If you have never considered a road trip in Europe the purpose of this entry is to inspire you to entertain the idea and start planning! I found that camping and driving in Europe was a giant cost savings versus any other form of travel but it was so much more than that as well. Taking a road trip in Europe gave me freedom, flexibility and the opportunity to make less common travel choices for parts and destinations that may not be normally found on the typical European itinerary (as well as book-ending with some of the tried and true European destinations.
Two ideas came together this summer that lead to an unbelievable three week road trip from Barcelona through various parts of Southern France, into Italy all the way to Venice, then down to Rome and then back through the Maritime alps of Northern Italy.
My friend in Rome invited me to her birthday in Rome. Rome is an easy flight from Barcelona but somehow Olga put the idea in my head that maybe it would be a fun idea to drive back home. It sounded great Except … the one way drop-off fee was over a thousand Euro extra. The only answer? drive all the way to Rome and back. Google maps said it is about 5000km RT. I love a road trip but not one that is just driving non-stop so I figured it needed to be 3 weeks. Two problems. 3 weeks of hotels in Europe was out of budget and Olga did have that much time off work. How about camping? One half solved and Olga would take a cheap flight and meet me in Rome and just do the return trip!
The car rental price sealed the deal. I found a deal online for 11 euro a day – who could pass that up? Then, even better – the rental agency was out of the compact and told me I would have a “Smart” which is fine and good for a quick jaunt but I said “No way” and I had prepaid. After a nice conversation with a really nice guy I wound up in this for 5 euro a day more – best 16 euro a day car ever!!!!
Here are some tips to help get your European road trip going:
Easy, Safe driving: Driving in western Europe in general is very safe. When I was young I heard that drivers in Italy and Spain were bad. I have not experienced this at all. You can find bad drivers in any country but in general the European countries are very controlled with driving and road conditions are good as well. You may need to get used to narrow streets in smaller towns and cities but if you are comfortable driving in the US or other European countries it seems like across the board European driving is fine. Don’t worry, you’ve got this :).
Kayak a car: Regardless of my upgrade luck, apparently mid-summer you can find car rentals in Europe for very cheap. I found all kinds of deals on http://kayak.com and if you have an American credit card that covers the CDW (My Chase Sapphire does) there is no need to pay for extra coverage and there are no hidden fees (In Europe the taxes are shown up front). My total for 22 days was 364 Euros.
No Borders: Driving between Western European countries in a rental has no extra fees as long as you return it in the same place. This allows you to shop for the best combined rental car and flight combo. If you want to visit three countries fly into the one with the best prices. For example, Barcelona is only 2 hours to the French border and both car rental prices and flights might be a lot cheaper here.
Make sure to rent a diesel as small as needed: Fuel isn’t cheap in Europe but if you get a diesel you will save a ton of cash. In addition unless you are on an unlimited budget consider getting a compact (not a mini). If you can fit your luggage for two in a plane you can fit it in a compact! BTW – the upgrade was a high efficiency diesel.
Don’t drive on the toll roads: If you aren’t in a whirlwind hurry take the secondary roads. First of all the tolls can cost more than fuel on a big day! Second in general the scenery is lousy. Without question you will get to places efficiently using them and there may be times you just need to cover ground but there are still excellent secondary roads which are a lot more scenic and may provide surprises and adventures that aren’t on the beaten path.
Download offline maps in Google for everywhere you might want to go: If you aren’t aware you can download Google maps to use anywhere. Enter your route in advance when you have wifi and you may see the note like the screenshot below. If not, go to your home menu and look for “offline maps”. You can draw a map as big as you wish. I recommend downloading a big map in case you want to wander. The third part of the screenshot is your route options to get you onto the secondary highways.
Go Camping! I think that camping may have a stigma with some people in the United States. I won’t even bother to detail it much but I found that camping in Europe – at least in Spain, France and Italy is – well, just different. The facilities I found to be always well maintained and the general atmosphere is a slightly higher caliber than many campgrounds I have been in the US (not to knock it but just what I have found). For example, in Europe the showers were always free to use and in the States in general I have found paid showers. Campgrounds in Spain, France and Italy cost around 20 Euros for a tent spot so the saving compared to even the most budget hotel is massive. Camping culture in Europe is very evolved and very common. The French and the Germans in particular love it. I used this site https://www.pitchup.com to book all of my campsites. It’s like Booking.com for camping. Easy, Peasy.
Buy your gear in Europe: There is a great sports store in France, Spain and Italy called “Decathlon” which sells tents and sleeping bags for very low cost. I think I spent 35 on the tent and 20 on a sleeping bag, pillow and a pad. Make this your first stop and make sure to get some mosquito repellent too – Europe has way more mosquitoes than I expected! I kept my gear because I live here now but when I camped in Norway I sold my gear at the airport as I was flying out or you could even donate it at the last camp ground. BTW – The hammock in the pic is amazing and folds to the size roughly of a shoe. Highly recommend from ENO – ENO Hammock (Not to be given away -I’ve had mine for years!)
Challenge yourself and don’t plan too much!
I know this can be hard for many people but this type of trip can be really amazing if you “play it by ear”. For example, I had no intention to visit the Idylic French city of Collioure on the coast at the very South of France, a place that I had never heard of and was stunning and just happened to be on the coast road that I had chosen to drive on.
We didn’t plan to head into the stunning and uncrowded Maritime Alps of Northern Italy but they found themselves on the route map.
I actually learned of the country San Marino which is completely within Italy and I was able to visit because of the flexibility of the car.
I was so happy with the road trip. I feel like I was able to see and do so much more in three weeks than I would have in any other format and the flexibility and cost savings of camping allowed me to apply that budget to experiences and lots of amazing food. If you enjoy a good drive then I highly recommend this method of travel in Europe!