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 an International Driving Permit (IDP). An IDP is an official translation of your US license (making it easier for the cop to write out a 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 — OK to bring your own; doesn’t require AAA membership). 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. It’s a good idea to get one if you’ll be driving in Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, or Spain — countries where you’re technically required to carry a permit, since you 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.
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 per day (fortunately, there are usually maximum surcharge limits). Most companies will not rent a car to someone under 21 (with some exceptions, depending on the country and type of car), but those who are at least 25 years old should have no problem.
Drivers over 70 may have trouble renting in the Czech Republic, Great Britain, Greece, Northern Ireland, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Turkey; drivers over 80 may have trouble in Denmark. If you’re over 69, you may be required to pay extra to rent a car in the Republic of Ireland, where the official age limit is 75 (although some rental companies will rent to those ages 76–79 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 throughout most of Europe (always check when booking). But if you’re heading to a country in far eastern or southeastern Europe — especially one that still has closed borders (such as Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Montenegro), you may need to pay extra — for the rental itself and/or for additional insurance. State your travel plans up front to the rental company when you book. 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; these limits and fees aren’t imposed if you’re leasing). 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. It’s a bad idea to take your rental car anywhere that’s prohibited by your contract, as doing so voids any insurance coverage.
Some 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, or between either place and the Continent) or crossing under the English Channel via the pricey Eurotunnel car train.