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travelling by rental car

We plan to travel to Europe soon and we want to drive country to country by car. Can you please give us tips on renting a car in Europe and driving cross country by car? How are the gas prices compared here in the US? Is it cheaper to take the rail (we are a family of 4)? Our base will be in London (with family) and plan to see mainland Europe for 21 days. Thank you!

Posted by
31319 posts

Jovie, Were you planning to rent the car in the U.K. for travel in Europe? Using a right-hand drive vehicle on the continent will be "awkward" (although those from the U.K. seem to manage quite well with that). As the others have mentioned, using a car for travel from city-to-city is NOT the best idea and not the most efficient travel method. A few things to consider: > Travel by car will be slower than by train, so getting from one location to another will use more of your limited travel time. > Cost of fuel is expensive. > Cost of tolls (which are frequent on the Motorways) > Cost of parking (again expensive and in some cities difficult to find) > If you're driving in Switzerland, vehicle must have the highway tax decal, or you'll face large fines > If you're driving in Italy, each driver must have the compulsory International Driver's Permit. Failure to produce an IDP if requested can result in fines on the spot! > Again for driving in Italy, risk of going through ZTL areas. EACH pass through one of the automated Cameras will result in a €100+ ticket, which you'll receive in the mail several months after you return home (possibly accompanied by an "administrative charge" on your credit card from the rental firm, for them to supply your information to the local authorities). > Possibility of theft or vandalism, should you leave any belongings or luggage in your car while you're touring. > Possible restrictions on which countries you are allowed to drive the rental car (you didn't say which countries you'd be driving in?). Although it may be a bit more expensive for train tickets, it will be a much more pleasant way of getting around. Cheers!

Posted by
813 posts

You'll need to let the rental companies know which countries you plan on taking the car, there are many mainland Europe countries that many rental companies do not want their cars going into. Poland is at the top of the list for sure (make sure you get the super theft insurance if you travel there). Again, various countries have various regulations, Switzerland and Austria need a vignette affixed to the windshield to drive on their autobahns. Countries like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, etc. will have you stop at their borders for passport control, etc. You may need additional paperwork or have fees associated with taking a vehicle into the country. For the most up to date information on travel through all the European countries, visit the Department of State website.

Posted by
961 posts

The last price I saw was the equivalent of about US $7.33 per gallon. Quite a lot more than here. Changing locations will cost more than staying in one place. Can't really answer your question unless we know what you're trying to see. Have you read any guidebooks and do you know when you're going? Taking the train is easy, but driving is easy also if you are not planning on staying in big cities ( like London, Paris, Amsterdam,Munich...) You do NOT want a car in the city. Roads are good in Europe and well marked for tourists.
London isnt really a base for the rest of Europe; are you flying in and out of London, so you need to return there? or are you thinking of traveling around Great Britain mostly?

Posted by
60 posts

We will be flying in and out from London. We plan to spend a few days in London to see the area then go to the mainland. We do plan to see the big cities but we plan to book tours once we get there to see the sights. We will basically be using the car to get from one city to another. How are parking at hotels by the way? Do they charge fees?
Thank you so much for your help!

Posted by
2799 posts

Cars are a major hassle in the big cities. Traffic is bad, routes are confusing, and parking very hard to find and expensive. Having a car will limit you. A car can be a nice way of touring the countruside of France, Germany, etc. But there is no point in using a car just to get from one major city to another. Take the Eurostar train from London to Paris (buy in advance to get discounts; kids are much cheaper than adults). From Paris, depending on where you wish to go, you may be able to find family discounts on tickets.

Posted by
60 posts

Thank you for all the wonderful advice! Now I think maybe the Rail & Drive would make more sense. We'll take the rail from one big city to another but do they have stops at towns like Cologne, Nuremberg, Cesky Krumlov, Innsbruck, and other smaller cities? This is going to be our first time in Europe you see, so I'm still clueless.

Posted by
9110 posts

Congrats on dropping the car idea. It saved me a lot of typing. I spend about three months in europe each year - - every bit of it with a car. You don't want or need one for what you have in mind. And forget the rail and drive - - you don't need that either. I don't use trains, but all of those places are served by rail.

Posted by
4365 posts

Step #1: Buy "Europe through the Back Door". Step #2: Read "ETBD". Step #3: Start 'efficiently' planning out your trip. It's a lot of time saved! None of that is meant to sound 'smarmy' or rude...;-) That is the best preparatory book for traveling in Europe that is out there! The 'How-To's' of everything: how to rent a car, WHEN to rent a car, how to buy train tickets, how to ride the trains, how to exchange money, what to pack and how to pack it, how to call your family back home, etc... "This is going to be our first time in Europe you see, so I'm still clueless." You won't be nearly so after reading that book. Of course, nothing is better than actually getting some travel under your belt, but that book will save you tons of blood, sweat, tears, money, aggravation, your marriage LOL! By the way, have you seen any of Rick Steves' TV shows? Some have, some haven't. Either way, they're available on this website or on YouTube...and there's a three-part Travel Skills program that I think you'd enjoy.

Posted by
26402 posts

Just one more nail in the car plan - you asked about parking at hotels. In London you can expect to pay somewhere between £20 to £40 to park overnight at a moderate hotel, more at posh ones. You also have to pay the Congestion Charge which is £10 per business day, if not paid same day it starts to rocket up. In most of Europe, if you have the right stickers on your car (they are mandatory and cost money - Umweltplakette in Germany, Vignette in Switzerland, Vignette in Austria, etc.) and your hotel offers parking figure €14 to €25 a night. In other parts of Europe, you cannot enter the centre part of the city unless registered and you will incur huge fines if you do, Italy being the most famous but not unique. Just bear these things in mind.

Posted by
11798 posts

When you get to four people, traveling by car is at least as cheap as traveling by train and you can travel on your own schedule (can be a big plus with kids) starting and stopping as you wish. One down side is for the driver. If I had the choice I would rather be on a train relaxing, reading my guidebook or writing in my journal rather than driving. Bringing a GPS at least solves any navigation arguments and helps you find parking and gas when you need it. Others have described the impracticality of parking in cities. If you are doing strictly city to city and stopping for several days in each, a car loses any cost advantage over point to point tickets on a train. Cars work best when you plan to stop here and there in towns and villages that often aren't well served by trains (Tuscany may be the best example). You can also stay at hotels with free parking (outside of city centers) and use public transportation to get into the center. Staying in the center is where most tourists want to be so consider carefully if staying in the suburbs will satisfy you? I always go for a standard transmission diesel. Standard trans get a little more performance out of the small European engines (and better mileage). Diesel costs a little less than regular gas and you really can't tell the difference (no noise, vibration or odor in European diesel cars). Diesels are know for their great "gas" mileage (just make sure you know the difference between gas and diesel in the local language). Few tourists ask for standard diesels so you're likely to get the car significantly cheaper than you would choosing an automatic gas model.

Posted by
7205 posts

Does the train stop in Cologne, Nuremberg, Cesky Krumlov, Innsbruck??? Yes, of course - and MANY other places as well. You would be well advised to stick to 100% train travel. If this is your first time visiting the continent then you may have no idea how very simple train travel can be. Unless you plan to veer way off the beaten path you really don't need a car at all. We also rented a car on our first trip to Europe because we just couldn't imagine traveling everywhere we wanted to go on train...because the notion is just so foreign coming from the USA. We've rented cars on 2 or 3 trips, but once we saw how easy and well connected the rail system is we dumped the car and never looked back.

Posted by
60 posts

You've all given me great advice, but now I think I'm almost scared to drive in Europe! LOL! My husband loves to drive which is the primary reason why we thought of renting a car (and of course that it's cheaper). Also, there's the issue of dragging our luggage with us everywhere. I saw on Rick Steve's show that there's lockers in the stations but are they large enough to fit small/moderate sized suitcases? I don't think I can just carry a backpack like he does.
Since we gave up on the idea of driving, now my new dilemma is finding the best railpass for us. My older son is 14 so if I get him an youth pass can he still sit with us on 1st class? My other son is 8 and he is only 1/2 priced on a Saverpass. I think the Eurail Global Pass is best for us because we plan to see 8 major cities (Brussels, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Prague, Vienna, Venice, Nice, and Paris). Eurostar, I read, is not included so that's extra. I can't figure out how much though. Do I get a discount if I have a Eurorail pass?

Posted by
12040 posts

" I saw on Rick Steve's show that there's lockers in the stations but are they large enough to fit small/moderate sized suitcases? " The lockers come in all sizes, but most have sufficient space to fit moderate to large sized suitcases. "Since we gave up on the idea of driving, now my new dilemma is finding the best railpass for us." A rail pass may or may not be your best option (for most travelers, it isn't). The only way to know is to do the math yourself. First, nail down a fairly complete itinerary. Then, go to the websites of the national rail companies or multinationals (NOT the 3rd party ticket resellers like RailEurope or EUrail), like Deutsche Bahn, SNCF, Nederlands Spoorweg, NMBS, Eurostar, Thalys etc. to get an accurate pricing on 2nd class point-to-point tickets. Note that if you can commit to riding a specific train in advanced, you can often get a substantial discount for some of the longer train rides. Add up the total and THEN compare to the costs of a rail pass (plus all the annoying mandatory reservation fees they tack on). Only after you do your homework will you know which is a better option for you. For the most part, passes rarely save people any money these days. But because you proposed trip includes several fairly geographically dispersed cities... it might. You won't know until you crunch the numbers.

Posted by
4365 posts

OK - I'm just going to copy Tim's entire last post for emphasis: "Does the train stop in Cologne, Nuremberg, Cesky Krumlov, Innsbruck??? Yes, of course - and MANY other places as well. You would be well advised to stick to 100% train travel. If this is your first time visiting the continent then you may have no idea how very simple train travel can be. Unless you plan to veer way off the beaten path you really don't need a car at all. We also rented a car on our first trip to Europe because we just couldn't imagine traveling everywhere we wanted to go on train...because the notion is just so foreign coming from the USA. We've rented cars on 2 or 3 trips, but once we saw how easy and well connected the rail system is we dumped the car and never looked back." It is literally easier to say where the trains DON'T go. Remember (not literally, LOL) how 100 years ago +/- the trains in the USA used to stop at both big cities and every tiny station in between? Everybody had rail service. Europe looks alot more like that than our Amtrak (oy). The level of 'connectivity', for lack of a better word, will blow your mind. There are some of us who travel to Europe simply bacause it's fun to ride the trains...NOT that I'm going to name names ;-) (cont)

Posted by
4365 posts

(cont) AND ditto everything Tom wrote...On to Lecture Number 2: Packing Lightly I'm going to step out there and 'pronounce' that you MUST pack lightly! (and don't think that doesn't apply if you've got a trunk and a car...rarely do you park anywhere near your hotel room; you're probably carrying your bags up several flights of stairs, several blocks away from where the taxi spit you out, or where you parked the car, etc.) I KNOW it's a very radical concept for the first-timer; it was definitely foreign territory (no pun) for me. I've never looked back. Each of you CAN pack in a carry-on-sized bag and have everything you NEED. Not want, although there's room for some of those, too. Start here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ird4DF5fgHE&feature=related http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2P2R5-Zc7To http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moLGxdId9uU&feature=BF&list=SPDA1849C66C2A6D62&index=7 Now, exactly what is your planned travel itinerary - ex: Mar 3: London-Paris
Mar 8: Paris-Cologne Mar 10: Cologne-Munich (etc.) That will make it MUCH easier to help you with some planning strategies. (you may not have the exact days, or even months, nailed down yet; not a big problem, but get as close as you can) Lecture Over ;-)

Posted by
60 posts

LOL!!! Thanks for the "lecture"! I can safely say I trust everybody's advice against driving in European cities. About packing lightly, now that's another issue i have to tackle ;)
Anybody got any tips for me about railpasses and point-to-point tickets?

Posted by
12040 posts

OK, since this is probably new to you, here's some more help. If you're not familiar with the names of the various national rail companies in Europe, go to this page on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Bahn Go to the bottom of the page, and open the tab that reads "National Railway Companies of Europe". You'll see a link to the wikipedia articles on all the rail companies, and each article should have a link to their own website. If you know how to use an on-line airline search engine, you shouldn't have much problem with these websites. The one part that may give you some confusion is a city may have more than one train station. If the city is in a German speaking country, choose, for example "Mannheim Hauptbahnhof" or "Hbf". For Brussels, if you're arriving from a different country, choose "Brussel Zuid", otherwise, choose "Brussel Centraal". If you're not sure, ask someone here. Re-reading your posts, it looks like you picked 8 different cities that are fairly geographically dispersed for only 21 days. That's going to be a fairly rushed trip. You may want to trim back somewhat.

Posted by
31319 posts

Jovie, As you've decided to travel primarily by rail, it would be a really good idea to read the "Rail Skills" chapter in Europe Through The Back Door. If you're not "up to speed" on how the trains work (ie: changes, the word for "track" in different languages, etc.), you could have problems. You may also find it very helpful to read go through the "Railpasses" section on this website (click the tab at the top). There's a brief tutorial there on using Railpasses. The subject of whether to use a Railpass, or which Railpass to use can be somewhat complicated. It's a good idea to do some "number crunching" to get a rough idea on what the cost of P-P tickets would be on each route, and then decide where a Railpass will save any money. There's a "Time & Cost" chart in the Railpasses section of this website that will provide somewhat of an estimate. One important point to mention is that Railpasses do NOT include the reservation fees that are compulsory on some trains - these must be paid separately "out of pocket). Especially in Italy, DON'T be caught without a valid reservation (even if you do have a Railpass) or you'll be fined on the spot and it won't be cheap! You'll also need to remember to validate your tickets prior to boarding the train. If using P-P tickets, the reservations will be included. There are numerous trains each day between major cities, so it's also important to check the schedules on the rail websites to determine times and other details (ie: whether reservations are required). Slower local trains don't usually require these but fast trains such as the TGV in France always require reservations. Good luck with your planning!

Posted by
5099 posts

Lots of good advice above. Get the books ( Europe through the Back Door, for starters) and read it, cover to cover. Start today. Start watching Rick Steves videos. Your local PBS station probably has them every day. Watch as many as you can, even if they cover places you are not going to - they are filled with practical tips that will be applicable to your trip. If the episodes for the specific areas that you're planning to go to are not on TV soon, rent those episodes. This will help you get a better idea about what to expect, what sights to see, and specific tips and tricks for your trip. Get the book(s) that cover the places you want to go, and start studying them now. Work on your itinerary, and nail down the dates when you will be where. Start making hotel reservations once you have a firm plan - the best hotels fill up many months in advance. Embrace "packing light". There are lots of good reasons why everyone here suggests you follow Rick's advice on this. Do as much research as you can on the railpass options. Plan your itinerary, then call Rick's Travel Center and talk to one of their rail experts. You can buy your rail pass from them (if it turns out a railpass will be your best option).

Posted by
12040 posts

"There's a "Time & Cost" chart in the Railpasses section of this website that will provide somewhat of an estimate." Do NOT use the cost estimates in Rick Steves' books or this website for comparison, the numbers you'll see here are a significant over-estimate from what you are likely to pay for a 2nd class ticket. I emphasize again my original advice, get your quotes directly from the source, the websites of the individual national rail companies. You can get some good advice in "Europe Through the Back Door", but I do not recommend it for planning overall itineraries. In my opinion, Mr. Steves' books are best used for guides to specific destinations, but they simply leave out too much to help structure a long trip.

Posted by
961 posts

Jovie, you'll have a good time if you don't try to see too much. Try staying at least 2 nights and preferably 3 in each destination for a better trip and more comfort.
Your boys are old enough to pull their own wheeled suitcases and wear a backpack if they are have the suggested list. ( Now i'm drawing the ire of the nonwheeled crowd!). At that age my younger son used a Sierra bag similar to this: http://www.ebags.com/product/high-sierra/at-gear-ultimate-access/205766?productid=10113352 . He could put his toys and a change of clothes in the zippoff pack and clothes in the main body of the suitcase. We zipped his pack on when needed. Older son used his school backpack and carryon sized wheeled suitcase. We adults take turns pulling if someone was tired or needed an extra hand, but they always have to wear their pack.

Posted by
60 posts

I'm very grateful for all the good advice. However, I just realized this is so much more complicated than I thought! I'm a little bit overwhelmed but I will start reading Europe Through The Back Door ASAP. I have been watching Samantha Brown's Passport to Europe and, of course, Rick Steve's show including the Travel Skills episodes.
Thanks again everybody! Wish me luck!!!

Posted by
31319 posts

Jovie, You may feel overwhelmed now, however that should clear up once your Itinerary starts to get sorted. A few comments..... > Brussels - you might consider spending part of your time in Bruges, as it's beautiful. > You could substitute Munich for Frankfurt or Salzburg for Vienna, depending on what type of sights you most want to see and how well these fit with the overall route plan. > You mentioned visiting eight cities in a time frame of 21-days, an average of about 2.6 days per city. That doesn't make any allowance for travel times between cities, so I suspect you may have to drop one or more of the cities on your list. > If you haven't purchased air tickets yet, you might consider open-jaw flights, into London (visit relatives) and fly home from one of the European airports. > If you could indicate which six (or so) cities you most want to see, it would make it easier for the group here to suggest workable Itineraries. Cheers!

Posted by
12040 posts

I would suggest trimming your obvious outliers- Vienna, Nice, and possibly Venice. At most, you might be able to include Venice or Vienna, but not both. Ken's suggestion to substitute Vienna with Salzburg is a good start. I would not drop Frankfurt, because from the list of cities you have included, it looks like you'll have to pass through there anyway. At the very least, stopping here for a night would help break up an otherwise very long travel day. Plus, it really is a nice city, even though it's not the type of place most people travel to Europe to visit.

Posted by
448 posts

Jovie - You have received a lot of great advice on this thread so far! I do have to agree with everyone else that you need to cut down your list of cities. 8 cities in 21 days means you will be spending most of your time in transit. Also, here's another idea if you can't fly back from anywhere but London or if there are huge distances between cities you really want to see.... Fly from London to your furthest destination and work your way back by train (such as Venice or Vienna). We do this often and it cuts down on quite a bit of travel time. You can also check into flights in place of your longer train rides - if it's not much cheaper or saves a lot of time, then it's usually easiest to take the train. (example - Venice to Paris, I would probably fly instead of taking the train...) easyJet is one budget airline I have used several times. Also, British Airways can be very competive flying from London to destinations in Europe. I really don't like RyanAir, but that's just a personal choice. There are several others - all listed in Rick's books.