This post was last updated on June 1st, 2017
We’re gearing up for our next adventure – a road trip through Portugal! We’ll be heading from Lisbon through the Douro Valley up to Ponte de Lima, and we couldn’t be more excited. This will be the start of our six weeks in Europe, so be sure you’re following us on Facebook and Instagram for live updates along the way. ;)
Road trips are one of our favorite ways to explore a destination. While it’s undeniably easy to get around much of Europe with public transportation, having four wheels offers another level of freedom and flexibility, while also making off-the-beaten-track gems much more accessible.
Portugal marks our fourth Europe road trip. While of course we’re not experts on what it’s like to drive through every country on the continent, we have picked up some essential tips and tricks from our various (mis)adventures on the road.
Don’t be like us and end up with an expensive ticket in Italy or a potential fine in Finland. Before you jump behind the wheel, here are a few handy tips you’ll want to keep in mind for your Europe road trip:
8 Tips For An Epic Europe Road Trip
1. Find The Right Car
Obviously, the first step to a Europe road trip is finding the right vehicle! When renting a car, keep in mind that most Europeans drive manual. If you’re not comfortable with a manual, be prepared to pay a bit more for an automatic.
For our last two road trips, we partnered with Economy Bookings. They’ve got some of the most affordable rates and excellent service, so we can highly recommend them from our personal experience.
Keep in mind that if you’re dropping your car off at a different destination from pick-up, there will likely be additional fees. If you’re dropping the car in the same country as pick-up, we still recommend telling the car rental agency if you’re planning to visit other countries. It doesn’t hurt to inquire if there are any specific driving rules or regulations that you should be aware of in each destination.
When it comes time to pick up your rental car, take a photo of any scratches, dents or dings you find. If the company tries to bill you for something at the end of the rental that’s not your fault, you’ll have a photo with a time-stamp as evidence to support your case.
For example, after renting a car in Finland, we got an email a few days later that we needed to sign paperwork for a dent found in the rear of the car. Luckily, we had full insurance that covered any and all damage, but we were quite convinced that we weren’t actually the ones responsible. We didn’t have to pay anything, but it was a good reminder as to just how important it is to always have photographic proof of previous damages AND travel with proper insurance. Which brings us to the next point…
Extra Tip: You might also need to keep age considerations in mind. Typically you can rent a car in Europe if you’re 21, but you’ll face a surcharge until you’re 25.
2. Check Your Car + Travel Insurance
Travel insurance is something we never skimp on. For general travel insurance, we use and recommend World Nomads. We’ve filed claims with them a few times (like when Dan’s camera was stolen in Paris) and they’re always quick, sensitive and professional. Car accidents and other incidents do happen, and while hopefully you never have to use it, it’s always better to be protected for worse-case scenarios.
Of course, you’ll also want to make sure you have full car insurance to protect you in the case of accidents, theft, emergency roadside assistance, etc. Check your home car insurance to see if you’re covered abroad. if not, then you might have a credit card that includes car rental insurance as an added benefit. Most of our travel credit cards have this feature, which we use frequently.
We’ve yet to do this, but Ordinary Traveler advises that if traveling to Albania or Turkey, you’ll also be required to have a Green Card (or International Motor Insurance Card.)
3. See if you need an International Driving Permit
There are quite a few countries in Europe that require an International Driving Permit (IDP.) An International Driving Permit is essentially just an official translation of your driver’s license.
Technically you should be fine without one (we didn’t have ours in Italy), but should you get pulled over, you’ll likely be asked for it.
Rick Steves says if you’re planning a road trip through Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, or Spain, it’s a good idea to go ahead and invest in the International Driving Permit as you’re technically supposed to have one. Better to pay the small fee for the license over a large fee!
You can get your IDP at your local American Automobile Association or Canadian Automobile Association. However, if you realize too late that you’ll need it, you can also get it expedited from Fastport Passport. There are a lot of scam artists out there, but these guys are the real deal. We’re fortunate to be friendly with the founder and owner, and though we haven’t had to use them ourselves, we wouldn’t hesitate should we need our Passport or IDP in as little as two days. Highly recommend checking them out. (They are an affiliate partner of ours, but we only partner with those companies we use or highly trust.)
4. Check The Vignette / Toll Road Situation
Never heard of a vignette? This is a pass that some destinations—especially Eastern European countries—require for you to drive on the highways. Typically, vignettes are required instead of having constant toll stations.
Vignette come in all different durations and are easily purchased at rest stations once you cross the border. They’re definitely necessary and easy to purchase, so don’t skip this step. After Portugal, Casey will be taking a road trip through Croatia and Slovenia—Croatia has tolls but Slovenia requires the vignettes.
Countries where vignette stickers are required include:
- Czech Republic
It’s a good idea to keep coins and small bills on you at all times just in case you stumble upon a toll station you’re not expecting. These can add up quickly, so if you’re on a budget and have the time, you might consider looking up alternative routes.
5. Brush Up On Local Driving Laws
Driving laws are different in each country, so it’s best to do a quick search to learn the essentials for the destinations on your Europe road trip. Don’t underestimate the value of this step!
When we were in Italy, we didn’t realize that there were many ZTLs, or “Restricted Traffic Zones.” These are especially common in plazas and other historic areas popular with pedestrians and cyclists. Marked by a red circle on a white background, it’s easy to miss if you don’t know to look for it. At least, that was our excuse. We definitely got a pricy ticket delivered to us in the mail a YEAR after our Tuscan road trip for driving through a ZTL…
Other important driving laws to check include:
It’s really just the Autobahns in Germany that don’t have a speed limit (and even those have a recommended speed.) Using Italy as an example again, there are cameras everywhere that will get you if you’re going above the legal speed limit.
We’ve found that in many European countries, it feels like everyone is riding right on your tail. Keep an eye on your rear view mirrors and continue to drive safely. You’re on vacation; don’t be in a rush and follow the rules.
~The Legal BAC
Of course it’s best not to drink anything if you’re planning to drive, but some countries have surprisingly different rules when it comes to whether even one glass of wine is okay or not. In the Czech Republic, the legal BAC is actually zero. In France it’s 0.5, and in the UK it’s a whopping 0.8.
~Which Side Of The Road To Drive On
Most European countries drive on the right side of the road, but if you’re traveling to the UK, Ireland, Malta or Cyprus, be prepared to drive on the left.
6. Know What’s Required In Your Vehicle
If you’re renting a car in Europe, then chances are the vehicle will be equipped with everything you need. If you’re driving your own car, check to make sure you have the essentials in the event that you’re pulled over. You’re probably just looking for fluorescent safety vests, car tool kits, etc. However, in some cases, you could also need pollution stickers, specific documents not listed above, and, in the case of France, maybe even a breathalyzer.
For more on compulsory kits required, AA has a great guide for 14 popular destinations.
7. Know Emergency Numbers
The most important emergency number you need to know is 112. This is Europe’s “911.” It’s always a good idea to have a few other numbers saved in your phone, such as who to call for roadside assistance or local emergency numbers.
8. Say Hello To Waze and Google Maps
You likely already use these apps for driving at home. But if you don’t, you’ll quickly find both Waze and Google Maps are your new best friends. We prefer Waze for real-time directions as it takes into account accidents and traffic. However, Google Maps is also handy as it lets you save routes which you can then access offline. Super convenient if you go through a remote area or run out of data.
Extra Tip: Be prepared for anything. Depending on where you’re traveling, you might find locals don’t use their indicators, stop in the middle of the road, pull out in front of you, etc. Living and driving in Costa Rica has taught us to be equipped for any act of craziness, which is generally a good tip no matter where in the world you’re driving.
We’ll be sure to update this post after our upcoming road trips to Portugal, Croatia and Slovenia to share any other important tips that result! In the meantime, what did we leave off the list that warrants a spot? As always, share your comments in the section below!
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