21st century travel in Europe. Part 1, the vehicle.

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. 

9 thoughts on “21st century travel in Europe. Part 1, the vehicle.”

  1. What you say here about renting a car in France, goes, I guess, for the most of Europe overall. At least in my experience renting a car in say Spain, Greece…, is completely hassle free… They sometimes give me even a bigger car than I paid for. Which once in Spain did not prove to be a good thing – driving through Seville and trying to literally squeeze the car into the hotel garage – well, at that moment I would have preferred a smaller car than I paid for, not the bigger one they generously gave to me.
    In both countries the level of trust is so great that it sometimes really touches me – they don’t bother to look at the car, you just drop keys somewhere and off you go. Even if they don’t have your credit card number – I guess they just trust that you will tell them should there be anything to tell them.

  2. All rightee…slippin’ in you drove 103 miles per hour? What exactly is the correct passenger protocol for that?? In a steady, calm voice saying, “Please slow down or this gun pointed at your head shall accidently go off.”

    My bet it was Germany in which your lead foot took over the Clio. When I picked up my little VW convertible in Bremerhaven and drove to Heidelberg, my first ramp to the autobahn was the ramp to an out of body driving experience. That speck on the horizon in the rear view mirror that was an oncoming car proved to be a rocket that just seconds later almost took me out as I ambled on to the autobhan in my US way.

    I lived there before the oil crisis in early seventies and then during the oil shortage they switched to 55 miles per hour on Autobahn and no Sunday driving at all except for emergency vehicles.

    The amount of autobahn deaths plummeted during this period and you know who protested the loudest to repeal this 55 miles per hour edict? The tire manufacturers!! They were losing money as people retained their lives!

    Anyway, this was an interesting post! But, seriously. Do you ever take a photo that is out of focus even by accident??

  3. Robert

    I found the experience so refreshing after renting cars in the US. Each time I felt screwed. On two occasions they didn’t have the car I reserved and they “up-graded” me saying that it wouldn’t cost extra. It did.

    Another occasion in Denver, I was given a minivan instead of a car. It was just so awful and unpleasant (a big sloppy lump) to drive not to mention that it guzzled fuel.

    Pat

    In Germany it pays to speed up to get out of the way. The point I was trying to make was that the little 1.4 ltr diesel engine had more than enough acceleration and speed for the driving I was doing. In general, I used the cruise control and sat on 130 kph (80 mph), which was slower than most of the rest of the traffic.

    I found that for the most part, driving in Europe was a pretty calm experience. I only got two speeding tickets on my trip.

    One in Bosnia and I bribed the cop 20 Euro and he let me off (I’ll write a post, some time about the experience) and once in Spain and I had to pay 70 Euros.

    Both times I got done for speeding in areas out in the middle of nowhere where there were very short zones of speed change. The one in Spain was on a long straight road that for some reason had a different speed zone for only about 200 meters and I went through it before I could even slow down.

    As for the blurry shots, how’re these for you:

    http://blog.allthedumbthings.com/2007/05/25/skinhead-party-brisbane-queensland-australia-1988/
    http://blog.allthedumbthings.com/2007/04/20/the-port-office-brisbane-qld-1990/

  4. Oh, now, I love those old shots…1990. 1988….See, you had to go way way back for an out of focus one! Why don’t you take some 2010 ones?? I’m hoping your skinhead parties are over but I’m sure you’ve got some good “blurry” material right outside on your patio. YOur chimerera!1 I went to a party on Sunday and they had one just like yours. I took photos!! I loved it! I wonder if I could get one for my condo porch? Probably, not.

    Anyway, ven your man or woman on the street shots this past trip to Europe were in all in focus!! Now, that is hard to do!!

  5. Insurance coverage in Bosnia, probably a good idea in case the car got hit by a stray missile. That narrow street looks almost too narrow to ride a donkey down let alone drive through it

  6. Pat

    When it comes to photography, it’s horses for courses. I just shoot in what way I think fits what I’m trying to communicate, rather than staying within a particular style.

    Tony

    Bosnia is pretty safe……. as long as you stay out of the minefields. I think the issue with the insurance in Bosnia has more to do with inter-country co-operation as far as laws are concerned.

  7. Hi Razz,

    Comparable to Oz and the US, fuel is in Europe high taxed, but there’s differences. The high fuel tax and several wars and crises paved the road for the economical cars in Europe, started with the VW Beetle, Citroen 2CV, Renault 4 and the British Mini. From the 70s, small economy hatchbacks are the backbone of our car park. Today, you pay in the Netherlands for petrol €1.50/litre (=US$1.90/litre or AUS$2.20/litre)

    Luxembourg, the tiny country between Germany, Belgium and France have cheap petrol compare to its neighbours, in Martelange there’s a highway on Belgium area, and the area beside is Luxemburg so that stretch is packed with filling stations selling cheap fuel to the tourists. It’ at the old N4 main road between Arlon and Brussels.

    Speed limit in build-up area is mainly 50 km/h, elsewhere 80-100 km/h, on motorway’s 120-130 km/h. Except Germany, in that country there’s no speed limit at their motorway, except the parts of their network marked with speed limit signs. This means 50% of the German motorway network is free of speed limits so the BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Audi drivers can drive fast and 200 km/h at the left lane is common. We in Europe never use the word Freeway or Interstate, in Britain it is Motorway, in Germany it is Autobahn and in France it is a Autoroute and Central and Southern European coutries have tolled motorways.

    City cars, subcompact and small family cars forms the majority on European roads, the major manufactures are Ford, Opel (in UK Vauxhall, in Oz Holden), Volkswagen, Peugeot, Renault and Fiat. The last four are relativy healthy compared to GM and will survive the global financial crisis, GM will go the same way as Leyland, unless they switched to passanger railway equipment and more economical cars. Unfortunality, the cars have manual transmission and except for UK and Ireland, you must drive at the right hand of the road. Did you have any problems, since you brought up with left-hand driving?

    And about traffic safety: if we look at the deaths per 100 000 Vehicle km, the Netherlands, UK and Sweden have the safest roads in Europe

    Joost

  8. Joost

    Once again, thanks for the informative comment.

    Driving in Europe was a bit hair raising for the first day, but by the end of a week it all seemed fairly normal. The tricky part is turning corners from one-way streets.

    As far as the price of fuel in Europe is concerned, I didn’t mind paying the price because the car I was driving was so economical, and to tell the truth I think that petrol should be expensive to encourage people to buy more efficient cars and use more public transport.

    Here in Sydney my wife commutes to work on a train (I work from home) and we tend to only use our car on weekends when we often visit friends (Sydney is so big it always seems to take an hour to get anywhere) or go out of town into the bush.

    I’ve never been very impressed with Australian drivers, so it came as a surprise to me to see this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Traffic_related_deaths_-_Road_fatalities_per_vehicle-km.svg

  9. Another trick to remain on the right side of the road is for the driver to be closest to the centre line at all times: 4,8,12 lane highways excluded.

    constant vigilance is important too!

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