A tourist´s guide to driving in Europe

Road trip enjoying mountain landscape in Switzerland

Planning your first road trip around Europe, or just looking to rent a car for a few days on your trip to Amsterdam or Paris? For Americans, driving in Europe versus driving in the US can be a strange experience. European cars can feel like completely different beasts, and that’s not to mention the roads. There are different rules, some countries drive on the other side of the road, signage is completely different, and some cars are only usable in certain countries. If you're from the USA and are planning on whizzing around Europe by car, you'll want to check out our guide before taking the wheel.

2 things you should know about European cars

First things first, can you drive stick? There are a lot more manual/stick shift vehicles in Europe than there are in the United States, so if you can’t drive stick and you’re looking at renting or purchasing a car, particularly on a lower budget, establish if there are any automatic cars available. Otherwise, you better learn quickly.

Second, European cars tend to be a lot smaller. This is to make city driving and parking easier to handle. If you’re driving more on highways and through the countryside, you may want to consider a larger vehicle. Otherwise, small is good.

International drivers license

When planning your trip, consider an International Driving Permit. Driving in Europe with US licenses is acceptable in most countries, but a select few disallow it. Make sure you look into what countries you can and cannot visit with your US driver's licence, and keep in mind, an international licence can come in handy either way. When you’re travelling to non-English speaking countries, they can make interactions with police easier and help you identify yourself when necessary. An international driver's license application is cheap and easy to fill out, so getting one is not really a big deal, especially when they can save you a lot of trouble.

Parking in Europe

Parking in most European cities can be incredibly difficult and extremely expensive. Make things easy on yourself and park at your hotel when you arrive at destination, and then use public transport to get around. Most Radisson Blu hotels offer parking. For example, if traveling to Paris, you can stay at the Radisson Blu Hotel Paris Boulogne which is just outside the city centre, park in the underground parking, and then get around by metro during your stay. Most often, public transport is efficient, easy to use, and cheaper than driving into the city, anyway.

Champs Elysees Paris, by Sébastien Nagy

Crossing European borders

Be aware that if you’re travelling between Eastern Europe and Western Europe, or between EU and non-EU countries, many rental companies don’t allow their cars to go between these spaces. Ask and confirm where you can travel with the company before you hit the road. Note that routes may need to change to avoid the countries your car isn’t able to visit.

Swiss border

Note as well that some cities require clear air certificates. Are you travelling through Paris, Lyon, or another low emission zone? If so, you are required to have a clean air certificate to prove your vehicle creates an acceptable amount of emissions. Most EU car dealers will be aware of this, and will actually provide these for you, but always check to make sure.

Psst! If you're a foodie, we highly recommend including Lyon in your itinerary. Discover why it's considered France's gastronomic capital

Refueling your rental car

Refuelling in Europe can prove to be a bit more complicated than you’d think. Many cars (that you wouldn’t expect) operate on diesel, so always ask and remember that European gas is in litres. Some countries have wide distances between fuel stations, so try to keep a full tank throughout your travels. On the eco-friendlier side, if you’re renting an electric car it is important to keep in mind the closest charging stations to your location. Check out the Radisson Blu destinations you can explore by electric car on our guide to the top 3 roadtrips.

Rules of the road in Europe

You’d think countries under one union would have standardised road rules, but this isn’t the case. The road rules in Europe can change dramatically from place to place. Some countries require your headlights to be on at all times, most countries ban cell-phone use, require reflective jackets as well as first aid kits... In France, you even need a breathalyser on board, in Germany you have highways with no speed limit..... So always ask and/or do your research before you drive into a new country.

Driver's view on busy german motorway with cars and trucks at sunset in late summer

Driving through Europe is an incredible experience, from the shores of Loch Lomond in Scotland to the Formula One driving tracks of Belgium, and definitely a must-do for every traveller. Keep calm, stay informed, follow the rules, and remember that things can take a few days to adjust. You’ll get it eventually!

Oh, and if you're American, check out our guide to visiting Europe for the first time!

Hit the road and discover the 130+ destinations you can explore in Europe with Radisson Blu!

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Harper is a travel enthusiast and passionate creative writer residing in the beautiful city of Auckland, New Zealand. She has penned articles for travel and lifestyle blogs, and local business sites. To get to know Harper more through her writing, follow her on Tumblr.

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