How to plan a Road Trip in Europe

Our favourite way of getting to know a new destination is to tour around it. In Europe the types of holidays which usually come to mind are cultural cities breaks, beach holidays around the Mediterranean or maybe a cruise. We’re here to convince you to give a European road trip a chance. It’s not as difficult as you may think planning and booking your own road trip in Europe but there are a few things you need to be aware of.

Following our guide on how to plan a road trip in Europe will certainly make your next holiday in Europe one to remember.

Little Red Riding Hood country, Fairy Tale Route, Germany
Fairy Tale Route Road Trip in Germany

Holidays to mainland Europe have always been popular, it’s easy to get a great deal on a flight and you can visit loads of different countries within the same trip. We are no exception and love travelling around Europe. However are you really getting to see Europe when you keep going to the same resort each year or where the majority of the people there are also from your home country?

See more of Europe

We believe the best way to truly experience Europe is to get out of the resorts and see what else Europe has to offer – by taking a European road trip. You may think that the road trip style of holiday is best kept to the USA but Europe is built for car travel too. Renting a car in Europe is easier than you might think if you have never rented a car abroad before.

We’re going to talk you through the step by step process we use to plan and book our road trips in Europe. You can use the principles here to tailor a route that fits with your interests, your budget and the time you have available for your holiday on the continent.

VW Polo in Germany
Typical low budget rental car in Europe

1. Decide on the type of European Road Trip

How to plan a road trip in Europe step one – decide on the type of road trip you want to take. There are two questions here that determine the type of European road trip you want to take. Do you want to focus on one country?Or do you want to see two or more different countries? In Europe car requirements vary from country to country and you will find that renting a car in one country may restrict you on driving it in the country next-door.

One Country Road Trip

If you opt for a road trip covering one country you will get the cheapest rental prices per day. Especially if you plan a loop route as you will avoid any one way drop fee.

A loop road trip is where you start and end your tour in the same place. Companies charge a fee on one way rentals to cover the companies costs for retrieving the car. We don’t see this as a deal breaker to doing a one way road trip, we just account for the one way drop fee in our budget.

One of the main benefits for sticking to one country for your road trip in Europe is your rental car is guaranteed to have all the passes and stickers required to drive in that country.

Multi-Country Road Trip

One of the main drawbacks of a European Road Trip compared to a USA road trip is that each country sets different requirements for cars. You may need a pass or sticker somewhere on your car to drive on certain roads and even enter particular areas of different cities. Each country may require a different sticker or pass if you are planning a multi-country road trip. That may not seem like a problem however the rental company will only have their cars set up for driving in the country you rent the car from.

Driving requirements vary country to country

What requirements are we talking about? Well there are now various Environmental zones across Europe which you will need to comply with. You can find out more about European Environmental Zones on Green-Zones.eu. There are also at least 8 countries which require a vignette, which is a sticker to say you’ve paid the toll, to drive on their motorways. Check the tolls.eu website to find out if the countries you’re planning to visit have tolls to use their roads.

You can be fined if you don’t have the right passes and stickers on your vehicle in each country. This is not something to take lightly as you could easily mount up fines if you do a road trip through 3 or 4 countries in Europe, which may look simple on a map.

If you still want to see more than one country as part of your tour you have a couple of options.

To cross the border or not to cross the border?

You can stick with one car rental, and account for the one way drop fee if you hire in one country and drop off in another. With this option you need to check that the vehicle has all the tags you need to travel in the additional countries to the one you are renting it from. Most importantly you also need to get permission from the rental company that you can cross the border into the countries you are planning on visiting.

The other option which will let you cover a bit more ground is to plan two or more loops and use the rail network or budget airlines to get between your starting points. All major cities across Europe are connected by rail and they all have an airport nearby – you could rent your car right from the airport when you land. This is the best option if you want to visit countries either side of the continent but not particularly the countries in between.

2. Where to Start

How to plan a road trip in Europe step two – decide where you’re going to start. Where you start your road trip will depend on which city you fly into. Europe as a whole is very varied and so are the individual countries which make up Europe. It’s a good idea to decide what kind of road trip you want to take, and which countries in Europe appeal most.

Things to Consider;

The Price

If budget is crucial and you want to keep costs down check with SkyScanner which is the cheapest airport to fly into from your home airport. You need to have narrowed it down to which country you want to visit (or visit first). Then you can do a search for the best priced flight by typing in your home airport, Manchester for example, in to the ‘from’ field and Germany into the ‘to’ field. This search will produce prices for all airports in the Germany from your home airport.

Skyscanner flight search

Be sure to tick the direct flights only box if you don’t want to have to change planes on route.

How to plan a US road trip from the UK - getting the best flight

If you are planning a multi-country tour SkyScanner allows you to search for multi-city trips. Select this option and you can search for two or more different flight paths at once. For example Manchester to Berlin, Berlin to Madrid and Madrid to Manchester. You may get a better price by doing this search than searching for each route individually. It doesn’t always work that way so I’d recommend checking the price as a multi-city trip as well as one way flights.

Skyscanner multi-city flight search

The Theme of your Road Trip in Europe

What has drawn you to the Europe for your holiday? This is key to deciding where to start. If you were drawn to the beaches and warm weather then time around the Mediterranean would be a must. If you’re seeking out more of a museums and galleries tour then you can’t really go wrong with France. For food I’d recommended heading to Italy, we’ve never had a bad meal in Italy. For exploring the outdoors Norway, Sweden or Finland should be considered, you are guaranteed beautiful scenery for hiking in Scandinavia during summer.

So you need to ask yourself what is it you want to see and experience on your road trip in Europe? Once you have decided this it will narrow down your starting location to a couple of countries, and no doubt one will have better priced flights that the other.

Tip: Remember you don’t have to see it all this time. Flights are well priced and frequent to Europe, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

3. How to Rent a Car in Europe

How to plan a road trip in Europe step three – renting a car. You are going to need a car for your road trip in Europe. There are a few things to consider to make sure you get the right vehicle for you and your group.

International Driving Permit

You will more than likely need an international driving permit aka an IDP for your European road trip – unless you’re from a European country. Fortunately 90% of the countries in Europe require the same IDP – the 1968 IDP. However, if you are planning on driving in Ireland, Malta, Spain or Cyprus you will need a 1949 IDP and if you’ve heading to Liechtenstein they alone require a 1926 IDP.

So you may need more than one international driving permit depending on your plans. You need to get these before leaving your home country. In the UK you can get your IDPs at the Post Office.

Choosing the right car

A key part of planning a road trip is getting the best car. Firstly you will need to decide on the type of car you want. The best bet is to choose a car similar to the one you have at home. Make sure it has enough room for all of your luggage and you are comfortable driving long distance in it. You can always opt for something slightly bigger if you think you will need it. Or choose something smaller if you think you can get away with less room to make parking in cities a bit easier.

When you have chosen your vehicle type you can then start your search for the best price.

Getting the best Price

There are a few key companies that supply rental cars. Any may be cheapest so it’s worth considering them all. So the names to look out for are;

Hertz, Europcar, Sixt, Enterprise, Avis and Alamo

Also consider using a consolidator such as EasyRentCars.com. They will book a car for you through one of the above companies but could do so at a better price. They also have a loyalty scheme so if you regularly rent cars you can accumulate your points towards a free rental down the road.

Airport or City Collection

You may not get the best price when collecting and dropping off a car at the airport. However consider the cost of getting from the airport to the city and back to collect and drop your car there. The cost of taxis or Uber to do this might outweigh the savings of collecting your car in the city vs the airport.

Consider the hassle as well. If you’re travelling as a family you might find that having the car for the duration of your holiday worth it.

Additions to the base price

Check what is included in the price as it’s likely not the final price.

Additional Driver Fee

You will need to consider whether you will need an additional driver. Some companies may allow a spouse to be an additional driver without you needing to pay the fee for the additional driver. If you’re travelling as a married couple or family it’s worth waiting until you arrive so you don’t over pay. However if you’re travelling as a group of friends and two people want to drive get it booked in advance while you’re booking the car. It won’t be cheaper paying on collection, it could cost more.

Mileage

You will need to have a good idea of how much mileage you will be doing on your tour. There will be a certain amount of mileage included within the rental price. However if you plan to go over this you will get a better price paying up front for additional mileage than paying the per additional mile charge when you return the car.

Insurance

When renting a car in Europe there are typically three levels of insurance. Only basic insurance is included in the initial rate you will be quoted. Basic insurance typically covers the car if you are involved in an accident or if the car is stollen. The basic level of insurance always comes with a large excess amount however that you will be required to pay should you have an accident or if the car is stolen.

You can increase your level of insurance which will also reduce the excess. The middle level of insurance usually comes with a fairly high excess amount too but does include a couple of other benefits such as covering windscreen and tyre damage which the basic cover does not.

You generally need to pay for the top level of insurance to avoid having to pay an excess charge should you actually have an accident. This is also called reducing your excess to zero.

Anything Else?

There is always the option before you pay to add on a bunch of other things to your rental. Including but not limited to GPS, baby seats and booster seats.

You may not need any of these. We have never rented a GPS with our vehicle. We use our phones for satnav guidance – preferably Google Maps. In the last couple of years in Europe they have abolished roaming charges for European Citizens. This is a huge benefit for Europeans, it means that you can use your phone pretty much all over Europe without paying any extra charges when you get home. If you’re not European then just pick up a Pay as You Go sim for your own phone in whichever country you visit first to take advantage of this perk across the continent.

4. Planning your Road Trip Route Through Europe

How to plan a road trip in Europe step four – planning your route. There are a few key points to consider when planning the route for your Road Trip in Europe. To make sure you get the perfect route for you consider the following;

How many driving days

Do you have one or two weeks for this holiday, a bit more or even a bit less? How many days of that time do you want to spend driving to somewhere new? One thing we hear often and it’s true, two nights in a place only gets you one full day. When stopping in any of the big cities two or three nights will give you time to explore the city. Whereas the smaller towns you can usually get away with just one night.

With two weeks to work with if you spend the first couple of nights in the city you flew into to see the sights there and the last night of your holiday there too so you’re not dealing with traffic before a flight that’s 3 nights of a your road trip accounted for already. Four nights if you’re not planning to return to the city you set out from and want two nights in your last city as well. Still you can fit in 5 or 6 different towns and cities if you’re typically only driving every other day. That’s a lot of ground you can cover in one holiday!

If you still want a bit of beach time consider scheduling in some resort stays on your route. You could even theme your road trip around the Mediterranean coast line so you get to try a few different beaches and resorts – you no longer need to limit yourself to just one hotel per holiday. Each town, beach towns included, will all have something different to see and experience.

Length of Driving Days

The main thing to consider here is how long are you comfortable driving for in a day. If you have more than one driver are you planning to alternate during the day to drive further? We try to stick to an average of a 4 hour driving day over the holiday. Sometimes more and sometimes less depending on what there is to see along the route.

Sometimes 4 hours will get you 150 miles or less and sometimes you can cover closer to 300 or a bit more if the route is mainly motorway. You could cover a significant distance in 4 hours on the German Autobahn. Google Maps is your main resource here. The road speeds are programmed into Google Maps and if you change the departure time to the time you’re actually expecting to set off it will give you a good idea of how long the journey is going to take. To be on the safe side we tend to add 10% onto drive times to cover any unusual traffic. This is wheels turning time and not total travel time so the more you stop the longer it’s going to take.

Tip: Consider the time you will collect your car if you are not planning on collecting it when you land at the airport. If you choose to collect your car on your first driving day you will want to book an early collection if you have planned a longer driving day. However if your first overnight location of your road trip in Europe isn’t too far you could collect your car in the afternoon.

Do check opening and closing times of the rental location as on weekends some close early. Airport collection counters however run 7 days a week and long hours so you will have less restrictions on pick up and collection times at airports.

Once you have decided the length of driving days you are comfortable with, as well as the number of driving days you are happy to have, it’s time to start exploring the map.

Choosing the Overnight Stops

We start with Google Maps again for this part. We also use Trip Advisor and blogs like this one to find out more about what places have to offer. Is somewhere worth an overnight stay or two, or is there only enough to see for an hour or so making it more of a lunch stop kind of place? Trip Advisor breaks down what there is to do in a place, what hotels there are and what types of restaurants. All of the options are rated as well by Trip Advisor users who have actually been there.

To start with use Google Maps focused on your start location – where you are flying into. From there have a look what towns, cities and natural or historical sites are within your first days driving limit. So within 300 miles for example. You will need to do this by eye initially. Type in your start destination then click ‘Directions’ in the sidebar followed by somewhere on the map as your potential first night stop. If you don’t recognise the town names check them out by searching TripAdvisor, that will give you an idea if it’s somewhere you want to spend some time or not.

Tip for a one way road trip: You might find it easier to work out the maximum mileage you can cover for the entire route. So for example 6 driving days x 300 miles is 1800 miles. You then need to make sure your starting city and end city are around this many miles apart. Once you have this you just need to spread out your over night stops between the two.

For your second stop use your first stop as your starting point. Repeat the steps above to find your second stop for an over night stay. You might decide to do a longer driving day after staying in the same place a couple of nights to cover more ground. Alternatively you might decide if you only have one night somewhere not to drive so far the next day so you have a bit more time in that location before moving on.

Tip for a loop road trip: If you’re doing a loop route remember to start choosing stops in the direction of your starting point once you’ve allocated where you will stay at the half way point of your holiday. So this would be nights 7 and 8 for a two week road trip. If you are planning on road tripping through two European countries this would be a good point to schedule your flight or train to your next starting point.

You need to repeat these steps until you have all your over night stops figured out. This will then be your route! You can save your route on Google Maps if you have a Google account (Gmail) by using Google My Maps. This is a different page but works pretty much the same as regular Google Maps. If you don’t have this option or just want to use the Google Maps you are familiar with you will notice in the side bar an icon with three lines. Click on this and choose the option to share or embed map. Copy the link it gives you to share the map and just save that link somewhere. Even if you just email it to yourself. If you have this link you can come back to your map at any time.

5. What to Book in Advance

How to plan a road trip in Europe step five – what you should book in advance. There are certain things to consider booking in advance of taking your road trip in Europe. Most European countries are popular holiday destination so there is a lot of competition now for the best hotels and activity tickets for some of the iconic sights. So what should you make sure you have booked before you leave home?

Accommodation

The days of just arriving in a destination and finding a great hotel really cheap are almost gone. There are so many people travelling now and with social media a lot of people are heading for the same locations. If you’re staying in a major European city, you’re highly unlikely to find a last minute bargain as you arrive. We book our accommodation for our European holidays at least 3 or 4 months in advance for a decent price on a free cancellation deal. Sometimes even further in advance if we are heading somewhere for a large event – music festivals, Christmas Markets etc.

Wacken Open Air
Wacken Open Air, Germany

We keep an eye on prices in the run up to our trip incase we can jump on an even better option. This can happen so we find free cancellation worthwhile when planning a road trip in Europe.

Tip: We typically use Booking.com for our accommodation bookings. They have a range of apartments and hotels with the majority having a free cancellation option. This allows that flexibility if you did want to change plans, while also having a safety net knowing you definitely have something booked at a price you can afford.

You may pay slightly more for the free cancellation on some properties, but not all, so it’s worth considering if it’s worth just fixing plans sometimes to get a better price.

Smaller towns you may find something. However if you’re travelling somewhere where there is a large event taking place it is unlikely you will be able to get a good deal last minute.

Activities

There are certain activities that, if they are on your must do list, you need to book in advance. The type of things I’m talking about here are things like theatre tickets if you want to see a particular West End Show in London. Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is very popular and to guarantee entry the day you are in town you will need your advance ticket. Another must do for most people is the Eiffel Tower in Paris, again a very popular landmark, get your tickets in advance or be prepared to wait in a very very long queue. If you are planning on visiting the Vatican while in Rome book in advance also, particularly the museums.

View of Neuschwanstein Castle from Marion Bridge, Bavaria Romantic Road, Germany
Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany

Any iconic, well-known site that requires ticketed entry you are best booking in advance or be ok with not being able to do that particular activity when you arrive. Or waiting in a huge queue – and no one wants to spend their limited holiday time in a queue!

You can book many activities direct, and some activities you must book direct, however for everything else Viator is a good resource for tour and activity tickets. We’ve used Viator many times without any problems.

6. Collecting your Car

How to plan a road trip in Europe step six – collecting your car. Make sure you take your driving licence and international driving permit with you as well as your rental confirmation. As UK Citizens we no longer have the paper part to our licences, if you’re British you will also need to do a points check through DVLA and print this confirmation to take with you. You can do this on the Government Website.

I also like to take a printed copy of our rental booking confirmation with us just in case I can’t access my emails. Any additional drivers will also need to be present to collect the car, along with their drivers licences and points check. You will be asked for the credit card you made the reservation with as well so make sure you bring the right card with you.

Once you have finished at the counter you will be given the keys to a car as well as information on where it’s currently parked. It is likely to be in a nearby multi-storey car park.

Check you are happy with the car before leaving the car park. If you are not happy with the car return to the check in counter or the rental companies station in the car park and request a change. You have reserved a category of car and not that specific vehicle so they will be able to offer you another car within that category if there is one available.

7. On the Road in Europe

Driving on the AutoBahn in Germany
This is the Autobahn in Germany – it looks pretty much like our motorways in the UK.

How to plan a road trip in Europe step seven – things to consider while on the road. Here is what you need to consider when driving on the continent.

Right Hand Drive Cars

Cars in Europe are typically manual transmission and right hand drive – so you need to make sure someone in your party can drive a manual transmission vehicle – stick shift for our US readers. If it is your first time driving on the right consider this when working out where you are going to collect your vehicle, somewhere quieter like a suburb location might be better than airport or city centre. Give yourself chance to get used to driving the car.

Driving Etiquette

WOA by Car Wacken Open Air transit
Peak time on the Autobahn in Germany – on our way to Wacken Open Air Festival

Road Positioning and Overtaking

A lot of the driving practices in Europe will be familiar. One of the main things to be aware of is the speed on certain roads such as the Autobahn in Germany. Make sure you stick in the driving lane unless you are actually overtaking. It is as fast as you have heard and cars will come up behind you very quickly when you are not in the driving lane. They will flash you to move over if you are not over taking.

Road positioning in countries such as Italy can be a bit of a minefield, especially around cities such as Naples. Don’t be surprised to see four or more lanes of traffic on a three lane road. If you are driving in Italy make sure you get your excess to zero on your rental car, it’s highly likely you are going to get at least one scratch on the vehicle before returning it.

Motorway Exits

These are generally off the driving lane so make sure you’re in the far righthand lane when your exit is coming up. One thing to be aware of though is the exit you want may come up quicker than you are expecting. Pay attention when you know you are coming up to your exit. A satnav – or Google Maps – will help you out with this so you don’t miss your exit.

If you do miss your exit act as you would at home and continue to the next junction, turn round and come back to it. Junctions tend not to be too far apart unless you are in a more rural area.

Fuel – Petrol or Diesel

Most vehicles you’re likely to rent will run on petrol/gas. The fuel efficiency will generally be good which is fortunate as petrol prices are fairly high across Western Europe, then a bit cheaper in Eastern Europe. When budgeting for fuel costs expect to spend in the region of 10 to 15cents per mile and you won’t be far off.

8. Food on the Road

Vienna Naschmarkt

How to plan a road trip in Europe step eight – how to plan food stops. There are some great cuisines in Europe but on the road you may need to preplan a bit more than if you were staying in one place. A few times we’ve found ourselves at a McDonalds or similar as it was the only food stop we had seen in a while but other times we’ve found some amazing hole in the wall places in small towns just off the motorway.

Stop in small towns on route

Our number one choice when road tripping through Europe is to plan in somewhere to stop for lunch. I know not everyone likes to plan what they’re doing each day but this type of planning can really improve your experience. Check the map to see where you’ll be around lunch time on your driving day and pick a town off the motorway to stop off at.

You can almost guarantee you will find local food in small towns so you’re sure to find something authentic. It’s also at these stops where you will find better priced meals – cities are always more expensive no matter which country you’re travelling in.

Roast pork wrapped in pastry with dauphinoise style potatoes – in Alsfeld, Germany

One of our most memorable lunch stops like this was in Alsfeld, Germany where the local cafe owners spoke very little English but between that and our small amount of German we did manage to order food. Something similar to a sausage roll with very rich dauphinoise potatoes wasn’t really what we set out for but it was delicious – and well priced too!

Supermarkets

Supermarkets in Europe are pretty much the same as you will find at home, big corporate chains as well as the typical discounter stores. You can find Aldi and Lidl – German discounters, or even Tesco (a big UK brand), as you tour around Europe. Supermarkets will come in useful if you are trying to stick to a budget as you are best avoiding picking up something from fast food places along your route if you can help it. You will also want to use the supermarkets, or the better option – local farmers markets, if you are staying in AirBnB properties where you can cook your own food.

Service Stations

You will find service stations across Europe but the food there can be limited in quality and variety with a high price attached. They are handy though if you need a quick bite to eat or a coffee to recharge. Use these as your fall back option.

9. Returning your Car

How to plan a road trip in Europe step nine – returning your car. This could not be simpler. Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to return to the garage by the return time you agreed to on your rental confirmation. This will save extra charges for a late return.

When you arrive at the garage where you are returning your car you just need to follow the signs for your rental companies return vehicles – it will be well signed.

Make sure you have all of your belongings with you when you leave the car, and make sure you return it clean. There can be an additional charge for cleaning if you return the car dirty.

Wasteland at Wacken Open Air WOA heavy metal festival Germany
Wacken Open Air

You will drop the car off and give the keys to the attendant and they will do a quick check over the vehicle. Once they have completed this you may be given a receipt and then you can leave. That’s it!

If you are returning your car on the same day as your return flight make sure your return time works for you. You will need to be at the airport around 2 to 3 hours before your flight departure time when flying to and from Europe. So you get to the terminal in time after dropping off your car aim to return your car at least 3 hours before your flight time. If you are dropping off at an airport typically the rental car garages are on or very near the airport. If they are off airport they usually have a shuttle bus to the airport from the garage. You can double check this with your rental company to make sure.

We hope our guide on how to plan a Road Trip in Europe helps you with your future holiday plans! If you liked this guide and want to hear more from us make sure you sign up to our mailing list where we send out free tools to help you plan your next tour!

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