If a European Road Trip is on your bucket list, these planning tips will make your holiday especially memorable. I’ve planned and gone on road trips throughout Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland for years and thought I’d share the process.
This year my husband and I had planned another Mediterranean cruise but as sometimes happens, plans can change on very short notice. We consider ourselves very lucky that we were still in the timeframe where we could cancel our cruise and have our deposits refunded.
Now new plans had to be made for our fall holiday…what countries and areas to visit. Would we try someplace new or return to some of our longtime favorites? Perhaps we would go back to Tuscany where I have a friend who specializes in villa rentals. How about Provence or the Loire regions of France, it had been a long time since we had visited those areas. Where to fly in and out of, would we rent or lease a car and so on? That is what I’ve been working on and decided to share how I plan a European road trip.
Hotels in famous cities tend to fill up quickly as do flights in and out of them. If you can’t get on a flight when you want to leave, be flexible and pick another date or travel destination. I couldn’t find reasonably priced nonstop flights to Italy or France out of Orlando or Miami, two international airports that are several hours from our home.
I learned years ago that you can often see more of Euope if you fly into one city and out of another. Instead of searching roundtrip flights, I searched multi-city flights and included Melbourne, Florida, a small airport an hour’s drive from our home. While we normally take nonstop flights to Europe, I found a convenient American flight out of Melbourne connecting in Charlotte to Frankfurt and returning home from Munich through Charlotte back to Melbourne. The fare was half the price of what we paid three years ago so I bought our tickets without hesitation.
We always rent a car because it allows you to go to rural destinations. Many people on travel forums will tell you that trains are the best way to see Europe. If you are young and have a sense of adventure, travel light, don’t mind making connections and sometimes having to use buses to get to your final destination, then trains may be for you. Driving gives us the independence to stop when and where we want, finding the out of way place to eat or the castle ruins on top of a hill that make a trip especially memorable.
Driving regulations on car rentals in Europe vary drastically in each country. Most rental companies only allow some of their cheaper models to cross the border into Eastern Europe or even Italy. Even then, you may be required to buy supplemental insurance. We usually rent a Volvo, BMW or Mercedes. We get an automatic with GPS, we think the extra cost is worth it. They have plenty of room for luggage and they handle well in the Alps but they are not allowed to be driven into Italy or the Czech Republic so read the fine print. It is also good to know that if you will be driving in Austria, Greece, Italy, and much of Eastern Europe, you can be fined for driving without an international permit. The permit can be easily obtained from AAA in the US.
Familiarize yourself with the passenger and luggage space of the category of car you are renting. It may sound funny but if you are concerned whether you and your luggage will fit in a particular model rental car, stop by a car dealer and check out its interior and trunk before you rent the car.
I would never drive in Europe without GPS. I always have a map with us for day trips and they are good for an overview of your route but GPS has made my life as navigator on our trips so much easier. I get to enjoy the countryside views instead of always being glued to a map trying to determine where the next turn for an unmarked county road will be.
Reserve and pay for your rental car as far in advance as possible for a good rate. Just like airline ticket prices, as availability decreases, prices increase. For our last few car rentals in Europe, I’ve used Hertz. Would you believe that I can rent a better car for less money in Germany than I can at home. The cheapest car I can rent in my own hometown for 26 days is a Ford Focus without GPS for $45.65 a day. For this trip, I rented a Mercedes E-Class Automatic with GPS for 26 days for $27.75 a day. Search around for the best rate but always rent from a reputable company.
Your biggest expense for a European holiday will be transportation. Within a week of paying for your airline tickets, I would suggest you buy travel insurance. Accidents, health issues and weather related incidents can happen even before you start your holiday. I bought “cancel for any reason” insurance that will cover the costs of our airfare, car rental and hotel rooms in case we have a problem either before or during our European trip. We have had two close calls of having trips cancelled at the last minute by hurricanes so having trip insurance gives us peace of mind.
Once I have my airline and car reservations made, it is time to plan what cities to visit. I use a large scale map and sticky markers to visualize the route. I also use small scale maps when I’m looking for a scenic route or places of interest along the way. Most of the time, our destinations are about a 3 to 4 hour drive apart. If you do take the scenic route along a coastal or mountain road, it may take longer than you may have planned, especially if you encounter bad weather.
How long the stay will be at each destination is usually determined by how long your holiday is for. When my husband and I first started traveling in Europe, we spent one night in each hotel and were on the road the next morning because our vacations were 7 to 10 days long. Now our trips are usually for three weeks with a 3 night stay at each destination. We do make exceptions and will stay one night to break up a long drive or stay 4 or five nights if we are visiting somewhere especially interesting that we have never been to before. This year’s trip will be 26 days long and we will be staying at 10 hotels, 3 we have never been to before and 7 favorites that we love returning to time and again. We will leave from Frankfurt and visit Germany, perhaps day trip over to Switzerland, visit France and Austria before flying home from Munich.
Do your research when choosing a hotel or destination in Europe, I spend days, if not weeks, researching them. I’ll Google a town or hotel and look at 10 or more pages of websites, trying to get honest, unbiased information. If the website is in a foreign language, I’ll copy and paste it into Google translate. I like to read traveler’s opinions on Trip Advisor but you might be surprised that I read the terrible comments before the good ones. If there is a pattern of something being wrong with a hotel, that is where you will discover it. I also rely on the viamichelin.com and Michelin Red Guides for honest information on hotels and good restaurants. If we plan to stay at a spa resort, wellness hotel, as they are referred to in Europe, the Relax Guide is the absolute best but you have to translate the information. The hotels that we finally pick are selected for their location, having a good reputation and their amenities like a good restaurant or wellness facilities.
I don’t use a booking site to reserve a room. While you may get a good price, you may also get one of the small rooms that most people would be unhappy with, get a room with a window that looks out at a concrete wall three feet away or you may even get the noisy room over the dumpster that the hotel has trouble renting.
E-mail the hotel directly to make a reservation especially when you would like a specific room or have a question about the advantage of one room classification over another. If I don’t hear back in a couple of days, I’ll send a second e-mail as sometimes the first might have gone into their spam file. By the time I walk into a hotel entrance for the first time, I’m confident that I got a room for a good price and our stay will a nice one.
Last but not least, stay close to the airport for your departure. The night before our flight home, we are staying at the Hilton Munich Airport which is connected to the airport terminals. There is nothing worse than being caught in unexpected traffic, encountering long check in or security lines then having to run through an airport with your carry on luggage, all the time hoping not to miss your flight home.
I’ve been planning multi city road trips through France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland for years and find the whole process very interesting. While planning each of those trips, I have learned a lot about each country before I’ve ever left home.
Many of our friends have told me that they would find the task daunting and would rather take a guided tour where someone else has planned and is responsible for their holiday. My husband and I enjoy our road trips in Europe so I thought I would share my planning tips with my readers who might be thinking of planning their own European holiday.
Good luck and happy travels!