A European road trip had been on our bucket list for a while before we were able to make it a reality. We generally love road trips because they allow us (or sometimes force us) to see small towns and experience different things that are off the beaten path. Things that we otherwise might not get to see if we were to travel by train or plane. When presented with an opportunity to make a European road trip happen, we jumped at the chance! We were looking forward to renting a car in Europe and experiencing the diverse continent in a new light, and we were mostly prepared for the challenges that awaited us.
Starting in Rome, our plan was to rent a car and drive around Europe for 6 weeks with a general idea of where we wanted to go — but no set itinerary by any means. Executing this loosely devised plan was more difficult than we expected! Over the course of the trip (and reflecting back on it now), we learned several lessons about borders, insurance, car rentals, and being properly prepared for inclement weather (!!!) that will hopefully help others embarking on a similar journey.
Traveling By Car vs. Plane or Train
Before we jump into the logistics, just a quick note as to why we chose to drive instead of fly or ride on a train. Simply put, we liked the idea of having the flexibility to see Europe on our own schedule. If we had traveled by plane we would have had to book flights far in advance and had to worry about getting to and from the airport at specific times. It would have been a much more regimented trip than the one we made. Renting a car can also be far less expensive than flying or taking a train (though not always — do your research!), which was the case for us.
International Driving Permit
Before your trip, go to your local AAA branch and get an International Driving Permit. This is a legal identification document recognized by more than 150 countries. You may not need this everywhere you go, but it is highly recommended if you are traveling to multiple countries. The document is translated into 10 languages and is valid for 1-year. It costs $20 and takes very little time to obtain.
Choosing a Rental Car
If you come from a country that primarily drives automatic transmission vehicles, learn how to drive manual before you go! Renting an automatic is at least 50% more expensive, and on top of that, not all rental companies in Europe even carry them! At the time of our trip, only Laura knew how to comfortably drive a stick and Dax did not (man card revoked). It would have been too much driving for Laura to handle alone, and a foreign country wasn’t an ideal place for Dax to learn. Unfortunately we had to shell out the extra money for an automatic transmission.
There were a few options we considered when choosing our rental car:
- Traditional Rental;
- Long-Term Lease (more than 3 weeks); and
- Peugeot Buy-Back.
All three would have accomplished the same end goal, but they differed significantly in cost. We ended up going with a long-term lease through AutoEurope (picked up at a Europcar location) because it was the least expensive (and they offered an automatic transmission). Be aware that you may need to reserve a car several few weeks in advance when doing a long-term rental and especially if you want an automatic. Leave yourself enough time to research your options thoroughly.
Something to be aware of when renting a car in Europe: if you rent the car in Western Europe, insurance from the rental company will not extend to many Eastern European countries! As mentioned above, we used AutoEurope and rented the car in Italy and the countries they would not cover that we were visiting were: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. We worked with them to add Croatia to the policy for an added cost, but the other two countries were too expensive to add. Luckily, we had learned through our research that we could buy insurance at the border of those two countries, which is what we planned on doing (more on that later).
When planning your trip, check your travel insurance policy to see what it covers, and check with your credit card company too, as some will cover insurance costs with rentals.
One-Way vs. Roundtrip
Another thing to consider is whether a one-way rental is more cost-effective than returning the car at the same location — or whether it’s even an option at all! For example, we initially wanted to start our road trip in Greece and end in Italy, but we couldn’t find a rental company that would allow us to do that. We ultimately decided to fly from Greece to Italy with a new plan of starting and ending our road trip in Rome. If you are able to find a rental company that allows you to do your desired one-way trip, compare the costs vs returning the car at the same location. While it may be more convenient, the cost difference may be prohibitive in the long run.
Pick a Time of Year
The time of year of your trip can make a big difference in terms of price, traffic, and how to properly prepare. We decided to do our road trip during the winter so our money would go further. Traveling off-season like that can save you a lot of money (and we wanted our trip to last as long as it could), but it also comes with some challenges.
In the winter months, many countries require you to either have snow tires or snow chains. Italy is not one of those countries and since we rented our car there, we had neither. Big mistake. While driving through Croatia we got caught in a snowstorm in the Alps and almost spent the night in the car! If the Croatian Highway Maintenance crew had not saved our butts, things could have been a lot worse. We ended up buying snow tires and chains the next day out of fear of getting stuck again — an expense that we could have avoided had we planned properly. Set us back almost $600! And in retrospect, this cost probably would have been covered by our travel insurance but we didn’t even think to check!
So just be prepared and look at weather forecasts of where you’re going. If you’re traveling in the winter and snow is a concern, tell the rental company you want a vehicle with snow tires and inquire about chains (or pick them up at a gas station after you get your car). If the costs are prohibitive, consider rerouting your trip. Being stuck and helpless in the snow in a foreign country was a terrible feeling.
Things to Consider With Regards to Housing
Being flexible during a road trip is very important! It’s not always possible to stay on schedule as you might when traveling by train or plane. When we got caught in the snowstorm on our road trip we had to cancel our reservation for that evening and book a new one. Thankfully, we made most of our reservations through Booking.com and took advantage of their free cancellation feature.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you have to account for parking every where you stay. Old towns like Dubrovnik, Kotor, or Venice don’t have traditional roads, and therefore no parking. Figuring out where to stay at these places and what to do with the car (while not spending a fortune) meant the difference between another night’s stay vs getting back on the road early. During our trip we tried to book our stays in central locations — places where we could park and then walk or use public transportation to get around. We didn’t want to drive within the cities for the most part and found that this worked very well.
Wifi was a priority when booking our stays. We were planning our trip from one stop to the next and therefore had to have internet access every where we stayed. We were often crossing from country to country and couldn’t rely on SIM cards working, so booking a room with Wifi was always of the utmost importance. In hindsight, we would have felt more comfortable traveling with a Skyroam Hotspot so that we could get internet access in a pinch.
GPS, Phone, or Physical Maps
We highly recommend getting a GPS if you’re doing a long-term road trip. Renting a GPS through the car rental company can get expensive with daily fees which add up quickly. Buying a GPS before you go that has updated Europe maps will be a lifesaver — Something like the TomTom World Traveler Edition which has lifetime map updates is a great option.
Tip: Don’t wait to buy a GPS in Europe like we did!
We bought a GPS in Greece and although it had an English language setting, it was almost impossible for us to navigate around the Greek alphabet that was present no matter what settings we chose. We ended up returning the GPS and using our iPhones to navigate (check out our article on using iPhones abroad for a more detailed look at how we used our phones). If you don’t have data to use, consider mapping your next destination with Wifi before hitting the road. Be careful not to get lost because the phone won’t reroute! And always carry a physical map in the car as backup.
The wait time at certain borders will depend largely on what time of year you travel. Borders by Mediterranean vacation cities for example, will have much longer waits in the summers and on weekends. We never encountered traffic at any border during our winter drive.
Within Western Europe they will only ask for your passport (if there is even a border patrol). Many times you pass right through and either see an abandoned border patrol or nothing at all.
In Eastern Europe they ask for your passport and the papers for the car (registration and rental agreement). One exception is when driving down Croatia to Dubrovnik where you must pass into Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Neum border before reentering Croatia. They just wave you through. We have heard during summer months they have different lanes that say “Passing Through” or “Visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina.”At the Montenegro border, let the patrol know you need to buy car insurance. They tell you to pull over and park. They hold onto your passports and tell you to go to a small building to pay 15 Euros for insurance. You then show the patrol the insurance, they give you back your passport and you’re on your way. Easy.
During our trip, we were driving from Montenegro to Mostar (in Bosnia & Herzegovina) on R429 through the mountains. Our plan was to buy car insurance when we crossed into Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian border we chose to cross at turned out to be essentially just an orange cone in the road. The patrol officer would not let us pass with only a copy of the vehicle registration — he wanted the original which obviously we couldn’t produce! So we had to backtrack 5 hours out of the way to get back to the Neum border where they didn’t even stop us, just waved us through! Unfortunately, by this time it was very late and very dark and we did not get insurance at the border. We cautiously continued on to Mostar anyways, super nervous about not having insurance.
Tip: Don’t drive through the narrow, winding, cliff-side roads of Bosnia in pitch black if you can help it! Not an enjoyable drive (especially without insurance)!
Tip #2: Stick to the major border crossings, especially in Eastern Europe, to avoid complications.
Tolls and Vignettes
Some European countries require you to pay tolls, and some require you to purchase vignettes (stickers that you put in your window to show you can drive on the highways). Vignettes can be purchased right at the border at either a gas station or at a building attached to the border patrol. Costs will vary from country-to-country. You can usually buy a 10-day pass, monthly pass, or annual pass. Switzerland only sells an annual pass for 40 CHF, yikes! This site tells you whether a country uses tolls or vignettes: Europe Vignettes/TollsFor counties that have tolls, make sure you have the correct currency of the country you’re in. They might have exchange booths where you can pull over and get some cash before crossing. You can also usually stop at gas stations near the border and use an ATM or exchange currency there. They do not give you the best exchange rate at gas stations. However, if you’re in a pinch and need the currency this option will do fine.
Each country has agreements with other countries on whether a Visa is required to enter. We have American passports. None of the countries on our road trip that required a Visa for the amount of time we were there. This site gives visa requirements no matter where you live: Visa HQ
Other Tips from Our Road Trip in Europe
- Spending a lot of time in the car requires some entertainment! We had a lot of music, podcasts, and a few audio books from audible.com lined up.
- We loaded up on food and water before setting out on long drives. Which we were thankful for when we thought we might spend the night on the side of the road!
- Don’t risk running out of gas since gas stations are few and far between in some countries. Gas up when you can and take advantage of the stop to stretch your legs.
- Watch your speed! Some countries like Italy and France have speed cameras (look for signs warning you that they are coming up). If you do get an automated speeding ticket, your rental car company will charge you a fee (ours was 50 Euro — twice!!). This is just to pass your information to the police. Then you have to pay the ticket fine on top of that! Not worth it.
- We never planned out more than one stop ahead of time. If we changed our mind or wanted to go somewhere else, we had that flexibility.
Our 40-Day Road Trip Itinerary
Below is our trip itinerary. We rented the car at the end of our first week in Rome and returned the car back to the same location (so 40 days spent with the car).
- Rome, Italy – 7 Days
- Napoli, Italy – 2 Days
- Florence, Italy – 4 Days (Day trip to Pisa)
- Venice, Italy – 4 Days
- Karlovac, Croatia (Stayed night here because of the storm)
- Dubrovnik, Croatia – 3 Days
- Kotor, Montenegro – 4 days
- Mostar, Bosnia – 1 Day (Would have been two, but border patrol was on power trip)
- Maribor, Slovenia – 1 Day
- Vienna, Austria – 4 Days
- Prague, Czech Republic – 4 Days
- Munich, Germany – 1 Day
- Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany – 3 Days
- Vaduz, Liechtenstein – 1 Day
- Klosters, Switzerland – 1 Day
- Milan, Itlay – 3 Days
- Cinque Terre, Italy – 3 Days
- Rome, Italy – 8 Days
Please don’t hesitate to ask any questions! And have a blast on your European road trip!!
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