Should I rent a car for my trip to Central Europe?

David Manley  ·  5 / 6 / 2017

Go Real Europe itineraries no longer include rental cars, as it became clear to us that in the large majority of cases, renting a car in did not make sense. It also resulted in stressed-out clients and was unnecessarily putting them in danger.

Should I rent a car for my trip to Central Europe?

We only suggest rental cars for those travelers planning to spend the majority of their time exploring the countryside. Even for these travelers, the hassle, cost, stress, and increased risk of a rental car may not be worth it, as a combination of trains, buses, and private excursions can be used instead. So we do not include rental cars in our clients’ itineraries in this case either.

But for those travelers planning to spend a large part of their trip in the cities, a rental car is simply put, a very bad idea. Here are some reasons why renting a car does not make sense:

1. Not a fit for Central European cities

Central European cities are not car friendly. Large portions of the cities are inaccessible to cars. Those areas that are accessible to cars are often extremely difficult to drive in and are full of hazards like narrow lanes, pedestrians, and confusing medieval street patterns. Even locals avoid driving in these areas.

If you rent a car, you will first experience a difficult and stressful journey to your hotel. If you are lucky you will find a place to temporarily park nearby. Then you will drag your bags to the hotel, check-in, and then proceed back to the car and take your rental car to a parking garage where you will squeeze into a surprisingly small parking space. You will then pay a large amount for your car to sit there while you explore the city on foot and public transportation. Then you will repeat the pattern for the next city.

2. Increased cost

The cost of the car rental in Europe is just the start. You will probably also pay for insurance, or if not, possibly pay the deductible for a scrape or dent since you will be driving in unfamiliar areas. You must also pay for very expensive gasoline/petrol (over twice as expensive as in the United States for instance), highway tolls, and parking virtually everywhere you go. You can also end up paying hefty traffic tickets - for instance, many travelers don’t realize that passing a vehicle on the right is considered a very serious traffic violation in Europe punishable by a stiff fine.

Drop off fees are also extremely expensive, especially if you are picking up and dropping off in different countries. Another added expense is an automatic transmission, which is considered a special feature in rental cars in Europe. Depending on the rental car company, there are also restrictions and/or extra fees if you wish to rent a car in Germany or Austria and drive it into Poland, the Czech Republic, or Hungary. 

3. Increased stress and danger

Driving in an unfamiliar area is stressful and potentially dangerous. Why add danger and stress to your trip? Travel should be a time to relax and recharge.

You must accustom yourself to unfamiliar street patterns, driving habits, different signs, and for some clients, even driving on the other side of the road. It is especially difficult when driving into a new city for the first time, which is totally unlike the experience of driving into a North American city for the first time. A week before writing this, the author witnessed a tourist driver lost in Prague drive through a tram tunnel in the wrong direction and almost collide with a tram.

Often times even highway driving can be extremely stressful. For instance, since European drivers do not pass on the right, they tailgate other drivers that are slowing them down. You may find yourself driving 100 MPH (160 km/hr) in the left lane, but be closely tailgated by someone who wants to drive 130 MPH. You will then face the choice of either speeding up yourself, letting him tailgate you at a very high speed, or pulling over to the right where a solid line of trucks is driving only 55 MPH.

Most important is safety. Motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of deaths of travelers abroad, at rates far, far greater than crime or terrorism. Driving is always a statistically dangerous activity in comparison to other forms of travel, but when you add in the unfamiliarity factor and the distractions of a foreign country, it is much more dangerous. 

4. Navigation issues

If you rent a car in Europe, you will need to purchase local maps for your GPS. This will help, but you will still find many instances where the street patterns and intersections are so complex that you will find it difficult to follow the GPS directions. In the cities, there are also places where you will lose reception due to the narrowness of the streets. It is inevitable that you will get turned around at many points, which can be a very frustrating and time-consuming process, especially in the cities.

5. Lost time

While you save time getting to and from train stations, you lose time picking up and dropping off the car and stopping for gas, highway stickers, and meals (there's no dining car in your rental car). Finding parking and epic traffic jams add to the toll of lost time. The highways in Europe are notorious for complete standstills that can last for hours. Germans, for example, do an excellent job of keeping their highways in tip-top condition, but they do this through frequent construction maintenance that results in traffic pile-ups. There is also the time lost to wrong turns and getting lost (see above).

6. Rental cars just aren’t necessary

Central European cities are covered by efficient and reliable public transportation networks. It is easier, faster, and cheaper to get around the cities using public transportation, which is why the locals use them. If you travel with us, we’ll make it easy to use the public transport systems. Read more here.

The cities are also connected by rail and bus lines, meaning travel between the cities can be a relaxing opportunity to take in the sights rather than a stressful drive. There is also an excellent network of regional rail and bus lines, so you can easily take excursions into the countryside without a car.

Sample Cost Analysis - Public Transport VS Renting A Car in Europe

At the time this analysis was done, 1 EUR = 1.10 USD. Different situations will result in different cost estimates, so keep in mind that the cost could be more or less depending on your particular situation.

Let’s say two people are traveling to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. They are choosing between taking the train or picking up an automatic transmission, economy class rental car upon departing Prague and dropping it off upon arriving in Budapest. They will rent the car for four days.

The cost of the rental car including insurance and drop-off fee would be about $494 USD (source, The cost of transfer to the rental office would be about $15, and transfer from the rental office would be about $25 (since they must drop off at Budapest’s airport). Gasoline and highway stickers would add about an additional $90 (source 72 hours of parking in central Vienna would add an additional $60. They will also need a Europe map for their smart phone's GPS, adding another approximately $70. So the total would be about $735. Remember this is an economy car, and we are also assuming that there are no parking or traffic violations, and no hidden fees from the rental car company. If there were more than two people traveling, a larger, more expensive car would be required after factoring in the space needed for suitcases.

They could try dropping off the car in Vienna and getting a second rental car for the trip to Budapest, but now they have a second drop off fee and extra transfers, so they may actually spend more money while adding extra work and stress. There are also usually fees and/or restrictions on taking an Austrian rental car into Hungary.

On the other hand, they could purchase flexible 2nd class train tickets covering Prague to Vienna, and Vienna to Budapest, for about $220 USD. Adding in transfers to and from the stations, the total comes to about $300 USD. So in total, less than half the cost of renting a car, and with far less than half the stress.

There are some cases, such as when you travel in a larger group, stay in one country, and pick up and drop off in the same city, that it may be a little bit cheaper to rent a car, but for all the reasons we’ve mentioned above, we still do not recommend it, unless you are doing a countryside-focused tour. And even in that case, it is a difficult call. For larger groups, we can also organize private shuttles which can also work out more cost effective than renting a car. 


A Guide To Public Transportation and Taxis in Europe
Packing Tips for Central Europe
The Ultimate Central Europe Experience: 25 days

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My mission is to make travel better for our clients. Less stress, but more authenticity and fulfilment.

David Manley

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