A First-Timer’s Guide to Driving in Europe

Our honeymoon was the first time I had driven in Europe, and the first time I did any substantial driving outside the US. I did research on driving in Spain, France, Andorra, and Iceland beforehand, and felt well prepared. Here are some tips if it’s your first time as well.

Don’t panic!

When I first got behind the wheel coming out of the rental place, I immediately got stressed out and wondered if I could really drive in a foreign country. The most important thing, I think, is to take a moment, take a deep breath, and try not to panic. You will find yourself getting more comfortable as you go.

Reserve an automatic if you’re not comfortable driving manual.

You might need to plan in advance to do this – automatics are not the norm at European rental agencies and therefore get booked quickly. It will also add a not insignificant cost to your rental. But, if possible, plan for this in your budget. You will already be uncomfortable driving in a foreign country, and that does not need compounding if you are not used to driving manual. If you want to save the cost difference, consider taking lessons before your trip, renting a manual in the US (though these are hard to find!), or otherwise practicing.

I feel I should try to get comfortable driving manual at some point, as I’m sure there won’t always be the option for automatic and it is the standard in Europe.

Other things you can do to make it less stressful include trying to book a similar size car to the one you’re used to, and being sure to have a working cell phone in case you run into any trouble. Driving a Ford Focus felt natural since I drive a Fiesta at home (and we actually got a Fiesta in Iceland).

Get your documents in order

Some European countries require you to carry your passport, your US driver’s license, and an international driving permit. Others don’t need the international driving permit. Be sure to research what you need in advance. In Spain, for instance, you can technically be fined for not carrying an IDP, but we were never asked for it (though, to be fair, we did not get pulled over). A partial list of countries where you technically need the IDP can be found here.

Be aware of border crossing rules

Sometimes you will need to pay an extra insurance fee for crossing borders to your rental company. Certain crossings require proof of insurance or other paperwork. Do the research in advance, and tell your rental company where you plan to drive. Ask at the desk if you have all the necessary paperwork (this is mostly an issue if you are crossing into Eastern Europe).

Be aware of insurance rules and requirements

Does your credit card cover you? If so, does it cover international rentals? Are there any special considerations? For instance, in Iceland rental prices include the CDW, but most credit card coverage requires that you decline a CDW. Also, Iceland has coverage for gravel damage, which you may want to consider if you’re going on any gravel roads.

Read the fine print

This is equally important when renting at home – look over the rental agreement (usually you can check it online when making the reservation) and be sure you aren’t agreeing to any fees you weren’t aware of, and that you know what you’re responsible for paying.

Research any country-specific rules of the road

Who has the right of way at an intersection, for instance, is something that can vary. The good thing about traveling in Europe is that the road signs are standardized, but it’s a good idea to check for any unusual rules for any of the countries you’ll be driving in.

Consider how you’ll navigate

Buy a road atlas, rent a GPS, or use cellular data on your phone (but remember that not everywhere will have signal!). We used a phone with an international sim card, which is definitely not the cheapest option (that would be buying local sim cards – Too Many Adapters is my go-to for info). We didn’t have any coverage in Andorra, but thankfully, Andorra is pretty easy to navigate since it only has a few different roads.

Be aware of tolls

Most of the major roads in Spain and France had tolls, some quite high. Know that you can usually take smaller, slower roads to avoid tolls, but you pay the price in time instead.

Try not to drive in major cities

The absolute most stressful driving in Europe is in major cities. If you can avoid it, do! What we did was rent the car on the way out of Barcelona, and then on the way back we stayed sort of on the outskirts to limit Barcelona driving.

Have fun!

A driving adventure in Europe is bound to be fun. It’s great to have the freedom of movement of a car and makes hauling your stuff around easier. The roads, in Spain and France at least, were great and not as different as I expected. I don’t think this will be my last road trip in Europe!

Have you driven abroad?

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