Road trips have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Starting back in the 1970s when my dad (a die-hard do-it-yourself guy) customized a cargo van for our family’s road trip across the country. He even added shag carpeting and bean bag chairs—it was the 70s after all. As an adult, I’ve continued my road trip adventures—minus the shag carpeting and bean bag chairs, of course.
In recent years, I’ve taken those road trips to a new level by going international. Driving through Ireland, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden, I’ve made a few mistakes and had a few close calls with animals (cows in Ireland, reindeer in Sweden) but I survived. Here are some tips to help you avoid my mistakes…even if you don’t speak the language.
Get Acquainted with the Rules of the Road Before You Go
You may have been driving for decades, but trust me when I say you will have absolutely no idea what many of the road signs mean once you leave the USA. For example, Germany is a fan of signs without words—just lines and circles that require a degree in geometry to decipher.
Speed limits aren’t always posted either and it’s up to you to know how fast you can go. You can avoid some of this confusion by doing a little research for basic traffic rules and signs for your destination before you leave home. You might not have all the answers, but you will certainly be better prepared than I was.
Choose a Rental Car you’re Comfortable Driving
Sometimes a bargain is not a bargain, and this is especially true when you’re renting a car in Europe. You can save a few dollars by renting a car with a manual transmission. If you know how to drive a manual transmission, then go for it. But if you’re a little rusty, driving into unfamiliar cities is not the place to brush up on those skills. You’re better off to pay a little more for an automatic.
I agreed to a manual transmission in Amsterdam despite not having shifted a gear in over 15 years. As I glided down the highway, I mentally patted myself on the back at how smoothly I was shifting the gears. That all changed when I got lost in Brussels and had to maneuver a roundabout in heavy traffic with no clue which direction I was heading. I completely forgot I was driving a manual transmission, failed to push in the clutch and stalled the car in the roundabout. To say I was the most unpopular driver in Brussels’ rush hour traffic that day is a gross understatement.
Also keep in mind that an offer for a free upgrade to an SUV may not be in your best interest. Gasoline is pretty expensive in Europe and an SUV that gets less than stellar gas mileage might end up costing you a big chunk of your vacation fund. And, then there’s that moment when you realize the price per gallon listed is actually the price per liter.
Know Your Insurance Options and Requirements
When I rent in the USA, I rarely purchase insurance because I’m covered by my auto policy and my credit card. But things are often different outside the USA. Contact your insurance company and credit card to confirm coverage in the specific country where you plan to drive. Also, if you choose not to take the rental company’s insurance plan, be aware that a significant hold may be placed on your credit card as a deposit. I recently rented from National in Amsterdam and had I not taken the insurance offered, an additional $1,000 would have been held as a deposit.
Get to Know your GPS Before You Hit the Highway
Before I pulled away from the rental office in Amsterdam, I asked the gentleman on duty if the GPS was programmed to speak English. He assured me it was and I drove away. What I should have done was have him show me how to set the GPS because it was nothing like the one in our car at home.
Although I could see directions on the screen, there was no volume and I had no idea where the settings to increase the volume were located. And although the traffic warnings were audible, they were given in Dutch. I don’t speak Dutch so you can imagine how useful that was.
Taking a few extra minutes to get acquainted with the vehicle’s system will prevent you from driving around Brussels swearing at your GPS accusing it of being possessed by the devil. As a backup, it is always a good idea to pull up directions on your phone or print them out beforehand because some GPS systems are misleading. According to the navigation system in the car I rented, Waterloo is located in someone’s living room.
Have you ever road tripped through Europe? What tips do you have?
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