Driving in Europe is expensive.  There are no two ways about it.  So why hire a car?

Pros:

  • Gives you the Independence to go where you want , when you want.
  • Provides the ability to stay at properties not easily served by public transportation or taxis. If you are trying to save money, it allows you to stay at less expensive suburban or country hotels, which in itself makes a big difference in overall trip cost.
  • Good quality highways.
  • Reasonable car rental rates.  Esp. if pre-paid.  Watch out for hidden charges such as 2nd driver fees.   We ended up renting with Sixt and pre-paying the rental.  The big advantage was that with pre-payment, they included a 2nd driver at no cost, otherwise a 2nd driver charge was something like an extra 6 Euros per day, which adds up when you are renting for a lengthy period.
  • Vehicles tend to me more fuel efficient. If you can,, request a diesel car.  The fuel is less expensive per liter, and the cars have much better mileage that petrol cars, so the overall fuel costs go down dramatically.

Cons:

  • Driving trips can get expensive, inc, many unexpected costs:
    1. Petrol/gas.  At abbot $7-$9 per US gallon depending on the country you are in and what grade of Petrol you need.  In Spain, fuel is about 20% cheaper than Ireland. This all it makes $3/gallon gas seem very cheap!  With more fuel efficient cars, the gas cost per mile driven is a little better, more like 2x the US cost.
    2. Parking. Unless you are driving only in the countryside, you’ll probably have to pay for parking, which may be anything from reasonable to very expensive.  We made sure to pick up our car when we were ready to leave Barcelona since a car would be more of a liability within the city.  Parking costs there were about Euro 27 per day.  Even small towns may charge to park.  At Cadaques they charge about US 6 cents per minute.  How long until someone starts charging per second?  Also, most hotels in cities offer discounted, but not free parking.  You need to figure that you’ll be paying for a place for your car to sleep most nights as well!
    3. Highway tolls.  In driving about 400 miles from Barcelona to Cadaques, then Girona before heading to Zaragosa, we were charged more than Euro 40 in tolls.  You can plot routes to avoid the toll roads, but it will significantly slow your progress – Google maps estimates Zaragosa to Bilbao at about 2 hrs 54 mins via toll roads and just under 6 hours without them.  Driving off the toll roads is also much more tiring, although it does offer more options to stop to take pictures, etc.
    4. Insurance.  In most countries, if you reserve and pay for a car with a Visa credit card, they will cover the excess insurance (CDW) at no charge.  However in some countries (most notably, Ireland) this is not the case and so car rental can work out much more expensive than planned.
  • Difficult to navigate.  At least we can read the road signs (more of a problem in places like China and Thailand where I let someone else do the driving!), but reading rapidly disappearing signs in  foreign language and interpreting them real time can be challenging.  Also, most Spanish city driving seems to be on one way streets and left turns are prohibited, so traditional map reading skills may not be as useful as they seem.  GPS is great, as long as it is accurate – we’ve found that Google Maps on my phone does a pretty good job, but sometimes prompts us to turn when we can’t.
    A word on GPS.  I’ve used the technology for several years.  My first GPS unit was a Garmin that Aaron now uses like a crutch anytime he drives anywhere.  I tried out several different makes units.  Leaving aside product features the most important thing on a GPS is the quality of their maps and navigation data.  It turns out that there are really only 2 major purveyors of GPS data.  So even in the US, the usefulness of a particular manufacturers’ GPS unit varies greatly from city to city.  Of all the GPSs I tried, feature wise, I thought the Garmin was the poorest, but its navigation data accuracy was clearly the best for Austin.  I could have taken our Garmin with us to Europe, but would have had to purchase European maps for about $200+, which are only as accurate as the last update and as new roads get built and traffic restrictions brought in, becomes less and less accurate over time.  By contrast, Google Maps (which my phone uses) is constantly updated.  And it’s free – no need to purchase  Spanish or Portuguese maps.  It also means that all I need to pack is my phone, a micro USB cable and 12v USB adapter, nice and small!  Throw in a 3.5mm to 3.5mm straight through audio cable and you can use your phone as a jukebox with most modern cars since they will have an accessory input port (you may even be lucky and use BlueTooth, but this can be tricky to setup when the instructions are in a foreign language, and your rental car may not have BlueTooth anyway).
  • Good public transport alternatives available.  If you are just going from city to city, you’ll have numerous options including bus, train, maybe even a high speed train option, and flights.  Used to be that flying was far and away the most expensive.  Now with low cost airlines, sometimes it is dramatically less expensive to fly than take the high speed train.  Go figure. Of course you have to get to and from the airports, but Spain seems to have very good public transport options for that.  When I checked in the AVE high speed train from Barcelona to Madrid, it was about 5x the cost of a cheap flight.

One more tip on saving some money when renting a car.  If you can, avoid renting at, or dropping off your car at an airport.  Airports have various fees that get tacked on to cars rented (and sometime returned) to airports.  For a few days, this may not matter, but for longer rentals, the difference can be huge. In the US, if you want to pick up in one city and return to another city, you almost certainly have to pick up and return to an airport, but in Europe, this is not the case, and in fact, may be more convenient if you plan to spend a few days in your arrival or departure city as you will probably find having a car a major liability in big cities.

So there you have it – just be sure before you rent a car in Europe that you know what you are getting yourself in for.

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