Wissekerke Castle in Bazel, Belgium—one of the treasures we stumbled upon thanks to our road trip. (Photo: The Open Suitcase LLC)
Europe’s train system is incredible. For the price of a lunch in New York City, you can pick up a 2nd class ticket in any city and get yourself to another city for a day of touring. It’s practical, economical, and reliable.
Why, you ask, did we forsake that security to rent a car?
Um. Because we were traveling Americans.
And road trips are what we do.
I’m not saying we completely rejected trains. We took one from Paris to Bayeux to pick up a Normandy day trip. And another to get to Brussels. But for the 3 days we were in Belgium, we decided driving was the way to go.
Renting a car in Europe gives you the flexibility and freedom to explore areas outside the tourist comfort zone.
Did it work? It did. Here’s what we learned—some of it, the hard way.
We would visit at least one cathedral a day and were amazed that, by the end of the trip, we would still walk in and go “Wow!” (Photo: The Open Suitcase LLC)
Book it before traveling
If you have specific vehicular needs (like automatic transmission), booking your car in advance is necessary. I also had size concerns. The men in our quartet are six-footers and three days crammed into a tiny Opel would have made no one happy. I used Auto Europe, a consolidating service, to source our car before we left. Pickup and return were seamless and I had prepaid for the rental in US dollars, so my only responsibility at the counter was payment of local city taxes.
Include “no deductible” insurance
You’ll find articles that advise you not to purchase additional insurance when renting a car. I was nervous, though, and you can’t put a price tag on peace of mind. The rider for ‘walk away,” or no deductible insurance cost me about $50 a day. Not insignificant. But I was able to relax knowing that if we hit a cow, it was not going to involve months of back and forth negotiations with a farmer in Dinant about damages.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” (Photo: The Open Suitcase LLC)
Get an international driver’s permit
This also falls into the “piece of mind” category. In the US, you can swing by your local AAA office (yes, they still exist) and pick up an international driver’s permit (IDP). This, carried with your driver’s license, validates you as a driver in more than 150 countries throughout the world. It is not required for most of Western Europe, but is recommended. Remember the farmer’s pasture? Now involve the local gendarmes. The more official paperwork you have, the better.
Bring along a large road map
Remember maps? Besides serving as quaint relics of times gone by, a good road map is essential for figuring out where you want to go and how to get there. We’d unfold our Philip’s road map, pick out the names of nearby towns, and then look them up to see if there was something of interest.
Driving along and coming across this windmill made us feel like we’d stumbled back in time. (Photo: The Open Suitcase LLC)
We had certain non-negotiable stops to hit during our days in the car. For example, I wasn’t leaving Belgium without seeing the Ghent Altarpiece. But, for most of our days, we played it loosey-goosey and if someone made a suggestion, we dove on it.
You will revert to your inner irritable child. On day one, we were hungry. Day two? We packed up items from our hotel breakfast buffet so we could graze between meals.
If you want happy, not cranky, passengers, remember to feed them. (Photo: The Open Suitcase LLC)
Don’t ignore the fuel gauge
Our rental agreement, like most, required returning the car with a full tank. We passed up a number of highway stations, assuming we could fill up just prior to returning the car. Wrong. We couldn’t find an open one as the minutes ticked away and the rental office was about to close, causing unnecessary stress.
Assign a pilot and a co-pilot
And then resist the urge to backseat drive. It’s a stressful responsibility and they deserve oodles of thank-yous!