing the mountainous majesty.
WATCH: A beautiful drive though the Alps
WATCH: We traced the route of the Monaco Grand Prix!
A car has also allowed us to experience all sorts of treasures off the beaten path. Places we never would have seen if we stuck to the regularly scheduled modes of travel. Hidden gems like Wangen in southern Germany, the tiny principality of Liechtenstein, or a festival day in Castelletto d’Orba, Italy.
Staying in these smaller towns can be a real money saver. Hotels are generally much less expensive away from the tourist centers, and gassing up a small car sure beats buying train and plane tickets.
Our lovely, affordable hotel in Wangen, Germany
We’ve found that the simple act of driving through a country has given us a much better view of what everyday life there is really like. Whether pulling into an Italian truck stop or wandering around the Czech countryside, the connection is something no organized tour can provide.
WATCH: Italian “truck stops” are far fancier than their U.S. counterparts!
WATCH: The countryside in the Czech Republic is a beautiful drive
We must admit that one of our biggest apprehensions about driving in Europe was entering into the big cities. We’d heard horror stories about the traffic and it turns out they are mostly true.
In Rome, every signal is treated like starting lights for a Vespa and Fiat drag race to the next one, and in Paris the motorcycle mayhem on the freeways will frazzle the steadiest of nerves. In fact, navigating through city traffic can be difficult even in the smaller urban areas, so we generally just don’t do it anymore.
In the small and even medium sized cities it is much easier to simply park the car and walk to all of the sights, and when it comes to wading into the insanity of major metropolitan traffic, we have learned to stay on the outskirts of town and use public transit to explore the big cities. Subway, tram and bus systems have always served us well throughout our travels.
Then, when the time comes to find our way to our next destination, even getting lost on the way out of town can be an adventure.
WATCH: We got lost in Prague. Seriously lost.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
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