Hi, My husband and I and our four kids (ages 12-22) are traveling from Frankfurt down to Venice, Rome, Florence and back up through France to end up with family in Brussels. I thought a car would be best with this # of people but I'm reading some scary things on this site about the tunnels and parking not to mention a few comments about needing aggressive driving skills I may not have. Is driving just a bad idea in general? Is it really hard to park anywhere near your hotel in Italian cities? Or Paris? Thank you
We traveled all through France for 32 days driving all the way. We leased a car which I highly recommend if you are staying more than 21 days. It comes with 0 deductive insurance and 24/7 roadside assistance and can have multiple drivers. We also bought a Garmin GPS Europe card for our Garmin which was invaluable! We had no problems driving and did not drive aggressively at all. Parking is somewhat of a problem because it's almost all pay parking. But it's certainly available. Have a great trip!
Driving is not a bad idea in general. My wife and I have driven 20,000+ miles in Europe.The Euros are much more tolerant drivers than Americans. Road rage is unacceptable. For a car, refer to RS and Autofrance.net. Parking: yes, it can be a hassle as it is for the locals. Re Scary Things: Rush Limbaugh and his kind have no say in Europe. Ignore this type of American paranoia and enjoy your trip. As a European-American (I assume) you will be returning to your roots. Fear not. You will be among family. Driving: take a GPS with Euro maps. Or consider travel by train and factor in increased travel times. We have done both on our 20 trips and have found that each has its advantages.
"The Euros are much more tolerant drivers than Americans. Road rage is unacceptable." Please inform the Germans who share my commute of that opinion... and I won't even get started on the Belgians on the Brussels ring and the Dutch along the Randstadt... In general, driving on European highways is about par with moderately heavy US traffic. Some of the areas with the worst congestion, by far, are a few of the places you propose to visit by auto- Frankfurt, Paris, and Brussels. The before mentioned Randstadt in the Netherlands is also an infamous stretch. I'm not going to wade into the clash of dogma that sometimes erupts on this website on driving vs. rail vs. discount airlines... but I will state that in cities, you will find a car pretty useless for getting around. Between cities, it's a reasonable option. I'll let you decide if it's worth the cost of renting or leasing when the car will spend a lot of time sitting idle in an expensive parking lot.
As I drive a righthand drive car in Germany, when dazzled by oncoming headlights I just keep my eyes on the gutter and make sure I am in it! I reckon then it's up to them to make sure they miss me. If they don't slow down then I reckon they know they have enough space. Scary, but it works.
That sounds like 6 folk travelling together, a perfect use for a car if I heard of one. Read all the way through for the punchline. Yes, I did say that the Gotthard is a bit of an adventure and that one needs to prepare for it. If you're not prepared I assure you that 10 miles of tunnel can be a surprise. Swiss tunnels are, however, some of the most safe in the world. I also said that the further south you go in Italy the more aggressive the driving. I said that again to prepare you. They won't run you off the road or into you (usually) but you may not get your turn into the intersection. I drive throughout western Europe every year, safely. Each country and region has regional peculiarities in driving. You will read about them here. The way I deal with them is to see the exotic driving and parking habits as part of the rich tapestry of travel. Get into the mindset of the locals - understand why they drive the way they do, and you'll be fine. Italy is honeycombed with tunnels, usually narrow, fast, poorly lit, bumpy, twisty. Not all have all those qualities but most have many. Yes, Romans and Neapolitans do park with the parking brake off so that cars can be booted forwards and back so that more cars can park in the insufficient space. If you expect the Romans to drive with all the lane discipline of an avalanche of rocks you won't be surprised. If you expect Germans to fly past you at huge rates of speed then come to a screeching halt 5 km on, you won't be surprised. .... to be continued ...
"Road rage is unacceptable here". This might be the single dumbest thing I've ever read on here...
"If you expect Germans to fly past you at huge rates of speed then come to a screeching halt 5 km on, you won't be surprised." That is, without a doubt, the truest description of autobahn driving I have read on this website.
I found driving in Europe fairly similar to driving here. It all depends on where you are. On the highways and country roads, it's easy going, and in the cities, some aggressive driving is needed. Be careful when going into cities in Italy as they will ticket you for unauthorized entrances into the cities (i.e., Florence), which can cost lots of money and do not come to you until well after your vacation (they photograph you and mail you the ticket). Maybe you can research where to park right outside the cities and then catching public transport into the cities in order to avoid the costly tickets and expensive parking fees. Perhaps your hotels can give you suggestions.
A GPS would be an excellent thing to have in addition to a good map.
... part two .... If you expect a Belgian to join the highway in the left lane and cut all the way across 4 lanes to the exit on the right without signalling you won't be surprised. Ok, you might be but the hundreds of other drivers won't be because that's the only way to get there, and Belgians don't indicate anyway, unless they are behind you in the fast lane and want to get out of your trunk and past you. Hell, Belgians didn't have to pass a driving test until relatively recently. What it all boils down to is preparation. Understand what will come and you will be prepared. As I said, I drive all the time. I love it. I get into their heads, and I enjoy it. So - the bottom line - I think that with 6 you couldn't do better than driving. Yes, you need to pack light!!! because otherwise you won't fit the 6 of you and your luggage in. Yes, you need a big van for 6. No bench seats here, and you are driving many hundreds of miles and need a little comfort. You need frequent comfort stops so plan time with lots of padding. Use a good GPS and put the best map reader in the front seat. Parking will be tough in big cities, no question. Use car parks, not the street, and be aware zones you are not allowed in upon penalty of high fines. Planning, again. There are good safe places in Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris. In the cities park it. Period. I think you could have an absolute ball on this journey. Don't be afraid, prepare. And take plenty of camera cards.
I have to agree with the other posters who live in European countries. My family has driven all over Europe. We've encountered considerate drivers, but we've seen plenty of rude and unsafe drivers, too. We prefer to drive in the country and smaller towns, but I just hate trying to drive in larger cities, especially in Italy. I feel that you take your life in your hands just walking in Rome, let alone driving. And yes, parking is often a problem. Might not work for everyone, but for me a combination of driving and taking the train would be more attractive.
Oh, and forgot to mention this- you need an environmental sticker to drive in German cities. A rental car SHOULD include this (knock on wood)....
Thanks Tom, and a Vignette to drive in Switzerland (CHF40, valid from December prior to the year on the sticker through January of the year after - ask if your car has one, some will, some won't) and Austria (may be bought for as little as a few days cheaply or as much as a year, much less cheaply).
Cost of 6 people on a train versus 1 rental car could make the difference. Have driven many times all through Europe and love the flexibility and spontaneity this can allow. However, in the city center of Florence and Rome driving and parking can be crazy. I would stay out a bit and take a shuttle in. You might also be able to get rid of your car in Florence and take the train to Rome then back to Florence and pick up a new car at the airport. I have done this and it worked well. Plus, had the train experience. In Venice, I stayed a bit further out and just took a bus in. No problems. As for driving, just read the rules of the road.... stay in the right lane on the freeway unless you are passing and get over if somone comes up behind you! The way we are supposed to drivie in the US, but we don't! Seems so much more efficient and safer....However, sometimes the Italian motorcyclists freak me out...
Linda, The good folks here are making accurate comments for the most part, but are being less helpful than they could be, in my opinion. I will attempt to give you a direct, "in-a-nutshell" sort of response, as your question seems to imply you have never driven in Europe before; Outside of city centers, driving is as easy as can be. The roads are generally well-maintained and well marked, although you will have to adjust your expectations for signage (you will be pointed in the direction of nearby towns, not road numbers). I have seen much more poor driving habits in the US than in Europe. You are a group of six. For some odd reason, minivans are rare in Europe and SUV's with three rows of seats are almost non-existent. If you do find a minivan to rent, it will likely be 2-3 times the cost of a mid-size car. I have looked, as we have a family of 5. That extra cost involved, along with lower milage and higher gas prices could make train travel competitively priced. But the real crux of the matter for you is how much time you might be spending in larger cities. Having a vehicle of any type is of no use, whatsoever in any sizeable city. In fact, it is nothing but an expensive burden to park. If you are simply trying to get from one city to another, don't even consider a car. Just take the train. As a bonus, the train will drop you right in the city center, possibly within walking distance of where you want to be and stay. I enjoy driving in Europe, but it only makes sense over a prolonged section of your itinerary that is predominantly rural. And, for what it's worth, I would strongly encourage anyone to plan a section of their itinerary that is exactly that, and avoid that tempting parade of big cities so many people seem hell-bent on doing all at once. Oh, and remember to drop the vehicle in the same country you rented from or you pay huge $$$. Good Luck!!
why do the Belgians think it a good idea to spend a small fortune on lighting their motorways? Would the money not be better spent on filling in the potholes, rather than illuminating them? and if you find yourselves in Germany with time on your hands and you fancy a little light entertainment go to a carpark and watch them trying to manouvre. Great fun! They may all drive like Schumacher but they can't reverse.
My Belgian wife asks the exact opposite question- why don't these Germans light their roads? Another fun thing about driving in Germany: the only light on the roads at night is from other cars' headlights. It's OK on the autobahn, but you can't see anything on the rural secondary roads.
Given how expensive rail and air travel are for 6, I wouldn't say driving is a terrible idea. Only pieces I have to add: Watch out for the French driving in reverse. They think they're good at it and don't hesitate to drive in reverse down a one-way street. (Something I have to admit even I have done.) There is a type of rental car available that would suit your needs, but you would have to pack LIGHT to get in it. Look for something like a Peugeot 5008 or Ford S-Max with the 7 seat configuration. Toyota makes a Corolla Verso, but it won't give as much luggage space as the other two. These are large cars with seats that easily fold up/down. The middle row is 3 actual seats (vs one bench) and the back has two seats (but with little leg room) There might be more makes/models, but these are the ones off the top of my mind.
Linda, as mentioned, you've got to get that car back to Frankfurt (or perhaps 'just' Germany). Depending on HOW you're planning to drive - trying to get from Point A to Point B quickly, or wanting to mosey along with no timetable - might make a difference in whether you want a car or want to use trains. I'm not starting any "car is better/worse than train" screamfest, but have you actually priced out the real costs of the trains? Point-to-point vs train passes? Those rental cars drink expensive fuel, your route may have lots of toll roads, parking is often expensive (esp. while the car sits for DAYS in Paris, Florence, Venice, Rome), and there are very good reasons you see so many tiny 'Smart car'-types around; minivans 'may' be difficult to manuver in Europe. Not impossible, though. IF you're just trying to get from Here to There, you might be able to make some advance purchases on train tickets (esp. in France) and get some good deals on German trains to be break-even, or so, with a minivan. A car may be perfect for you, but if you're automatically thinking you'll be better off without actually having priced both ways out, you may be surprised.
I think leasing a car and driving is a great idea. It will save money over six train tickets plus you can travel on your own schedule. Be sure to pick a car that is big enough for everyone AND their bags. We leased a seven passenger car for five and found it was just right (kids were 7-16). If we had been bigger or had more than one carry-on each, we would have been cramped. Bring a decent GPS, TomTom or Garmin, with European maps. Buy it here, learn how to use it, then bring it with you. It's a lifesaver in Italy but can help you find convenient nearby parking and/or gas anywhere. You will also save time driving straight to your destination without getting lost - the time savings alone is worth the cost of the GPS.
Linda, You ask " in general is driving a bad idea," I would say no, but it's a trade-off to taking public transportation. It depends on how much off the beaten path your sites are. I know that in Germany, Belgium, northern France, especially in the Somme and Nord Pas-de-Calais area, the area around Paris and CDG had I not been driven, I would not have seen some of the more esoteric sites (war cemeteries, battlefields, historical villages, monuments/museums, etc.) or being in a position to cover as much as I did. Since you'll be in Brussels, if you intend to see Waterloo, you absolutely need a car to get around to seeing the numerous monuments, museums, and the some of the surrounding villages connected with the Waterloo Campaign. From what I have seen about the different nationalities in Europe and their driving stereotypes (which obviously contain an element...how much of the element is debatable... of truth, otherwise it would not be a stereotype), I find them basically accurate as to those on the Belgians, Germans, les français, the Dutch. No need for a car in Paris...the locals park it outside the city and ride the metro/RER into where they want to go in Paris.
One more thought regarding comparing prices van+gas+ vs train; Keep in mind that many train fares can be had for deep discounts if you buy right away when they become available (90 days prior or so). In Germany, these fares are often in the neighborhood of 60-70% off. There is a "luxury" in being able to meander and do your own thing at your own whim with a car. But trains have their "luxuries", too like being able to get up and walk around, grab a snack, pee, NOT get into an accident or break down, not have to find a place to park, and for the driver, at least - not have to drive (it's work!). Don't let your choice get dictated by which option saves you $100. You are going to spend $10,000+ on this trip. A couple hundred$ is nothing in comparison. Make the choice that is ulimately most convenient for your group. The best itineraries when it comes to mode of travel look something like this: FLY (city) TRAIN (city) CAR (rural stretch of days, then drop off near your next city) TRAIN (city) FLY
We have driven in Germany on three different trips and have no problems at all. It is difficult to drive in the large cities so you may want to consider staying in a smaller town then take public transportation into the city. We did that in 2006 during Oktoberfest in Munich and it worked out great.
While driving from city to city is probably a good idea, I would strongly advise against using a car to get around in Paris. Find a hotel with parking near the outer edge of Paris and use the Meto / RER to get around the city. I drive through Paris now and then, but do not attempt to do any sight seeing by car. Some of the newer hotels on the outskirts have open air parking, while some of the older hotels have underground parking. However, most older hotels have NO parking. I suspect this would also apply to Italy. We have found it to be true in Barcelona and Munich.
I have noticed not a single person has mentioned the price of fuel and considering a family of 6 will certainly need a large vehicle, this is an important item to think about. Gasoline costs about $8 a gallon here, and hopefully James or Tom will give a more accurate price and what kind of milage one can expect here, so that you can figure out a price comparison to driving as opposed to riding the trains. The leg of the trip from Frankfurt to Italy, and from Italy to France, I think I would be best done by plane. The rest by train. Note to John. Please do NOT use the word "Euros" to describe people who live in Europe. It is considered a bit rude. I also think your automatic assumption that anyone visiting Europe has European roots is a bit bold. What, no American tourists with Asian, African, Indian, Middle Eastern or S.American heritage have interest in visiting?
I have a VW Passat, and to fill up 3/4 tank costs about 70-80 euros (the currency, not the people). Mileage is about what you would expect for an average unleaded fuel car. For comparison, I can drive from just north of Mannheim to Leuven, Belgium on about a half a tank of fuel. The diesels they sell over here, however, get much better mileage.
I always rent a standard transmission diesel. Mileage is amazing and standard gets better performance from the small European engines (plus better mileage). Since most tourists ask for automatic gas cars, supply and demand usually means a much better rate too.
To elaborate on what Brad wrote, the turbo diesel cars they sell over here are nothing like the slow, dirty imports of yesteryear that some of the older posters may remember. The acceleration isn't quite up to the same level as for higher end gasoline power cars, but it's still pretty good. And the mileage is amazing. Why you can't get turbo diesels in the US is beyond me.
John, it must be comforting to know that there will always be someone around to tell you how to behave.
Regarding drop off charges. Our lease was picked up in Amsterdam and dropped in Rome. We had pick up/drop charges on both ends because they were outside of France (pickup/drop off is free in France) but it was still a great deal.
Just got back from my second trip to Germany and Austria, this time adding a jaunt to Prague. The only additional advice I'd give is to take a couple minutes to "study" european road signs so they're more familiar to you. I think the concerns about driving in cities are a bit overstated as I had no trouble driving in either Prague or München. More traffic, sure; have to dodge the occasional tram, but as long as you have experience driving in larger cities, you'll be fine.
A note that is usually already mentioned by now: the drivers will need an International Drivers License. ( You can search for everyone's previous posts on the validity of the importance of the IDL). I have the impression that speeding in France is more serious than in Italy or Germany; none of this "innocent until proven guilty" stuff.
In the south of France, Speed Cameras ( radar) had the GPS sounding off frequently.