Our tips for driving in Europe for stress-free European road trips this summer and beyond. Follow our advice and you’ll be better prepared for your European driving holiday, you’ll be more confident on the road, and you’ll get a whole lot more out of your European journey.
Some of my most precious travel memories are from road trips with Terence – from an epic Morocco driving holiday we took mum on after dad died to our many road trips in Europe, everywhere from Spain and Italy to Greece and Turkey, on holiday and for work, typically researching, writing and shooting guidebooks. And they were generally trouble-free. Generally.
“Misadventures make for great stories,” I’ve long told my writing students. But I have to confess: mishaps aren’t so entertaining at the time, especially when you’re travelling in an unfamiliar country and you want everything to be perfect.
While I’m lucky in that Terence is a brilliant driver (I navigate), we had a few minor misadventures on Europe’s roads when we first began driving the continent, mostly because we’d not done enough research, were unprepared, and made assumptions about renting cars in Europe based on our experience in Australia.
Read on and you can learn about our little misadventures as we share our best tips for driving in Europe based on the things we learnt over many years road-tripping around the continent, both on holidays and researching guidebooks.
Published 14 July 2018; Updated 20 March 2022
Tips for Driving in Europe for Stress-Free Summer Road Trips
Get an International Drivers License
When we first started travelling in Europe many countries accepted Terence’s driver’s license from the United Arab Emirates, where we lived for many years. But then he started getting asked for his International Drivers License, which he didn’t have at the time. Some countries require both, so one of our best tips for driving in Europe is to take both.
Book Rental Cars Well Ahead for Summer Road Trips
Outside of the busy high season period, one of our tips for driving in Europe is to book your rental cars at the last minute for the best deals. There are just so many hire car companies these days, that it’s easy to grab a bargain. However, summer is another story. Some major European tourist destinations simply run out of rental cars during the peak period of the busy summer season. Trust us on this: we’ve struggled to find vehicles a few times over the years because we left it too late to book a car rental, so do book rental cars well ahead of Europe’s summer.
Check Car Rental Opening Hours Before Booking
I’ll never forget the time we booked (and paid for!) a rental car for pick-up and drop-off on weekends in Cyprus, thinking – silly me – that because the website had allowed us to make bookings on those dates that the offices would be open. They weren’t. And we wasted a great deal of time on communications making complaints and special arrangements to pick up and drop off the vehicle.
Avoid Airport Pick-Ups During Summer in Busy Tourist Destinations
Having once made the mistake of picking up a rental car in central Milan, we will almost always recommend you pick up your hire cars from the airport. It’s so convenient to go from plane to car, wheeling your luggage from the baggage carousel to the car boot then hitting the road. The exception to this is during the peak summer period and in busy tourist destinations, such as Palma di Mallorca where you could literally find yourself waiting hours for your car because they’ve ran out of vehicles or the renter is late returning their car.
Research the Road Rules Before You Go
Road rules differ from country to country and will be different to your home country. Learn the basic rules. Know which side of the road to drive on and turning protocols, and make sure you can understand the signs. For instance, road signs in the countryside in Bulgaria are often only in Cyrillic, although in the cities and towns they’ll be in Cyrillic and Latin. I often found myself digging deep into my memory back to the Russian lessons my baboushka gave me as a child. This comparison of European road signs is super helpful.
Take an Excellent Map and Road Atlas
Don’t rely on online maps because you won’t have Internet access everywhere you go, especially if you’re driving in remote, mountainous areas and on islands. Invest in excellent local maps and a good road atlas before you travel. Plan your route and familiarise yourself with it before you leave home. But note that you probably won’t find the best maps on Amazon and might have to stay overnight in the capital and visit the city’s best bookstore before you hit the road.
Inspect the Vehicle Thoroughly
We’ve had car rental companies try to give us damaged cars before – and not only in Europe. Check your vehicle thoroughly and take photos of the vehicle from every angle plus close-ups of any damage, and make sure that the staff not only see you taking photos, but it’s clear from the images that they are there with you. If the staff don’t note scratches and dings on the paperwork, make sure you note them yourself and go back to the office to report this. Make sure the registration documents for the vehicle and rental paperwork are in the glove box. If you get stopped by the police or are in an accident you’ll need this. Also make sure there’s a spare tyre and basic tools in the boot of the car.
Always Carry Cash for Tolls
There was that time in Venice when we left the airport in our hire car having just landed from Dubai without any local currency… only to arrive at a toll booth not long after we entered the freeway that required us to pay the toll in cash. It was impossible for us to turn around too. Many toll booths take credit cards these days but always carry cash – for tolls, and also parking meters.
Book a Small Car and Decline Big Upgrades
One of our top tips for driving in Europe is to drive a small car. We learned that lesson early in our travels when we could not get past a parked car on a one-way alley in a medieval village in Sicily. From that point on we always booked small rental vehicles, such as the Fiat Punto, which miraculously got us through the narrowest of lanes, around the tightest corners, and in the smallest parking spaces in hilltop villages in Spain, Italy and France. But then there was that time a rental company staffer excitedly informed us they’d given us an upgrade – to a big hefty people mover! We had no choice to take it at the time as there was nothing left, but we made our annoyance known and the next morning returned to swap the thing for the tiny car we’d booked.
Learn a Little of the Local Language
Don’t assume everyone speaks your language. Sign up for a basic language course before you travel (we love this online language learning site called Preply) and learn how to say “We’re lost!” between tears, how to ask for directions or where the nearest petrol station is, if a street is one way, if your car will fit down that narrow cobblestone lane, how the heck you get out of the old town, where’s the nearest public parking, and how to get back on the freeway, and so on. Speaking from experience here! It will make your life so much easier. At the very least, learn these ten words and phrases before travelling, from ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ to ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’, so people are at least friendly when you say “I don’t speak your language… do you speak English by any chance?” We cannot recommend you do this enough, and also take a phrase book and dictionary – in paper form; don’t expect to have internet access everywhere – and study the transport and driving sections. At the very least, learn how to ask for directions and be able to distinguish things like ‘left’ and ‘right’.
Book Europe Airport Transfers
And we have so many more tips for driving in Europe… I think we might need a follow up post. Have you driven in Europe during summer? We’d love to hear any tips you might have.