By Rick Steves
Getting gas and finding parking aren’t likely to be the highlights of your European trip (I certainly hope not), but with the following tips in mind, you should be able to get right back on the road, or into town, with a minimum of hassle and cost.
Filling the Tank
The cost of fuel in Europe (about $8 a gallon) sounds worse than it is. Distances are short, petite cars get great mileage, and, when compared to costly train tickets (for the price of a two-hour train ride, you can fill your tank), expensive gas is less of a factor. You’ll be impressed by how few miles you need to travel to enjoy Europe’s diversity.
Pumping gas in Europe is as easy as finding a gas station (the English word “self-service” is universal), sticking the nozzle in, and pulling the big trigger. Paying, however, can be more complicated, because some pay-at-the-pump machines won’t accept most American magnetic-stripe credit cards (most common in the UK, France, and Scandinavia). Be prepared to pay cash. If you’re traveling on rural highways, automated gas stations may be the only ones open on Sundays, holidays, and late at night — fill up ahead of time.
Fuel prices are listed by the liter (about a quart, four to a gallon). As in the US, most cars take unleaded, but diesel is widely in use. In many countries, the pumps are color-coded to help you find the right kind of gas. In Europe, regular gas is marked “95” while super or premium gasoline is usually designated “97” or “98.” Unleaded gas is called essence, petrol, or benzine, while diesel is known as gasoil, gasol, gaz-oil, gasolio, gasóleo, dieselolie, mazot, motorina, nafta, or just plain diesel (ask about the proper local term when you rent your car). Pay extra attention in Spain, where gasoline is gasolina and diesel is sometimes called gasóleo.
Freeway gas stations are more expensive than those in towns, but sometimes (e.g., during lunchtime siesta) only freeway stations are open. Giant suburban supermarkets often offer the cheapest gas.
The best advice for avoiding parking hassles in Europe: Use common sense, and if you’re unclear on the rules, ask locals. Park carefully — Europe’s narrow streets are responsible for more than their fair share of insurance claims.
Learn what the pavement markings mean (different curb colors can mean free parking — or no parking), look for signs indicating where and when you can’t park, and double-check with a local that your car’s parked legally. Don’t assume that an absence of meters means you can leave your car there: You may need to get a timed ticket from a nearby pay-and-display machine, or display a parking-clock disc that allows you to use free, time-limited spots.
Lots and Garages
“Parking” is the European word for a parking lot or garage, universally marked with a blue P sign. In mid-size towns, I generally just pull into the most central and handy lot I can find. In bigger cities, I avoid the center (often an unpleasant grid of one-way streets) and head straight to a parking lot outside the core.
In an effort to make well-touristed places more pedestrian-friendly, many cities have stopped providing any parking at all in the city center. Look for huge government-sponsored park-and-rides on the outskirts of town, where local transit will zip you easily into the center — commonly, the affordable parking fee includes a transit ticket (or the transit is cheap and the parking itself is free).
Just like at home, the bigger the city, the more you’ll pay for parking. Small towns don’t usually charge more than $10 per day (and are likely to have free limited-time spots), whereas in bigger cites you’ll pay upwards of $35–$55 per day. Street parking can be cheaper than parking in a lot or garage, but often comes with a time limit too short for sightseeing. In smaller towns, you may find a cheaper hourly rate by parking farther away from the big-name sight. Parking machines on the street or at unstaffed garages often don’t accept American magnetic-stripe credit cards, and many don’t give change, so keep plenty of coins and bills on hand.
If parking overnight, it’s crucial to choose a safe, well-traveled, and well-lit spot (see my safe-parking tips). Ask your hotelier about parking options (and rules governing overnight parking); they may offer a permit or free spot, whether in their own lot or through an agreement with a neighbor.