Self-drive holiday tips and itineraries

Planning a self-drive itinerary in Europe

November 25, 2014 (Last Updated: February 15, 2023)
by Carolyn
Map of Europe with pins

Renting a car and driving in Europe is not for everyone but if you like the freedom to go where you want, when you want, it’s a fantastic way of getting around.

Driving has many advantages including the option to get off the regular tourist trail and visit smaller towns and villages.

It can also be a very cost-effective mode of transport if you are travelling with friends or family members as the vehicle cost can be shared amongst multiple travellers.

So, if you’re ready to start planning a self-drive holiday in Europe, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the best rental car deal possible. 

In this guide, I share my tips for getting the best deal possible when it comes to car hire and leasing in Europe, as well as useful information to help you plan your itinerary.

How to get the best car hire deals

Early bird deals

If you’re able to plan well ahead, my advice is to do so. Not only will you be able to benefit from the early booking discounts on offer from the various rental car companies, you’ll also have a larger choice of vehicle sizes and types to choose from.

Car hire companies usually release their early bird specials via their booking agents around September/October each year. The offers usually apply for cars collected the following year and in most cases the rental has to be paid in full by the end of February. 

For example, if you need a hire car in Europe in July 2021, you could book in October 2020 and pay in full by the end of February 2021 to secure the early bird rate.

Car hire consolidators

In my experience, using a specialist car hire consolidator like Auto Europe or DriveAway Holidays usually results in finding the best rates. As these consolidators are agents for numerous car rental companies they are able to compare rates and find the best deal for you. 

The rates available from different car hire companies can vary depending on your pick up and drop off location, the size of vehicle you want to hire and the various specifications of the car such as whether you want a manual or automatic vehicle, petrol or diesel model, etc. 

By using a car hire consolidator, they can do all the hard work and make all the price comparisons on your behalf.

Tax-free Leasing

Leasing is another way to save money on the cost of your car hire in Europe. If you require a car for at least 21 days, the tax-free leasing program offered by Peugeot, Renault and Citroen, is worth considering. 

I’ve written a more detailed article about tax-free leasing but in summary, the longer you lease the vehicle for, the cheaper it works out per day. A 37-day lease of a Citroen C4 Cactus in 2020 worked out at just $61 per day for my husband and I.

The French manufacturers that offer the tax-free leasing scheme also offer early bird rates. Like early bird car hire deals these are usually released in September or October for collections the following year, with full payment due by the end of February.

Road Trip Planning Tips

Before you go ahead and book your rental (or lease) vehicle, you’ll need to work out where to pick up and return the car, and where to travel in between.

Distances in Europe can be deceiving, especially when you throw mountain passes into the mix, so planning a comfortable self-drive itinerary can take some research. 

I always start with a map where I mark my start and finish point and the places I’d like to visit in between with sticky notes.  I can then make adjustments if driving distances are too great or if the itinerary has me back-tracking unnecessarily.

Driving in Europe

I’ve previously posted some examples of self-drive itineraries in the UK and Europe (see links below) that I have either used myself or have designed for clients when I worked as a travel consultant. These are just a starting point to give you an idea of the distances travelled and journey times involved in various routes.

The main factors I take into consideration when planning my self-drive itinerary are:

  • Keep driving time to under four hours per day wherever possible
  • Are there any sights, attractions or towns I can visit on the way? If so, this could serve as a great lunch stop with the added bonus of visiting a place I wouldn’t otherwise have had time to visit 
  • What will the route be like, ie. mountainous, country roads, autobahn? If travelling along rural roads and through small villages between 12pm and 3pm, lunch options may be few and far between (particularly in France and Italy where many businesses close for a long lunch break) so it may pay to pack a picnic and bring it with you
Driving in Iceland

These self-drive itineraries might be of interest:

Top image © Richard Villalon / Dollar Photo Club