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7 Things to Know Before Renting a Car in Europe

Tips and tricks before hitting the road across the pond.

U.S. News & World Report

7 Things to Know Before Renting a Car in Europe

Amalfi Coast, Italy.

With a little bit of know-how, renting a car in Europe can be a breeze.(Getty Images).

Imagine driving along Italy's Amalfi Coast, gazing at the ocean as your car winds through blood-curdling turns or peering over the elegant castles of France's Loire Valley. Driving a car rental through Europe can be an amazing way to explore top attractions and landscapes. You can tour top sights at your own pace, access remote, hard-to-reach areas and travel with the comforts of home. But before you embark on a once-in-a-lifetime European drive, here are a few must-know pointers.

You'll Find More Standard Vehicles

One of the biggest adjustments for Americans driving a rental in Europe is the prominence of standard rather than automatic rental cars. Most rental cars in Europe require manual transmission, though automatic vehicles are available. "If you're planning to rent a car, make reservations early from the U.S. before you leave for your trip to ensure the best availability, especially during peak travel times," says Julie Hall, a spokesperson for AAA.

To address the growing demand for automatic cars across the continent, Hertz Europe offers a "collection" series that allows drivers to rent specific models of cars with greater availability in automatics. In Italy, for example, the Hertz Prestige Collection features a large range of Audi models, while the Hertz Fun Collection has sporty models such as the Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Jeep, and the Hertz Green Collection offers a large range of Toyota Hybrid cars.

Finding Your Way Can Be Tricky

In the U.S., you may count on a resourceful app such as Waze or Google Maps to navigate through unfamiliar areas. But these apps may not work as well overseas. American drivers are often surprised at how inaccurate the mapping apps are on their phones in Europe, particularly outside of major cities. Fortunately, Hertz allows you to rent a portable GPS to take in your rental car to help with navigation, which can be much more accurate on small country roads and less explored parts of Europe.

There Are Restricted Parking Areas and Driving Zones

A downside of renting a car in Europe is that you have to find a location to park it. In major cities – even old walled cities like you find throughout Tuscany – parking options for your car rental may be limited and expensive. Make sure to inquire about the availability of parking at your hotel or vacation rental. Throughout Italy, there are restricted driving zones, which mapping apps may also not take into account, though a GPS will. These are typically areas within the old cities, such as Bologna, Rome and medieval towns throughout Tuscany, which are largely for pedestrian traffic. The fines are hefty for driving in these areas without a permit, up to 65 euros according to AutoEurope.com, and may be tracked by camera. In such Italian cities, there are often parking lots outside the restricted driving zones where you can leave your car for several hours or several days. These are common throughout Tuscany, and it's a smart idea to research the lot closest to your accommodations before you arrive.

Tolls and Vignettes Operate Differently

Tolls can be confusing in Europe, as they tend to function differently than those in the U.S. They can also come attached to a high price tag in countries like France, so it's a wise idea to research the cost of the tolls ahead of time so you can budget accordingly. In Italy, for example, you take a ticket at the first toll and then insert it at the exit toll to determine how much is due. France is similar in that you may be required to take a ticket upon entrance and pay upon exit, or closer to Paris, you may pay a fixed toll. Hertz Italy allows customers to rent an automatic toll device called Telerent for 3 euros (plus taxes and tolls) that allows drivers to use the yellow Telepass lanes on all Italian highways to simplify toll procedures. If you don't have an automatic toll device, you'll need to enter the line for cash, which allows you to pay with coins or notes or credit card.

Julia Slatcher, a professional travel adviser with Inspire World Travel, who has traveled through Europe extensively with her family, says some countries require a "vignette," or a sticker placed in the car window, rather than requiring tolls. "If you rent a car in that country, your car will already have one, but if you cross country borders, you will need to get one right after you cross the border, which is usually available at gas stations," she advises. According to Slatcher, Austria, Slovenia and Switzerland all require cars to carry vignettes.

You'll Need an International Driving Permit

You may wonder if you need a special driver's license when traveling by car in countries other than the U.S. While not required in all countries, an International Driving Permit can come in handy if you are stopped by police in a foreign country.

Available for purchase from AAA for $20, "an IDP [International Driving Permit] is a valid form of I.D. in 150 countries worldwide and translates your identification information into 10 languages," Hall explains. "The IDP can be used for one year from date of issue and must be accompanied by a valid U.S. driver's license at all times," she adds. More information is available at AAA.com/IDP.

Also be aware of speeding in foreign countries. Speeders are often tracked by camera and radar gun and later mailed a bill. Slatcher says it happened to her family in France. "About a week after returning from the southwest of France, we received a ticket in the mail, fining us 45 euros for exceeding the speed limit on back rural roads," she says.

You'll Need a Valid Passport to Cross Borders

If you are traveling between countries within the European Union, crossing borders is fairly simple and requires a passport stamp upon entry and exit. AAA recommends, however, that you do carry your passport with you when crossing into a different country. Also, keep in mind that some countries require a passport be valid at least six months beyond the date of your trip, so plan accordingly.

Refueling Can Be Confusing

Topping your tank can be confusing in Europe. Most cars operate on diesel fuel, and you'll want to be sure you're selecting the right fuel for your rental car. Ask your rental car company what type of gas you should use before you leave, or you can ask the attendant at the gas station if you are unsure. And remember, in Europe, gas is pumped in liters not gallons. Dr. Jessica Voigts, publisher of Wandering Educators & Journey to Scotland, was surprised at how few gas stations she found on her travels through Scotland. She advises drivers in Europe to keep a full tank whenever possible.


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About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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