Renting a Car – Driving in Europe

In the past few weeks, I wrote about how looking at our itinerary helped us make the decision to rent a car. I also wrote about the basics of choosing and renting the car. In this third entry about car rental, I want to discuss some of the details about driving in Europe.

Filling the Tank
Approaching the Gas Station

About two-thirds of the cars in the European Union use diesel, rather than gasoline, to power their engines. The car rental agency will tell you what kind of fuel your car uses. If you are traveling through several countries, you may also want to ask what the fuel is called in each country. The car we rented on our recent trip was fueled by diesel. The agency had placed a sticker on the fuel access door to remind me not to fill with petrol or benzine, but to use diesel or gasoil.

Filling the Gas (Diesel) Tank

Filling up in Europe is similar to doing so at a station in the US, although there was not always the option to pay at the pump. Beware, though, that smaller stations may not have attendants on duty and then the only option would be to pay with a chip-, or chip and pin-enabled credit card. The fuel door release was inside the car – another detail to check before driving away from the agency.

Fuel in Europe can be as much as three times the price of fuel in the states – sometimes even more. We paid the equivalent of $5.72 per gallon for standard diesel. We averaged about 210-220 miles per day over six days.  The vehicle we used was very efficient, getting about 36 mpg, thus averaging a little over six gallons per day.

Paying Tolls
Approaching the Toll Plaza

Another expense when driving in Europe is paying tolls on the highways. If you use highways, you usually pay tolls; to avoid tolls, drive on the smaller roads through the countryside. Two lane roads take much longer, so if you want to save time, you pay tolls.  On our most expensive, long day of driving we paid around $40 in tolls.

Toll booths accept payment with coins, chip-enabled credit cards, or automatic systems like I-Pass or EZ-Pass. As tourists, we don’t have the access to the automated system (“t” lanes in the picture). Since it is inconvenient to to carry around a large amount of coins, it’s better to use a credit card. My card has a chip and uses a pin, rather than a signature, but we were not asked to input the pin number on the highways in France.


We parked in a variety of places as we traveled through France.  We parked in a couple of parking garages, where we paid the fee at a kiosk before exiting. We parked in designated parking areas for tourist sites – chateaux, cemeteries, and beaches; some had fees and some did not.  We were careful to reserve rooms in hotels that had parking available – one charged a small fee, but the rest included parking in the room rate. Be sure you understand how to pay for parking in each place you stop.

Speed Limits

You have probably heard about the Autobahn in Germany, where there is no speed limit. Although the road exists, the rules are not quite that simple. Actually, the autobahn is a series of roads throughout the country – over 8000 miles total. Some parts of the road do not have a posted speed limit, although the recommended limit is 130 kph, or just over 80 mph. If you drive over this speed and have an accident, you may be fined.

About one third of the roads have permanent posted speed limits, and places on the road where there is no posted speed limit, have times when a speed limit is imposed.  When we traveled from Berlin to Frankfurt, we drove on a section of the Autobahn. When it started to rain, overhead signs lit up, alerting us to the current speed limit. In areas where there can be intermittent congestion, these signs will also control the limit.

Determining the Speed Limit

Speed limit signs are designed differently than those in the states, but are just as easy to understand. Basic speed limit signs are circular.  The limit is shown in the middle of the circle with a red ring around the edge.  In areas where the speed limit changes, you will see a sign, or pair of signs, alerting you. Sometimes a speed limit sign has an up arrow at the top of the sign – this means the speed limit change is coming up ahead.

When you enter a small town, you will see the speed limit at the beginning of the town.  As you leave the town, you will see what looks like a speed limit sign, except there will be five narrow diagonal lines through it. This sign indicates that the lower speed limit is ending and you should resume the prior speed limit.

Speed Limit Sign on the Highway in France

Common speed limits depend on where you are driving.  Highway limits are usually between 110 kph and 130 kph. Two lane roads through the country often have a limit of 90 kph.  Driving through a small town, you will find limits of 70, 50 or even 30 kph.

The Dashboard in the Rental Car Showing the Speed Limit on the Road


Cars, even rented ones, may help you follow the speed limit.  On the navigation section of the dashboard of the car we rented, there was an indicator showing the posted limit on the road where I was driving.  If I missed the sign, or wasn’t sure, I could look at the dashboard to see what the speed limit was.

Finally, police officers do not usually ticket drivers who exceed posted speeds. However, cameras are placed along the road – often hidden in odd places. Renting a car won’t hide you from authorities, either.  Years ago, my husband was driving in the Netherlands and said he saw a flashing light come from a garbage can on the side of the road. A couple of months later, we got a letter in the mail from the rental agency explaining that the speeding ticket he received that day was charged to our credit card.

Other Road Signs

There are a couple other signs you should be familiar with. Many are self explanatory, such as a large “P” on a blue background. You will recognize this as indicating a parking area. A red circle with a red diagonal line on a black background indicates no stopping or no parking. A red circular sign with a thick white bar across the center (horizontally) means “Do Not Enter.”

Curve Ahead – No Passing

On two lane roads you might see a sign indicating a curve in the road – a little different that the ones in the states but easily decipherable. A “No Passing” sign shows a red car on the left with a black car on the right – the end of this zone is shown using the the same graphic, but with five diagonal lines through it. Ideamerge has more information about European road signs.

Alcohol Use

In the states, the allowable blood alcohol level (BAC) when driving is .08 percent.  In all of Europe the allowable BAC is .05 or less – some countries have a zero tolerance or .01 limit policy. What does this mean? It means that even one drink can put you over the allowable limit so you need to think about this when you plan to rent a car. If you have a beer with lunch and wine with dinner on a regular basis, make sure you don’t have to drive back from the restaurant.

My daughter and I sometimes have a glass of wine with dinner. When we rented the car on our last trip, we made sure that we did not have wine if we were at a restaurant where we would have to drive back to the hotel.

Using the Trunk – Keeping your Stuff Safe

In addition to keeping yourself and your passengers safe, you probably want to think about keeping your possessions safe while driving your rental car. Just as you lock your car and hide your valuables a home, you do this in Europe – and even more diligently.

Not Exactly a Trunk, the Scenic has a Cargo Area with a Security Shade

I’m not saying you will have a greater chance of being robbed in Europe, but only that if it happens, it will be more of a hassle. The emergency number in Europe is not 9-1-1, but rather, 1-1-2. If you have an emergency and call this number, the operator will speak the local language and English. If you car is robbed or worse yet, damaged, you will have to contact the local police to file a report. You will also have to contact the car rental agency if there is damage to your car.  Your trip may be delayed to the point of missing out on planned activities.

On the other hand, if you are cautious and careful, you probably will not have any problems.  If you plan to shop or stop for activities with your luggage in the car, make sure you know how to open the trunk of the car.  And use it. Always put luggage and purchases out of sight – it’s as simple as that. A thief is less likely to try to open a trunk on the chance that something might be inside, than to break a window to grab a purse or bag off the seat.

Follow the Rules

Renting a car is Europe can be a great experience.  You can see areas that might otherwise be out of reach.  However, if you do rent a car, make sure you know and follow the rules and safety recommendations. Follow posted speed limits and other road signs. Store luggage and purchases in the trunk of the car.

Ask the rental agent any questions you have before you leave the agency. Determine the fuel requirements. Study your route, so you know if there will be tolls on some of the roads you choose. Figure out parking prices before you leave your car in a lot. Drive safely and have fun!




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