Some of our guests prefer the ‘freedom of the open road’ for getting between cities on their Central & Eastern Europe tours and we are happy to arrange car hire for them with our local car rental partners, but before we do, we like to make sure that they have fully considered the decision.
Before you get in the car
Knowing how to get where you’re going is pretty important. Whilst some rental companies will provide maps, their quality and coverage varies. You could rent your car with a GPS navigation unit (usually for an additional fee, often quite high), though the ease-of-use of these can also vary. If you’ve got your own GPS unit (it needs to run off a standard 12V DC car socket) or a smartphone with some GPS navigation software you’re comfortable with (I’ve had good experiences using Sygic throughout Europe, available for Android and iPhone – you download the maps you want, for offline use, into the app and the only thing you don’t get if you’re offline are live traffic alerts), we suggest using that (you may need to buy more maps, if it only came with maps for your own country). It’s important to have up-to-date maps too – road layouts change and new roads are finished every year. If you’re going to be using GPS software on your smartphone a lot and don’t already have a windshield mount, the MacAlly MGrip is good and don’t forgot to get a car charger for your smartphone, running GPS software tends to use the battery up quickly. It’s a good idea to get a feel for your route in advance, use the driving directions on Google Maps or ViaMichelin. Often the times estimated by this software does not take into account the time taken for border crossings in non-Schengen countries (which can have large queues at peak times) or for rest stops, so be sure to add in some contingency for these.
2. Take into account drop-off fees
If you’re doing a one-way rental always take into account the fee that will be charged for returning a car in a different city (and the fee is even higher when returning the car in another country). The rental company needs to get the car back to its home base and that often involves sending a member of staff halfway across the continent to meet you at the end of your rental. If returning in the same country one-way fees aren’t too bad and mostly just cover administration costs but if dropping the car off in another country, expect to pay a fee that equates to around 1 Euro per km from point of origin.
3. Got a License to Drive?
You may well need an International Drivers Permit (IDP) in addition to your regular driving license. If you hold an EU drivers license, it is valid in the whole of the EU. For EU license holders visiting Croatia, if you plan to hire a car in-country you’ll need an IDP. If your license is issued by a non-EU country then in most countries we advise you to obtain one before you travel. You can find information specific to your needs available your national automobile association. You can only get an IDP in your own country and it is usually issued by the automobile association, or a government office. Watch out for fraudulent organizations offering IDPs and only request yours from reputable sources. If your rental in Croatia has been arranged by us, the IDP is not necessary.
4. Pickup & dropoff
Make sure you know where you’re picking the car up, if it’s not getting delivered to you. And where to drop it off at the end of the rental period. Before you accept the car check over every body panel and the wheels, referencing the pictograms on the hire form for all the scratches, dings and dents to make sure you won’t get blamed for any. Unless you have zero-excess insurance, you need to make sure you won’t get blamed for any damage that was already there.
5. Check the insurance details
Check what’s covered with the rental company’s standard insurance policy, what the excess is (the maximum amount you would have to pay in the event of loss or accident) and whether any of your own insurance policies (such as your travel insurance) provide any cover. Make sure you’re well covered but also not paying twice for cover.
6. Manual or Auto?
Most rental cars in Europe have manual transmission. Automatic transmission cars are sometimes available but there is usually a significant additional cost, as the lower category cars are not offered with it. In some cases it can at least double the cost of a rental. Sure you’ll get a nicer, bigger car but if you’re watching your budget this can easily blow it.
7. Different rules apply!
Driving laws are different in Europe. For example you can’t turn right on a red light and in some countries, you need to have your headlights on at all times (yes, even in daytime!). Check up on the rules of the road before you get behind the wheel. Also when planning your route, bear in mind that what might look like a major highway on the map may often not be a multi-lane highway but a regular road, with a much lower speed limit (especially when you go through villages).
8. Road tolls
When you’re looking at routes online you might find some roads are described as toll roads. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to pull up at a toll booth and pay. In many countries we arrange vacations in the tolls are often collected by means of a vignette (sticker) that you purchase, typically at gas stations (always when you’ve just crossed over the border and occasionally you can buy them just before you leave the neighbor country) and affix to the windshield. Usually a rental car will be supplied with a highway sticker for its home country. It’s worth checking the windshield before you buy a vignette for another country too as a prior renter may have left one there with remaning validity.
Ignorance is no excuse and these fees are actively policed (often not long after you cross the border), with the fines being massively disproportionate to the cost of a vignette. The table below tells you which countries charge tolls, how they’re collected and how much it will cost you, approximately. If a route takes you through a country where you don’t plan to stop you might want to consider instead routing around it, depending on what that adds to your journey. See the table below for details for each of the countries we offer as destinations (updated January 2013).
9. Gas prices vary, and they’re higher than the US.
Gas prices are higher in Europe, mostly because of taxes. Expect to pay about at least a third to a half more per gallon than you do at home. Prices vary from country to country as well.
10. Parking troubles
If you’re planning to rent a car, we will always try and find you accommodation that has parking facilities, though these aren’t always included in the price. Make sure you take into account the costs associated with parking your hire car. Parking restriction signs in cities are often only prominently displayed in the local language and again, ignorance is no excuse, so make sure you’re obeying the parking restrictions by checking for signs in English. Parking isn’t particularly easy to find in the center of historic European cities, so plan ahead rather than relying on turning up and finding somewhere.
11. BONUS TIP – Watch your speed!
Speed limits change rapidly on some roads, with much lower limits in towns and villages than on the open highway. Most GPS units will display the speed limit for the current stretch of road and warn you of impending changes. Having an overseas license means you won’t be docked points but you will incur an on-the-spot fine. Much better to obey the limits and avoid the hassle.
12. BONUS TIP 2 – Don’t Drink & Drive
Drink driving laws differ from country to country and limits range from zero (in the Czech Republic) to lower than you’re probably used to back home. This means that if you’re planning on stopping somewhere alcohol related, like a winery, the designated driver will have to abstain to stay safe.
Still considering that Euro Road Trip?
If your trip is primarily in the Central Europe region (Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia) there are plenty of other ways to get from city to city without worrying about driving and parking a rental car and the cost of fuel and road tolls. With some connections served by airlines and shorter ones by rail or bus or for door-to-door convenience we can arrange transfers with a private driver, driving yourself doesn’t always make sense. Conversely if your vacation will be in the southern part of Eastern Europe (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia or Montenegro) then the relative lack of efficient joined-up public transport options can make renting a car a great way to get around and make the most of your time.