Tips for driving in Europe

Travelling Well | Michael Gebicki | Posted on 20 June 2019

What you need to know for a self-drive European holiday.

Heading for Europe on holiday? One of the best ways to enhance the experience is to get behind the wheel. True, Europe has brilliant transportation networks, but your train won’t stop to let you taste wines at the vineyard that produced them, allow you to linger at a field of poppies, nor stop off for a cream tea at the Fingle Bridge Inn in West Devon’s Drewsteignton. 

A hire car lets you go where you like, when you like. If you want to explore countryside, nothing beats it. When you’re driving along an avenue of plane trees on a sunny morning in rural France or tacking through the hairpins on a Swiss alpine road, life is very beautiful.

Here are 10 ways to smooth your journey. 

An image of a parisian intersection with cars and pedestrians moving around on a sunny day

Not keen to tackle Paris’ famed boulevards in a car? Pick up your hire car at the airport or edge of the city instead and head for the country. 


International Driving Permit

Many drivers will tell you that they’ve never been asked for an International Driving Permit at the car-hire desk and therefore they’re a waste of money. Neither have I, but I carry one all the same because in many countries they’re a legal requirement. An IDP is a translation of your state-issued licence into several foreign languages, establishing you as a licensed driver in Belgium, Romania or any other country that requires an IDP. 

If you don’t have an IDP and you’re stopped by police or involved in an accident in a country that requires one, the law and your travel insurer might regard you as an unlicensed driver, and that won’t end happily. Some countries, such as the UK, do not require Australian licence holders to have an IDP. Check the requirement at your destination on the RACV website. IDPs are issued by the RACV at a cost of $42, valid for one year.

Book ASAP

Just like airline ticket prices, the cheapest cars are the first to go. As the pick-up date approaches, supply dries up, especially in the cheaper categories, and the cost of car hire becomes progressively more expensive. 

There’s nothing to lose by booking early since your credit card is not charged until the hire period begins, unless you’ve gone for a cheaper, ‘pay-now’ option. Most car-hire operators allow you to cancel your booking up to 48 hours before pick-up time with no penalty. 

Who to book with?

Google ‘hire car in x’ and the search engine will almost certainly come back with several car-hire aggregators as well as familiar names such as Thrifty. Aggregators are essentially brokers. They scour all the car-hire sites on the internet and come up with prices. 

Some of the prices on aggregators’ sites might look more attractive than the price offered by the car-hire operator itself, but if you book through them you’re accepting their conditions, not those of the car-hire operator. It makes sense to check aggregators’ websites to see what the various deals are, but book with the car-hire operator. 

A close up of a bright red Fiat driving down a classic Italian laneway

Experience Italy in a classic Fiat.


A birdseye shot of a hair pin turn in Switzerland next to a vibrant blue lake

Prepare for hairpin turns in Switzerland.


A yellow tram winds its way through the street in Lisbon

Mix it with Portugal’s iconic trams.


Insurance

All hire cars in Europe come with collision damage waiver. If you have an accident and damage the vehicle, your liability will be limited to the excess, typically around $2500, although it can be more if you’ve gone for an exciting Italian or German marque. 

You can choose to reduce this excess at the time you hire the vehicle and the desk crew will try and push you in this direction, since this is a lucrative revenue stream. Your travel insurance policy might cover your excess, check the fine print (RACV Travel Insurance covers vehicle excess up to $8000). 

Where to start

Driving on the right-hand side of the road, coping with traffic, foreign signage and navigation in an unfamiliar car is a challenge, but infinitely more challenging when you start driving your hire car from a city depot. For that reason I prefer to pick up my hire car at an airport. Roads leading away from airports are usually well signposted, they don’t involve too many turns and you’re more quickly ushered onto multi-lane roads where you can stay in one lane until you feel comfortable. 

Navigation

Chances are a GPS will be one of the optional extras your car-hire operator will offer. In an unfamiliar country, a GPS system with turn-by-turn voice instructions is a gift from the travel gods. However, they add anything from $12 to $24 per day to your car hire. 

One alternative is to use a navigation app on your smartphone or device such as Google Maps or Waze, which do exactly the same thing. On the downside, you need a data connection for these to work and unless you have a local SIM card that might end up costing you heaps. Another alternative is to download a navigation app to your smartphone that does not require a data connection – just like the satellite-based system that in-car GPS systems use. You pay a fee to install these apps but it’s fairly modest compared with the cost of hiring a GPS system from your car-hire operator. Examples include CoPilot GPS and Sygic.

If you use an app for navigation make sure you have the cable to connect your phone or device to your vehicle’s accessory port, navigation apps drain your phone’s battery like water running down a plughole. 

A car is driving along the Autobahn in Germany

Every motor enthusiast’s dream... a spin on Germany’s autobahn.


Diesel vs petrol

Diesel-engine cars are more popular in Europe than in Australia, and the reason is the fuel price. Diesel gives you more kilometres per litre. Since the price of diesel fuel is around 2 to 10 per cent lower than petrol, this is a win-win situation. 

After several years of shunting diesel-powered vehicles around Europe, there is no real downside. Engine noise is marginally greater than with a petrol engine vehicle but they’re smooth, responsive and easy to drive. Especially for the driver who plans to rack up big distances, diesel is the way to go.

Check for damage

When you pick up your vehicle you should be given a damage report to show any existing dings and dents. Upon return, any additional scrapes and bumps will be noted and, unless you’ve opted for full excess cover, you’ll be charged. It sometimes happens that less scrupulous operators will not list all the damage when they hand over the keys, and a fake charge for damages will appear on your next credit card statement. 

When you pick up your car, take a few minutes to walk around it several times and make sure the damage report details everything. If you take delivery in a dark undercover garage, make another inspection in daylight as soon as possible. Being super paranoid, and having been stung, I take a series of shots on my smartphone when I collect the vehicle, same again when I return it. 

Light it up

Get used to seeing headlights on low beam during daylight hours. In many parts of Europe, lights on is a safety requirement at all times of day as well as night. Drive without lights on in Scandinavia and you might even get tooted, which is a severe reprimand. 

Turning your lights on is a decision you usually don’t have to make thanks to daytime running lights (DRLs), which come on automatically whenever a vehicle’s engine starts. Since 2011, DRLs have been mandatory for all new cars in the EU, and it would be hard to find a hire car not equipped with this system. The rationale is increased visibility and greater safety, and road accident statistics support that view. 

Drinking and driving

The legal blood alcohol content for drivers is generally 0.05 right across Europe, the same as in Australia, but there are exceptions. In Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania, countries that you might not necessarily associate with sobriety behind the wheel, it’s zero. In Poland and Sweden it’s 0.02. 

These low limits usually reflect an attempt by authorities to stamp down hard on drink driving, responsible for a disproportionate number of road fatalities in those countries. In England, by contrast, the limit is 0.08, but 0.05 in Scotland. 

Planning a European road trip? Apply online for your International Driving Permit