Picture this… you’re cruising along the northern coast of Spain, windows down, sea breeze whipping through your hair and your favorite tunes blasting from the speakers. Up ahead in the distance you spot an awesome viewpoint. Jagged rocks jut out from the shoreline; crystal clear water splashes upon the beach and the sun is shining. This is a clear sign that you need to stop and car, take a break and absorb all of the beauty around you!
This experience is just one of many Jules and I found while on a 3 week road trip through northern Spain. We started our road trip in Madrid, cruised up and along the northern coast, took a couple pit stops in southern France & Andorra (because, you know, Europe is awesome like that) and ended with Barcelona birthday celebrations for Jules’ big day.
The trip was nothing short of epic!
These days the European backpacker trail can feel pretty worn out, as thousands of tourists trudge along the same path every couple of weeks. It’s not that these places aren’t worth experiencing, but for us it’s important to find some escape from the crowds and explore some quieter unknown places.
Having a car in Europe made it so easy to get off the beaten track (literally) and check out areas we didn’t even know existed. Deciding to rent a car in Europe not only made our trip easier, but also more memorable for the unique opportunities it gave us. Here’s why road tripping in Europe is the best way to travel.
Probably the best reason for renting a car in Europe is the flexibility you get by driving instead of taking other public transportation. Busses and trains are limited to set stops and from there its difficult to wander off the beaten track. Renting a car allows you to explore literally wherever you want (well, private property excluded).
For example, we went a bit out of our way to check out Castrillo de los Polvazares, a small rustic village near Leon. We were able to walk the cobblestone streets and take in the historical buildings, all because we had the car to get us to this fairly remote area. The big cities in Europe are amazing, but renting a car means being able to explore the gorgeous European countryside.
The amazing thing about traveling in Europe is that the region has so many small countries close together. Within hours you can be in a new country, experiencing a new culture, tasting an entirely new food. With a car, zipping between countries becomes even easier.
Crossing borders in a rental car in Europe isn’t a problem either. Countries within the EU have no official border check-ins so you don’t have to worry about wasting time at immigration waiting to get your passport stamped. Although we originally planned just to visit Spain, we decided to squeeze in southern France and Andorra because they were so close. Adding two extra countries to our itinerary only resulted in a couple extra hours in driving time. Totally worth it!
When you’re backpacking you get really used to carrying your entire life on your back. If you’re like us with a lot of baggage, then you may be rocking the pregnant turtle look (big bag on the back and small bag on the front). Or perhaps you’re dragging a wheelie bag through Europe’s notorious cobblestone streets. Whatever your baggage style, it’s so much easier to toss it into the back of a car than lug it through the streets.
Our car became our second home during the trip and much of our luggage made it out of the bags and into the backseat. Although it got a bit messy it was so nice having easy access to all of our stuff, unlike when taking the bus and our bags are stored down below. Gotta have those road trip snacks at arm’s length away!
Not a morning person? Us neither. Who can be bothered running off someone else’s schedule? Renting a car means being able to take off and arrive when you want. Had a big night? Sleep in the next morning and leave later. Don’t mind pulling in to your destination a bit late? Grab dinner on the way. It’s all up to you!
Remember the first of your friends to get a car in high school? Remember how popular they suddenly became? Having a car while traveling takes that to a whole new level. Hitchhiking is popular in Europe and backpackers are always happy to grab a ride in an air conditioned car rather than take the stuffy bus. We drove a couple of hostel-mates from Andorra across the border to Spain and it was great to be able to pass on the favor after we’ve been gifted so many rides during our travels.
Thanks to the wonders of modern satellite systems, you can now feel free to get lost knowing your handy GPS will always guide you back home. This was probably one of our favorite things to do with the car. We would drive along the highway and see a tiny local village, so naturally we’d duck off and explore the old country roads leading to even older houses.
We got lost while driving to Picos de Europa and ended up in one of the smallest villages in all of Spain (well it seemed pretty small anyway). We drove up to an elderly lady in front of her house who looked at us as if we were aliens. We asked if tourists ever entered her village and she said nunca, never. It’s special instances like these that remind you that you don’t need to travel too far to get far off the beaten track.
One of the best parts about renting a car is being able to pick it up in one spot and drop it off in another. No longer do you need to pick and return at the same location, now you can make a trip that suits your road trip itinerary. We picked our car up in Madrid and after driving over 2000km we dropped it off in Barcelona. It was the perfect way to maximize our trip without having to backtrack to Madrid.
Technically it’s probably not a bad thing to have, but I’ve never heard of anyone needing it. Having a driver’s license from back home is enough to pick up the car. The rules may be different between European countries, so it’s always best to double check.
Not from Europe? Doesn’t matter. Americans renting a car in Europe, or any other country at that, won’t having a problem picking up a sweet ride. Jules is from Australia and didn’t have a problem at all.
Whether you’re exploring new areas, picking up new traveling buddies or simply cruising Europe on your own pace. Renting a car is the way to go! It’ll ensure you save money, experience authentic Europe and have the trip of a lifetime!