By Rick Steves
Every country has its own take on who can drive — and who can rent — a car. Follow these tips to make sure you'll be able to take the wheel at your destination.
Passports, Driver's Licenses, and International Driving Permits
Whether you're American or Canadian, your passport and driver's license are all you need in most European countries. However, some countries also require you to have an International Driving Permit (IDP), which provides an official translation of your license — making it easier for the cop to write out the ticket. You can get an IDP at your local American Automobile Association or Canadian Automobile Association office ($15 plus the cost of two passport-type photos). AAA is authorized by the US State Department to issue permits; avoid scam artists peddling overpriced, fake international licenses.
You may hear contradictory information on exactly where you need an IDP. People who sell them say you should have them almost everywhere. People who rent cars say you need them almost nowhere. People who drive rental cars say the IDP is overrated, but can come in handy as a complement to your passport and driver's license. Those driving in Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, and Spain are technically required to carry a permit and could be fined if found without one. If all goes well, you'll likely never be asked to show this permit — but it's a must if you end up dealing with the police. Even if you have an IDP, remember that you must carry your American or Canadian driver's license as well.
Minimum and maximum age limits for renting a car vary by country, type of car, and rental company. Younger renters can get stuck with extra costs, such as being required to buy extra insurance or pay a surcharge of $15–40/day (fortunately, there are usually maximum surcharge limits). Most companies will not rent a car to someone under 21 (there are exceptions, depending on the country and type of car), but those who are at least 25 years old should have no problem. The student-oriented STA Travel is a good option for young renters (tel. 800-781-4040).
Drivers over 70 may have trouble renting in the Czech Republic, Great Britain, Greece, Northern Ireland, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Turkey. If you're over 69, you may pay extra to rent a car in the Republic of Ireland, where the official age limit is 75 (but people 75–79 can rent if they provide extensive proof of good health and safe driving). If you're considered too young or too old, look into leasing, which has less stringent age restrictions. (If you're traveling to Ireland, the closest leasing option is in London.)
As Europe's internal borders fade, your car comes with the paperwork you need to drive wherever you like in Western and much of Eastern Europe (always check when booking). But if you're heading to a country in far eastern or southeastern Europe, state your travel plans up front to the rental company when making your reservation. Some companies may have limits on eastward excursions because of the higher incidence of car thefts (for example, you can only take cheaper cars, and you may have to pay extra insurance fees). When you cross these borders, you may be asked to show proof of insurance (called a "green card"). Ask your car-rental company if you need any other documentation for crossing the borders on your itinerary.
Some rental companies allow you to take a rental car from Britain to the Continent or to Ireland, but be prepared to pay high surcharges and extra drop-off fees. If you want to drive on the Continent as well as in Britain and/or Ireland, it'll probably be cheaper to rent separate cars each time, thanks to the high cost of taking cars on ferries (between Ireland and Britain) and crossing under the English Channel via the pricey Eurostar car train.