The Benefits of Seeing Europe By Car

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,

YOUR TURN: Have we inspired you to take a European roadtrip?

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20 thoughts on “The Benefits of Seeing Europe By Car”

  1. Yes, I agree sometimes you just get to where you want and or see in a car rather than the train. Driving in the UK has been a challenge for me to say the least!

  2. Can’t comment too much about mainland Europe, though I’ve had plenty of experience in my UK homeland!
    But I did have a pretty harrowing experience driving through the extremely windy and narrow roads north of Cairns in Australia. The biggest problem wasn’t so much the road as the locals in pickup trucks who insisted on whizzing along them at 70plus miles per hour!

  3. I’m really looking forward to roadtripping through Europe. So many people seem to not recommend it because of small streets, no parking in the cities etc. I really think it’s the way to go. I think we’ll buy a car and some folding bikes so we can drive, cycle and use public transport. The best of all worlds!

  4. I too was terrified to rent a car and drive abroad, but we finally did it! Renting a car was the only way we could efficiently get to the beach and a colonial town in El Salvador and renting a car in Spain afforded me the opportunity to see the very small village where my great grandfather grew up. It was definitely scary at first, but we found apps like Waze very helpful in navigating!

  5. Seeing any place by car is always a great idea. I agree with what you have said about how your experience can be different and find “all sorts of treasures” off of the beaten path. That is very true, you can stop to see things that you might never have if traveling by train. I think that it can become more difficult outside of Western Europe though. Nonetheless, still not impossible. Thanks!

  6. I’m a firm believer in renting a car abroad, especially in Europe. You really can see so much more and have that freedom of schedule that a car lends. I rented a car in Ireland all by myself. While driving on the wrong side of the road was terrifying to think about, in the end, I saw so much of Ireland and actually got used to driving on the wrong side of the road.

  7. enjoyable read…traveled by car in Europe many years ago. It does enable you to visit places off the tourist path and you meet the nicest people! The highway stops offer delicious food, much better than you’d find in the States. The downside is that you need to know how to drive a stick shift. It is extremely hard to find automatic transmission in Europe.

  8. We did exactly the same thing as Boomeresque did in France. I hate to think of what we would have missed in Normandy if we had not done this. One hint: automatic rental cars are not as prevalent as stick shifts, at least in France.

  9. We traveled Scotland via rent car and, after the break in period of driving on the “wrong” side, we really enjoyed it. The freedom to plan your itinerary gets you to some great out of the way places. Bed and breakfasts are every where and quite reasonable. Our only mishap was my scraping a curb and messing up a plastic wheel cover. I waited in grave anticipation for my credit card statement to come once back in he States. I figured the rent car company would stick it to me for the wheel cover. After all, I have rented cars in the US and know how they price out the least little ding! Much to my surprise, the replacement was only $31.00 US. This was followed by a letter from the Scottish rental company apologizing to me for having to charge me for the replacement and hoping that I understood the reason for he charge! Amazing!

  10. I couldn’t agree more! We’ve driven in New Zealand and in Europe in Greece, France, Ireland, and Spain. I love being able to stop when I want and not having to depend on bus schedules, not to mention being able to carry all kinds of junk along!

  11. There is no question that driving in Europe enhances the opportunity to explore. We rented a car in France and drove to and around Normandy which was wonderful. However, we used your technique. We rented the car at Charles deGaulle Airport outside Paris and drove to Normandy from there. We returned the car and then visited Paris on foot and using public transportation. I also did a week long road trip in Spain with my then 20 year old son. He did all the driving. It turns out that the only thing he hates more than driving — is the thought of me driving. We’ve also rented (hired) cars in England and Ireland. Again, having ones own set of wheels makes the less traveled byways accessible, but we found driving on “the wrong side” to be somewhat less relaxing. In fact, the experience inspired a blog post.

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