Although I’ve bummed around much of the world travelling the hard way, hitch-hiking and sleeping rough when I was younger, my trip to Europe last year with my wife was so different and went so well, I thought I should do a few posts about how we did it.
This first part will be about travelling by car.
Although Europe has a pretty good public transport infrastructure, my wife and I wanted to get a bit more off the beaten track and go to places that were less crowded, so we leased a car for three months. France has an exceptionally good system for foreigners to lease brand new cars for short periods. Citroen, Peugeot and Renault all offer very competitive rates with no-fault insurance. Only Renault’s insurance gave us coverage in Bosnia so we chose a Renault Clio Estate diesel with a manual transmission.
For 86 days car lease including insurance with no other hidden costs we paid just under $2,800 AUD (about $2,500 US or 1,970 Euros) which worked out at approximately $32 AUD (about $28 US or 22 Euros) a day.
We went with the Clio Estate because it’s a small car with a fairly large cargo space. We were able to put two folding bicycles and our luggage in the back and still pull the cargo cover over, so our things couldn’t be seen through the windows. When we were in Germany, we met up with my parents and they travelled with us for about 10 days. Much to my parent’s credit, they are seasoned travellers and they know how to travel light so we had no trouble fitting them and their luggage in the car as well.
The Europeans really know how to get the most out of their cars through design.
Although I was a bit worried that the Clio only had a 1.4 ltr diesel engine, it had more than enough get up and go for all our needs. As a matter of fact I got the Clio up to 167 kph (about 103 mph) and most of the countries we went through had a maximum speed limit of 130 kph (80 mph). I was very surprised at how well the Clio performed and it was so economical to run. In over 14,000 kms (about 8,700 miles) we only had to fill the tank about 11 times.
It’s no wonder the American automobile industry is in such big trouble when the Japanese and Europeans make such well designed and efficient cars.
Because of our long flight (27 hours), we arranged to pick up our car from the airport in Paris, two days after we arrived so we would be more mentally alert for what was for me, driving on the wrong side of the road.
I’d like to offer this advice to anyone who has to drive on the opposite side the road to what they are used to. Encourage your passenger to be an extra set of eyes and set the ground rules that they are to warn you with a calm, clear voice and not to over react by screaming incoherently and pointing. This is particularly important when making turns around corners so you go into the correct lane and not into oncoming traffic.
I feel I should stress to those who have never been to Europe, that a big car is a very bad idea. Many of the streets in the old towns are extremely narrow, parking is often very hard to find and when a spot is found, it’s usually a very tight fit, plus fuel is very expensive.
I had to laugh when I drove through streets like the one in the photo below (taken in the northern Italian town of Cimbergo), at the thought that if one was silly enough to be driving a large camper or something really stupid like a Hummer you’d end up having to do some quite long and complicated reverse driving with crossed fingers that no one was following behind you.
In our whole trip I didn’t have any mechanical problems or accidents. On the whole I’d say that most European drivers are quite good and I had no problems anywhere with dealing with the traffic. I guess driving here in Sydney had prepared me pretty well for whatever Europe had on the roads. The is one exception though, and that was Germany. The Germans are great drivers, courteous, safe and fast which made driving in Germany the best motoring experience I’ve ever had.
The whole leasing experience was so easy. The pick up involved a little paper work and the drop off couldn’t have been simpler. When I dropped off the car, I was asked if I had damaged it, so I told them that I hit a concrete block that was hidden in the grass in the Netherlands and I’d smashed up one of the hubcaps and put a ding in the wheel rim. The car lease guy asked to see it and when I showed him, he almost laughed and said it was nothing.
My father-in-law had a similar experience the year before except that he’d done a bit of damage to a body panel and it was just marked on his paperwork and there were no extra charges.
So, in short, I’d highly recommend leasing a car in France to drive around the rest of Europe. It’s reasonably priced and hassle free, unlike experiences I’ve had in the US where there always seemed to be some excuse to wring more money out of me.
I’d definitely lease car in France, without a worry, if I’m ever in that part of the world again.
Oh, and I thought I should mention, that I’m soooo totally over hitch-hiking nowadays.