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 $7 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 easy; the English word "self-service" is universal. Paying, however, may be more complicated — observe other customers and follow suit. At some stations, you pump the gas first and then pay the cashier (your pump may be "frozen" until the previous customer pays his or her bill). At others, you pay at a central kiosk and then select your pump number. Some places offer full service.
Other stations are like the ones in the US, where you pay at the pump. But most of these machines (especially those in the UK, France, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia) won't accept magnetic-stripe credit cards, and even if your US credit card has a chip, it might not work at the offline terminals common at gas pumps (be sure you know your card's PIN in case you need to enter it). If your card doesn't work, pay the cashier (with cash; in some cases they might be able to swipe your card). Note that gas stations can be unattended: For instance, if you're traveling on rural highways, automated gas stations — which don't take cash — may be the only ones open on Sundays, holidays, and late at night. It's best to 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 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. Be aware that in some countries there's no size or color difference between the nozzles for diesel and gasoline, so make sure you're not putting the wrong fuel in your car.
Freeway gas stations are more expensive than those in towns, but sometimes (e.g., during the 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.
Parking clocks: Dashboard "parking clocks" are used in some areas instead of parking meters. Common in Germanic countries, these clocks (Parkscheibe) come with rental cars or can be bought cheaply at gas stations, newsstands, and tobacco shops. Park, set the clock to indicate the time you arrived, and leave it on your dash. The street sign tells you the hours when free paring is allowed.
Lots and Garages
"Parking" is the European word for a parking lot or garage, universally marked with a blue P sign. In midsize 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 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 might not accept your American credit card, and many don't give change, so keep plenty of coins and bills on hand.
Your vacation is limited — don't spend a lot of time cruising around looking for a free spot. In general, I recommend getting as close as you can to the city center and paying the fee. You'll save time and have a safer place to leave your car.
If parking overnight, it's crucial to choose a safe, well-traveled, and well-lit spot for your car (see my tips for safe parking). Ask your hotelier about parking options (and rules governing overnight parking); the hotel may offer a permit or free spot, whether in their own lot or through an agreement with a neighbor.