It’s been a long time since my last post. To be honest, I hate blogging on my phone and I also don’t like to take a laptop with me on vacation. I really should come up with a better system. We were away for over a month and a half, which really meant no means to write (at least that’s my excuse, sorry!).

If you’ve been following my instagram account this summer, you’ll know we headed to Europe for a few weeks. There will be plenty of posts on those destinations to come, but first I thought I’d write about one of the more challenging parts of our adventure – renting a car and road tripping through central Europe, covering southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy.

We used Expedia to get an amazing deal on a mid-sized car out of Munich for 8 nights – $316 Canadian (that’s like, $5 USD right now!), or about 210 Euros. Well, we BOOKED a mid-sized car. What we got was a brand new Ford Kuga. Downside #1 – we waited in line at Avis/Budget in the Munich airport for at least an hour. Then guy seemed to think he was doing us a favor by giving us this lovely little SUV. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love a beautiful SUV. When I’m in Canada. And it’s winter. But this was Europe and it was over 30 degrees Celsius every day. We probably could have done with a Smartcar if Billy wasn’t worried what everyone would think of him.

Some of you probably wonder, “well why is an SUV so bad?” Let me tell you – have you ever tried to squeeze your foot into a shoe one size too small? That’s what it’s like parking an SUV in every parking spot in Europe. It’s just the worst. We (Billy) managed though, after a lot of yelling and cursing. So downside #2 of renting a car – large cars and Europe don’t really mix.

Once we managed to get ourselves out of the Munich airport, we made our way to the cutest town I’ve ever seen in my life – Rothenburg ob der Tauber (post on that to come). This was the absolute upside #1 of renting a car – the freedom to travel quickly and on your own schedule. The trip to Rothenburg was just over 2 hours via the autobahn system. Other options to Rothenburg included taking 5 different trains from the airport (roughly 3.5 hours), a day tour, or a once-a-day bus from Munich. To us, having the freedom to drive at our own pace was the most appealing option. It also opened up the possibility of seeing other destinations that are not nearly as accessible, or even inaccessible, without a car. This included stops in the Swiss & Austrian Alps and Northern Italy.

Upside #2 – the Autobahn system is just SO COOL. Honestly, North America needs to adopt this system and all of us need to learn how to drive better. Yes, it is true – most of the roads on the autobahn system don’t have speed limits. But it’s because everyone knows you keep to the right unless you’re passing. We did not see a single accident anywhere in Germany! It was smooth and terrifying all at the same time. I think it’s something you should at least try to experience once in your lifetime simply for its efficiency and how fast you can get to your destination. God bless good Germany engineering. A similar system also runs through Switzerland (although there are more speed limits there due to the windy roads in the mountains), Austria (same), and Italy (they do have a 150km/hr limit on 3 lane highways and 130km/hr limit on 2 lanes) but the Germans really do it right.

The day we were leaving the Neuschwanstein Castle area we discovered that we would need to purchase a toll pass for Switzerland. This is downside #3 – TOLLS ARE SO EXPENSIVE! The Swiss make you purchase a year toll pass no matter the length of time you’ll be driving on their roads. We would be there two days. So this little purple and green sticker (“vignette”) cost us 38 Euros. We’re hoping that we brought on some good karma as we left the sticker on the car for the next renters (you’re welcome, stranger). There was actually a guy at the Austria-Switzerland border whose only job was to check for these toll stickers. The same thing actually went in Austria, although their sticker only cost 8.80 euros as they were kind enough to offer a 10 day pass (an annual is 85 euros). You can pick up either of these passes at gas stations and border stations. Austria was a bit sneakier though. On our return trip to Munich, we were so confused when we had to pay an additional 9 euros for a toll road. What the heck was the point of the sticker guys?! Italy had by far the most expensive tolls. You actually pay per kilometer you drive on the road. We paid I believe close to 90 euros over the course of our driving in Italy in tolls. That’s like, three days worth of amazing Italian meals. They do offer this handy tool for you to know ahead of time how much they are going to gouge you on your journey if that’s your thing.

In addition to tolls, these countries do not seem to believe in free parking (not even on Sundays!). I get it, there’s not a lot of room and space is limited, but a piece of cement there cost more than downtown Calgary. But downside #4 – be prepared to pay anywhere from 2-10 euros per hour, and 10-45 euros overnight. Overnight parking added 130 euros to our tab, and day stop parking was another 40 euros or so. Note: hotels rarely, if ever, offer free parking so double check with them before you book.

One other note: many “old city centres” have car-free zones. Florence, Como, Rothenburg, and Fussen were the main cities we came across that we had to park and then walk. In addition, places like Cinque Terre are almost impossible to drive (nor would I ever want to!). While we didn’t find this particularly impacted us, I do think that it could be considered to be downside #5 of having a car, especially if you have a lot of luggage. In Florence, we walked about 1.5km from our parking garage to our hotel. It was super hot and we luckily had only small luggage, but those cobblestones would be a b*tch if you had a large suitcase.

In addition to all of the above, drivers in some of the other countries can be downright scary. I’ve never been surrounded by a mob of scooters before. Nor have we almost been backed into by three cars simultaneously. It actually amazes me that there aren’t more frequent accidents with the amount of cutting in-and-out and zig-zagging done on many Italian roads. Downside #6 – driving is different over there and adapting can be stressful and difficult (ok, it also made me go “WTF” and laugh at least 20 times a day, so that could also be an upside).

The final downside – in order to avoid excess fees, you’ll have to drive your car back to the place you got it from. Now this might not be a big deal for you if you plan it right. We ended up having a long day of driving from Florence to Munich with a lot of traffic and it didn’t make for an awesome day. Many rental companies won’t even offer one-way rentals if you’re requesting to leave it in another country.

I feel like I’ve been a bit negative in the past few paragraphs, so here’s an upside #3 – you get to see spectacular scenery and stop (almost) whenever and wherever you want. In Switzerland, the highways wind around and then quite literally go through the mountains. You could pull off the highway into any beautiful town or any castle that you see. It’s also great for making quick stops in places like Liechtenstein to get your passport stamped with a souvenir stamp.

Recap:

  • If you’re going to rent a car, go for a smaller model that can still fit your luggage needs and offers some power for the autobahn.
  • Renting cars out of Germany is generally the best deal in the area
  • Factor in the hours that you’ll need to take returning your car to the same city you picked it up in.
  • Parking, tolls, and gas are all added expenses once you are there that you’ll have to account for when budgeting.
  • Cars offer the most flexible method of transportation and allow you to see and experience more isolated places and scenery.

So, would we do it again?

Probably not.

It was a great experiment, but a pretty costly and stressful one. I closed my eyes numerous times. Billy yelled a few more. I panicked even more times. I swore at a toll booth once. It was fun to do and gave us the freedom to choose small towns and run on our own schedule, but next time we will stick to trains.

Hope this was helpful!

B