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European Car Rental - Top Ten Tips for Europe Travel - Tip #4: Before You Go
Many people believe that the first thing you should do to plan a trip is to figure out where you want to go. In a way this is correct, but only in a general sense. For example, say on your next trip to Europe you want to visit France, Spain and Italy. This is fine and you should have an idea of this to begin with. The reason that I wrote the previous three articles in the order I did: Car Size & Type, Price and Insurance, is that I feel you should have a good idea of what it is you need before you decide on what it is you want. The same is true of airfare and hotel accommodations as well but here we are only talking about planning the car rental part of the trip.
Once you know your requirements in relation to your budget. It's time to decide how much time you'll have and how far you can drive, and the routes you want to take. There are several excellent programs on the internet for determining driving times and distances between two locations. For Europe, I recommend Mappy, since it is very detailed and will give you some idea of landmarks to look for while driving, along with toll information for longer stretches. If you have the processing power, Google Earth is also a really neat program to work with, although it is much more complicated. Make sure you have the address (including postal code) of the place you are leaving from and arriving to. Most of the time this will be from one hotel to the next, or between the hotel and the car rental company. Try to find a rental location that is both near to your hotel and a highway on-ramp. This is increasingly important depending on the size and population of the city you are driving into. Surprisingly enough I have yet to find a program that easily maps from one European airport to another, although MapoRama hits it sometimes. Route 66 software will get you the distances between airports but not the written out directions or toll information.
Now that you know how to get where you are going, it's time to figure how how much and how long it will take to get there. If you are doing pretty straightforward highway driving you can take the distance given to you in the mapping program and divide it by 60 (or 96 if it was given to you in kilometers) and this will give you a rough approximation of travel time. Remember that if you are planning on doing some sightseeing, allow yourself at least twice this number. Although you did rent a car to get from one place to the other in the most efficient way, it doesn't do you any good to miss all the sights. That's what you came to Europe for, right?
The other factor in this case is how much gas is going to cost you. The first thing you have to know in this case is how many miles (or kilometers) per gallon the vehicle you are renting is going to get. A good number to work with is about 30 mpg for 1.6 litre engine vehicles (typically intermediate or standard sedans) and 40 mpg for 1.4 litre engines (economy and compact). These numbers are actually a little low but it's better to err on the side of caution. Considering these are highway numbers and not city, in-town driving will bring this figure down a bit. This is also based on a manual transmission. Also it is not uncommon to receive either an upgrade at the counter to a larger car class due to a lack of the size you reserved, nor is it rare to receive a compact car with a 1.6 litre engine. These things do happen and it's better not to be caught unawares. Once you know this, just apply this simple equation:
Cost = (Distance / Mpg) * Price per Gallon
Also be aware that as most things in Europe are in Euros, kilometers, and litres, you may need to do some additional conversions. There are 1.6094 kilometers to every mile, and there are 3.8 litres to every gallon. To find out what the current exchange rate is from the dollar to Euro, consult your favorite on-line currency converter. A quick example of this to go by, let's say you have to drive from Vienna, Austria to Paris, France (about 775 miles) in a 1.6 litre engine Renault Laguna. The resulting cost would be about $120 dollars since the current price per litre in Austria is about 1.01 euros or $4.67 USD per gallon, which is then multiplied by 25.83 (775 miles divided by 30 mpg). So you can tell now that this is a major expense, not to mention adding the toll fees on top of that! This might seem exorbitant at first but try checking out railpasses for 4 people and then you'll see not only is this pretty modest but you won't have to change trains, miss scenic opportunities or travel on someone else's schedule.
So are you ready to enjoy your new-found freedom? Well before you go, let's talk about big city driving. Most travelers fly into a major airport, get their vehicle and head straight into the city. It's probably a better idea to take the train or a taxi into town first, establish yourself at your hotel, get your bearings and then make your way to the rental agency to pick up your car. If you have ever driven in NYC, Los Angeles or even Boston, then you have an idea of what it can be like, but you still need to stay alert at all times. Each city has its own quirks, such as London (left hand driving, congestion zone charges), Barcelona (one way streets), Paris (traffic, no parking), Rome and Florence (also remember in Venice you have to drop the car outside of town). Believe the hype about the Italian driving style if you haven't been privy to it. Extremely aggressive, with a case-by-case attitude towards obeying traffic signs, stoplights, etc. It isn't bad driving per se (some would call it exciting) but hard to adapt to. Make sure you know where your arrival airport is in relation to the place you are staying. Consult the tourist boards for public transportation.
All in all, taking a rental car through Europe is a unique experience. As tourists from another continent, we must respect all rules and regulations concurrent to the country we are driving in. I urge you to learn all the signs and at least some of the road language. Remember that most of the time they are not in English! Ignorance of the law does not make you exempt from it, so if you get pulled over, politely explain that you were unaware but don't expect special treatment for it (if anything expect a bigger fine) since you are an American. After that you can speed back onto the Autobahn and join the everyday race. Just remember to pass on the left!
Murdoch Morris has spent 3+ years mostly listening to other people's stories about driving in Europe, although he has a couple under his belt as well. Feel free to contact him with any questions you may have specific to your next trip to Europe.
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