So You Think You Want to Rent a Car
Should you rent a car for your trip? Traveling domestically in the US usually means either driving your own car from home to your destination, or flying somewhere and renting a car when you arrive. Most cities in the US don’t have convenient (if any) public transportation, things are spread out, and a car is almost a necessity in many situations.
So it makes sense that many people consider renting a car when traveling to Europe. While there are times when it makes sense, for most people in most situations, I think it’s unnecessary and quite a hassle to rent a car.
As much as everyone likes to complain about the high cost of gasoline in the US, it’s even worse in Europe. At the time of writing, the average price per liter in Munich is 1.63€ which is about $2.15.
To put that into perspective, one gallon is equivalent to about 3.8 liters, so one gallon of gasoline costs about $8.17. In Rome it would be about $9.20 per gallon.
A lot more than what you’re paying at home, right? Depending on the length of your trip, where you’re driving, and what kind of gas mileage you’re getting, you could be adding several hundred dollars to the cost of your trip.
Automatic vs manual transmission
In the US most people drive cars with an automatic transmission. In Europe it’s the opposite, most people drive manuals, which means that’s what most car rental agencies have on hand.
It is possible to rent an automatic, but availability is limited and often they are more expensive to rent. If you don’t know how to drive a stick shift, your vacation probably isn’t the time to learn.
Driving laws and road signs
Driving in Europe isn’t always the same as driving in the US. Different rules apply and different signs are posted on the roads, plus signs with words will be in the local language.
This can all be very confusing if you have never driven outside of the US before. Where you might think you have the right of way, a local driver will know that you don’t. It is all too easy for situations like this to lead to traffic tickets or accidents.
Car rental insurance expenses
Most US auto insurance policies will only cover you while you’re driving in the US, maybe Canada. That’s fine for renting a car while traveling in the US, but not so in Europe.
In order to rent a car and drive in Europe, you’ll have to either get your policy amended to include European coverage, which might not even be an option, or you’ll have to buy the expensive coverage from the car rental agency.
This is one more expense you’ll have to factor into the cost of renting a car while traveling in Europe.
Lots of public transportation, not so much parking
Most European cities have excellent public transportation, which is reason enough to not need a rental car. But it also means there aren’t as many places to park your car because not as many people drive.
There are also pedestrian areas in most cities, and these are usually the areas where you want to go sightseeing. You’ll have to find a parking lot or deck a few blocks away from where you actually want to be.
Trying to find parking for your rental car will take up precious time and will often cost more money. Many hotels also charge for parking, adding yet another expense.
When it might make sense to rent a car
There are certainly times when, despite the extra costs and hassles, renting a car in Europe might be worth it. If you are traveling to a more rural area with no public transportation, you might be trapped without a car.
A trip through the French countryside, or Ireland or Iceland outside of their capitals, or a couple of weeks on the island of Sardinia might be tons easier if you rent a car.
If you’re traveling with several people, compare the cost of the rental car, including gas and insurance, with the cost of the train tickets. Often train tickets make more sense for just one or two people, but with a larger group, a car might make more sense.
Just make sure you research your transportation options first.
If you think you want to rent a car for your trip to Europe, take into consideration all the added costs. Aside from the extra money you will spend, realize that there are many hassles and frustrations with renting a car in a foreign country.
In most situations, it just isn’t worth it. Europe has an excellent train system, and most cities have good public transportation.
If renting a car makes more sense for you, include the extra costs in your travel budget, and add extra time to your daily schedule.
Read more about transportation planning:
- Losing Time in Transit
- Evaluating Transportation Options
- Is Your Layover Long Enough?
- Travel Planning Resources I Love
July 26, 2018 @ 6:32 am
I’m traveling with my 3 teens and am considering a car rental for 2 in Florence so we can do our own day trips on our own time. Plus, our hotel is outside the city. Thoughts on driving to Pisa, Lucca and/Sienna?
August 1, 2018 @ 10:44 am
Hi Katie! I’ve never driven in Italy…honestly, it kind of scares me! But I’m sure it’s not that bad, and I actually would like to try driving around Italy one of these days. If you are from outside the EU, I’ve read that Italy requires an international driving permit (if you’re from the US, you can get one from AAA) though the people I know who have driven there said the rental agencies didn’t ask about it, it’s just if you get pulled over by the police. Also keep in mind that most rental cars will be manual transmission, so if you want/need an automatic, book ahead and expect to pay more. Parking can be tough in the center of most cities, and gas is usually more expensive than in the US. Also, keep in mind that Pisa, Lucca, and Siena are all easy to get to from Florence by train, and the local trains are pretty inexpensive. Check out the Tren Italia site here in English for prices and times, might help you make your decision.
September 18, 2013 @ 9:14 am
And most importantly for US drivers planning to drive in the UK – we drive on the left, that means we go round roundabouts the opposite way to you and give way to traffic from the right.
September 18, 2013 @ 5:32 pm
Exactly! I can’t imagine trying to drive on the opposite side of the road and the opposite side of the car. And we hardly even have any roundabouts in the US!
Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren
September 11, 2013 @ 9:35 pm
Totally agree! I should send this to my aunt who always seems to rent a car during her travels. I live in LA and like you said, there’s hardly ANY convenient public transportation here…. which is partly why I fell in love with Europe so much! Especially London 🙂 I miss the tube.
September 14, 2013 @ 5:47 pm
Thanks Lauren! LA does NOT seem like the kind of place you could get around in without a car, but Europe, especially the cities and the main attractions most people want to visit, is definitely a time for trains and public transportation.
September 11, 2013 @ 12:56 pm
Traveling by car is actually my favorite way to explore Europe. We find the train is more expensive for two people, even with factoring in gas and tolls. Traveling by car affords us to get off-the-beaten-path and reach destinations you either can’t at all by public transport or by which it is a huge hassle to do so. Plus we’re not held by public transport timetables. For example, the train doesn’t run late enough to attend one of my favorite festivals in Venice. So the only option is to drive to Venice.
September 11, 2013 @ 3:19 pm
Having the flexibility that a car gives you is certainly appealing. I think your situation is very much the exception though. You and your husband live in Italy and own a car, so you don’t have to rent one. A normal tourist would end up paying several hundred euros to rent a car plus adding in the cost of the insurance policy, gas, tolls, parking, etc. Plus a normal tourist won’t be staying someplace like where you live, so if they were traveling to Venice and were interested in something like the festival you mentioned, they would already be in Venice and wouldn’t have to worry about things like the train not running late enough. You also understand the different driving rules because you live in Europe, but someone who doesn’t live here would probably have a hard time trying to decipher the signs. As I mentioned, there are definitely times when renting a car makes sense, like exploring areas not accessible by public transportation, but for the majority of tourists who travel in cities in Europe, a car isn’t really worth it.