Subject: Driving in Europe
This last Winter, I went to Scotland, Amsterdam, Germany and Salzburg, Austria for almost a month. I did not intend to rent a car on this trip. I spent the first week in Edinburgh for the Hogmany and then I flew to Hamburg where I was going to catch a train to Berlin and then down to Austria. However, I bought so much stuff along the way, I decided rented a car in Hamburg, stuff it full, drive the rest of the trip. Even though it was winter and I occasionally ran into some winter weather, it was a fabulous decision! I was able to go to places that would have been near impossible except by car, e.g., all through the gorgeous Bavarian Alps over Salzburg. I am also able to cover a lot more territory on my own terms. You have to be somewhat flexible and freewheeling when you drive and be prepared for all snafus...and there will always be snafus while traveling through Europe.... but that's part of the fun of it all! Although they say renting the car is cheaper from the US, I never felt I was hit hard when I spontaneously rented a car while there. It's all-negotiable.

On another trip a few years back, I rented a car for 6 weeks and drove all through France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, etc. Again, a fabulous decision! We stumbled into ancient towns, castles, scenery, restaurants, etc. that would have been missed any other way. We stayed in Nice but drove up to Monaco every day and night. About 1 1/2 ago, I was in Spain for almost 3 weeks and, again, unplanned, decided to rent a car in Marbella and drive to Lisbon. Again, it was another GREAT decision. Drove over to Gibraltar and then over to Portugal. A few years back, I drove a car all over Ireland and enjoyed every second of it. It was a trip driving on the left side of the road through the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen in my life.

On other trips overseas, I have traveled by bus, train, plane and boat. Each has their pros and cons but here's why I love driving a car in Europe: I am absolutely in control of my trip. I do what I want, when I want, how I want. Armed with only a map and a guidebook, I stop where I want and I stay as long as I want. No schedules, no waiting for others, total freedom. Yet, I do have an itinerary in my head and by car, I have never failed to meet my travel goals. All of the European highways are spectacular-clean, immaculate, beautiful. Because most autobahns have no speed limit, you can do a few hundred miles in no time flat if you want. It's a trip! The European drivers are superb and excellent drivers. I see beautiful parts of Europe that I would miss any other way. For example, this last time, at the end of a long day, I could drive no more. As it got dark early, I accidentally stumbled into a German Country Inn, the kind you would find only in a novel! After just leaving a typical, upscale Berlin hotel, for only $30 a night; I got the most comfortable, authentic room-the kind that you hope to find in Europe! The Inn's restaurant had the most delicious, authentic German food I ever tasted with a real Um-PaPa Band! The next day I woke up to the most beautiful German countryside, I have ever seen. The same thing happened to me in Switzerland when the car steered us to an authentic Swiss Chalet. So many times, the car led me through some European fairy tale. The bigger hotels all have parking.

What cons have I encountered? Well, of course, I have problems with the signs. One time I was looking for an exit and I must have driven back and forth for at least two hours until I figured it out somehow. I have also driven around in the same circle for two or so hours trying to find the autobahn, unable to figure out how to follow the map or directions. (I just gave up asking Europeans for directions. Even if they speak English, I just do not get their directions!) In the cities, you have to beware of street parking and make sure you paid to park or goodbye car. Once in Milan, I was dropping someone off at the airport. I went in the terminal for only 10 minutes or so and they towed my car away! We were furious and had to cough up $80 but by the time we had the car keys back in our hands, we were cracking up! However, I find these cons to be part of the whole European experience and they are the exception rather than the rule.

I also love listening to the European radio stations, which play music I would never hear in the US. I like stopping at the major super stores off the main arteries. I buy tapes or CDs so when I come back, the music always reminds me of another great trip. I always feel safe driving in Europe, even alone. I also love getting off the main highway and taking the side roads to whatever major city I am heading for. It may take longer but I absolutely adore driving through the countryside and through one ancient, medieval town to the next one...again, not on the usual tourist route. Sometimes while driving, I see signs pointing to cities that I had not planned to visit. But, because I have the car, I say, what the hell, let's go! This is how I got to Poland and Czechoslovakia on this last trip---saw the signs and said, what the hell, let's go. (Ignoring Hertz's request that I not take the car into Eastern bloc countries-but totally worth it!)

Personally, because I rent small cars, I never thought the gas prices were too high. The trains are not very cheap, IMHO, and if you do a lot of shopping, it's a total pain to drag all your crap through the stations and on the train...where you have to stand guard over your possessions. I've also taken the bus tours through Europe and yes, they have their advantages, mainly, and the education you get from the tour guide. However, they have complete control over your day and activities; almost no freedom to do your own thing; no sleeping in; no staying out too late at night; constant chatter and chit chat; and no real opportunity to get to know anyone but those in your group. I missed a trip to Toledo, Spain because I could not find our bus after leaving Prado in Madrid. They would not wait for me even though my friend begged and I was only 15 minutes late! (Could not keep the others waiting!) Also, they try to weasel more money out of you along the way for different things including side trips; steering you to stores and restaurants where, rumor has it, the tour guides get a commission. No, I much prefer driving to where I want to go, and then doing a City Tour at my leisure and because I want to go. On my last guided tour, in the end, I bailed out and said, never again, I need my sleep and more time to do my own thing.

Yea, I convinced myself that I like the car in Europe. I also like driving straight to the airport when it's time to go home. Sorry, this is long but I got carried away. I love Europe so much! Now that you got me going, where do I go next time?

Lisa in Santa Monica, CA