Planning a Car Trip

Do you need to rent a car if you are traveling slowly? We think so, but a better question may be; “When should you rent a car?” and that answer depends on where you are going and what you want to do.

Renting a Car

Some of our favorite experiences have been during our car trips and we plan to do more. There is no doubt that traveling by car is convenient, enabling you to visit places there is no other way to get to. You have the ability to easily pack luggage with you as well as a place to keep your luggage while you are off exploring. Most importantly, you are in charge of your schedule.

Our priority has been to experience the activities, galleries, and museums that are frequently found in the oldest parts of the ancient European towns and cities. For these adventures, it is best to find accommodations nearby and then walk. Renting a car when staying near a city center is difficult – with parking being the biggest challenge.

If it is a stormy day we often choose to stay home and work or relax. Having a rental car sit unused is not cost-effective.

The goals we set when embarking on our journey involves enjoying the sights and sensations of cities best experienced on foot or by using public transportation. We think it is better to rent a car only when we want to head outside of the cities.  Since we frequently rent accommodations close to rapid transit, getting to a place where we can pick up or drop off a car is fairly easy.

So yes, we think renting a car is part of the experience but it does come with a unique set of issues.

Hispano-Suiza Biplace Sport Type Alphonse XIII 1912
Mulhouse Auto Museum, France

Car Insurance

A car is so ubiquitous in today’s society that we often forget that the privilege to drive one comes with some serious responsibilities. You only need to look at your car insurance coverage to understand. If you have car insurance back home then you have some coverage while traveling, but you shouldn’t assume this is all-inclusive. If you are traveling full time like us, then you probably do not have any car insurance at all. We do however, have “Auto Rental CDW” coverage under the Terms and Conditions of our credit card, this is our first option when renting a car. 

As stated on our credit card website:

“The Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver (“Auto Rental CDW”) benefit offers insurance coverage for automobile rentals made with your credit card. The benefit provides reimbursement (subject to the terms and conditions in this guide) for damage due to collision or theft up to the actual cash value of most rental vehicles.”

In some cases exclusions apply (such as renting a car in Ireland) and in those cases we have found it necessary to accept the LDW insurance offered by the rental car company, but we decline the Personal Property Insurance (PPI).

Damage to or loss of the rental vehicle definitions:

  1. CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) concerns damage to the rental vehicle 
  2. TW (Theft Waiver) concerns Theft or Loss of the rental vehicle 
  3. LDW (Loss and Damage Waiver) is a combination of Damage and Theft cover 

Since we rent a car periodically, but only for short periods of time, the added cost is not a burden and provides some peace of mind. But, there are elements to be aware of.

It isn’t only a car accident you need to be concerned about, but items such as glass breakage, auto theft, and tire damage can lead to expensive surprises if your car insurance plan doesn’t cover these items. Depending on the type of insurance you selected, if someone breaks the driver-side window of your rental car to steal something left on the car seat, it is quite possible that you will be responsible for the cost of the repair, and perhaps even a charge for the period of time the car is not available as a rental. Having before and after photos of the rental car is also a good idea and a must if you intend to file a claim.

Of course, it can get much worse if you are involved in an accident, especially if you are found to be at fault or if alcohol is involved.

Each European country sets its own standard for driving under the influence of alcohol. The Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) limit ranges between 0.05% to 0.0% depending on the country.

Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) Drink Driving Limits across Europe

Having just two glasses of wine, beer, or hard cider, 2 hours before driving might be sufficient to result in a BAC of 0.03%. In many European countries, this would be a concern even though back home you would be well under the limit.

If you are in even a minor accident and you have been drinking, you might not have any insurance at all.

Science explained by Children’s Fairy Tales
CAC Museum, Valencia

Drop Off Fees

One of the truly great things about traveling in Europe today is the freedom of travel between countries in the Schengen Area. Coming from many countries in the world it is easy to think of the European Union (specifically the countries that belong to the Schengen Agreement) as one large country since you can easily drive from Spain to Norway without having to show your passport at a checkpoint. With that sort of experience it can be easy to forget that each country is still autonomous.

When the Schengen Area was created, member countries agreed on certain treaties and rules for the freedom of movement between their respective countries. They, however, did not give up their autonomy, meaning that ABC Rental Car Co. in Spain is a separate financial entity from ABC Rental Car Co. in Italy even though ABC Rental Car Co. owns them all. This means that a car, belonging to a Spanish rental car company, needs to be returned to Spain upon completion of the rental.

Of course, if you truly want to drop the car off in another country you can, but then you must pay a “Drop-off Fee” to have someone fly out to retrieve the car and drive it back to its home country.

Aerial photograph of toll booths taken while we were flying over Spain

Toll Roads

Many of the national roads in European countries have tolls. We have experienced them in Spain, France, Italy and Greece. These roads offer high-speed, highway driving often with numerous miradors or rest stops and gas stations along the way. Along with the price of gasoline in Europe, toll fees ranging between 70 cents to 2 Euros per segment can be a substantial portion of the cost of renting a car.

Using Google Maps you can plan your car trip to take advantage of the time savings offered by using these roads or if you are moving at a slower pace and on a budget, you can choose routes to avoid toll roads.

Traffic Tickets

Cameras are increasingly being used to catch people speeding, driving without a seat belt, holding a mobile phone, or overtaking across double white lines. They are also being used to cite drivers for driving through areas restricted to residents or for parking infractions such as parking in front of a driveway or over a manhole cover; things you might not have realized are traffic infractions.

If you are cited for these infractions the fines can show up in your mail weeks after you unknowingly created the offense and they can be substantial especially if you repeatedly made a left-hand turn where you weren’t supposed to.

The point is, there are many times when renting a car is the right decision but a car can be a burden if you are not using it. Renting a car can also be more expensive and bring more risk, than choosing other forms of transportation (when they are available). Of course, the overall cost will compare more favorably if you are transporting more than two people.

Slow travel has been about changing our priorities, focusing more on those things that truly matter in our lives. We have found that not having a car when it isn’t needed, is just one less thing to worry about. The times when we needed a car but didn’t have one, have been few. 

Looking toward Buda and Castle Hill
Budapest, Hungary

Exploring a City

As we have said, our main objective until now, has been to visit the larger cities of Europe where we spend most of our time enjoying the cafes, walking the historic streets and visiting churches, museums, and galleries.

To show you how we would typically plan a trip has the potential to get complicated but that’s part of the fun. We haven’t been to Slovakia yet so let’s start by planning a trip there. Slovakia is known for its castles therefore we will definitely want to plan a car trip.

Before the road trip, the first thing we need to do is to find a place to stay that is near Old Town and close to the network of trams. We want it to be easy to get to the train station which is where we will arrive and where we will pick up a rental car when we are ready to leave the city and go castle hunting.

Bratislava doesn’t have an underground Metro, just an above-ground tram network, and because Google Maps doesn’t show tram routes like it does metro routes it is not as easy to figure out where we might want to stay so we downloaded a tram map from the World Wide Web.

Tram Map of Bratislava

Looking at the tram map we probably would focus our search around the Vysoká tram stop which is an easy ride to the train station and still part of Old Town but just outside the tourist area, which is closer to the river. 

Google Maps identifies “areas of interest” with a muted yellow color. These are areas with a higher concentration of restaurants, bars, and stores that frequently correlate to the older parts of these cities.

Finding a place that is an easy walk to this station would be excellent. It says it is a six-minute tram ride to the train station therefore any place in or around this area would work well for us.

Tram route from Vysoká to the Bratislava Hlavná Stanica train station

We know that not every city will keep our attention for the entire month but let’s see what Bratislava has to offer in the way of tourist attractions, galleries, and museums. If there are a large number of excellent sites we will have to do some serious planning to ensure we also have time for our car trip.

Tourist attractions in Bratislava

We started our search using the keyword “tourist attractions” but so many popped up that we decided to narrow the search to those that had a 4.0-star rating or higher. We will have a closer look at the ones that look interesting, flagging the ones we want to visit by saving them on Google Maps (something we will cover in just a minute).

It would become onerous to research every site that looks interesting so we limit our research to just the sites that have 4.5 points or higher and more than 100 reviews. This keeps it reasonable and allows us to stay focused. We augment what we find on Google Maps with research we do on many of the online travel guides.

By no means do we intend to limit our visits to just the sites we flag but we want to make sure we highlight our favorite sites so we don’t miss them.

We repeat these searches using keywords such as:

“tourist attractions, galleries, museums, botanical gardens, monasteries, churches, cathedrals, chapels, castles, historical monuments and historical places”

[If you search on “churches” for example, and there aren’t that many, Google will also show you similar items such as “chapels” and “cathedrals” in the same search.]

Planning the Car trip

That covers Bratislava so let’s shift our attention to finding those castles and planning our car trip. We start off with Google Maps zoomed out so we can see a good portion of the country and do a search for “castles” with no filters set.

Quite a few pop up. It’s easy to see where our car trip is going to lead us.

Initial search for Castles

If we zoom in a little bit closer Google Maps shows many more castles than the previous search. At this level there were so many castles we had to limit the search results, once again, to the castles that had a rating of 4.5 or above. 

A closer search for Castles with a ‘4.5 or above’ filter set

In the left pane we selected the castles that caught our eye and flagged the ones we were most interested in to ensure we didn’t miss them. 

With so much to see we are thinking that Branč Castle is probably going to be far enough for our first day.

Branč Castle

Since Branč Castle is the last castle we plan on seeing on Day 1 we should find out what time it closes. This is usually something we do during our research phase but let’s walk through it here so you can see what information is available when you are doing your research.

Putting Branč Castle in our search bar (or clicking on the icon on the map) will give us basic information such as the average review rating of 4.6. With that rating we would do more research to see if this castle fits our criteria. With 718 reviews it looks encouraging and being able to read the reviews is a great help when we have to narrow our selections further.

Branč Castle Title Page

If you like what you see, here is where you would click on the “Saved” button to pin (star) this site on Google Maps.

Clicking on the photo brings up all of the photos of this castle that people have uploaded to Google Maps. It’s worth checking them out. You may only be here once so you want to make certain that this site is one that interests you.

Branč Castle Photos

As we mentioned earlier, since we will be arriving at the end of the day we will want to know when Branč Castle closes.

Scrolling down a bit we will find the Opening Hours. We can also click on the Branč Castle website icon (podbranc.sk) to find things such as ticket prices and if there are additional activities or tours we should be aware of. We may also double-check the opening hours because not every site owner feels the need to update their Google account when things change but they do typically update their website.

Branč Castle Operating Hours

It is good to know that Branč Castle is open 24 hours so we can travel more slowly than usual, depending on our priorities. We however have yet to find a hotel for the night.

Clicking on the “Nearby” icon causes a ‘window shade’ to drop down where we can select “hotels” or in the search bar we can type “hotels nearby” and Google Maps will show nearby hotels with their current nightly rates.

Google Maps window shade listing the ‘Hotels nearby’ option

You have all the same tools available to research each hotel to find the one that best suits you.

There is a nice hotel very close to Branč Castle which looks good at €115 for a one-night stay. We might choose this hotel if there is a good reason to stay in the area.

Information about the Hotel including the route from Branč Castle

For now, we are thinking that the “Tematon Pension” looks good. It is going in the right direction to start Day 2, the rooms look nice and the price fits our budget. Unfortunately, it is a one hour drive from Branč Castle so we need to factor that into our calculations. Arriving at the hotel a little after sunset isn’t a big issue, we just don’t want to miss dinner!

Further Research

After we have a good number of castles identified we will look for other nearby attractions that we may want to visit on this car trip. 

For the example below we searched for “museums” and found a number in Bratislava, of course, but there were also quite a few that we could visit as we travel around the country. This is a great way to mix things up in case you get castle fatigue. We repeated these searches for the other keywords mentioned above. 

Initial search for Museums

The “Museum of Coins and Medals” looks interesting and so does the “Slovak Mining Museum”. 

Just as before, zooming in a little closer will show even more sites.  As with the castles and hotels it is easy to flag the ones we intend to visit after checking their Operating Hours and website to see if we need to purchase tickets. 

Everything we “Saved” will show on our map with a yellow ‘pin’ and a star just like the castles we flagged in the picture above along the first leg of our car trip. 

Normally we will have many more pins on our map but for this blog post it’s probably best to keep things uncluttered.

Highlighting sites we plan to visit with a ‘pin’ (by saving the site) makes it very easy to see the intended route and navigating between sites becomes very easy, especially when we decide to deviate from the plan, as we always do, to go see that interesting something on the hill and then want to get back on track.

We prefer to limit each leg of a car trip to no more than eight hours of sightseeing and driving. Here the “Add destination” feature is helpful. We allow one hour for each site we plan on seeing so, for the purposes of the example below, we have flagged four castles and thereby allocated 4 hours for sightseeing. We then add the 2.5 hours of drive time that Google Maps estimates for us. That gives us room to add a couple more castles or other activities for Day 1.

Day 1 of our car trip

We rarely stay on plan so don’t think we are being too rigid here. This guide simply lets us know when we are getting too far behind schedule or when we are ahead of schedule and can deviate more than usual. 

A schedule is important if you want to get to the last castle of the day before it closes but knowing your timing allows you to better understand what might change if you decide to stay a little longer where you are.

There is very little value in rushing. We believe in taking as much time as we need. If that means we might not get to the next two sites because they are going to be closed then we adjust the schedule. In the past, we added a whole day to our car trip because we underestimated how much fun we would be having. Having a plan makes that very easy to do.

Remember to add in the time it takes to pick up your rental car plus coffee and meal stops along the way in addition to the drive to the hotel. 

Our map is getting very busy! It’s looking like we better start early!

Enigmatic Directions

Last, but not least, we want to show you how we check our driving directions when things are a bit “fuzzy”, and especially when we get very enigmatic directions.

When we stayed in Albarracín, Spain the hotel sent us a warning note to make certain we did not park in the resident’s parking area or we might get a fine. We were told to, “Stay to the left at the gate.” but which gate? Is there is more than one gate? To them it was obvious but for us it wasn’t so simple. What did the gate look like and just where would we encounter it?

We were also warned not to miss the turn-off because we would then end up in the town where, depending on traffic, it might be difficult to turn around. Additionally, the parking lot was not identified on Google Maps so using the directions provided by the GPS was only going to get us so far.

Google Maps did show us the way into town but the parking lot was nowhere to be found on this, or any, map. In these cases we use Google’s Street View to pre-drive the route so we can better understand what we are being told.

Albarracín, Spain – Basic map

Take your mouse pointer and select the “Street View Icon” in the bottom right corner. Without releasing the mouse button, drag the icon close to the turn-off we were told to take. The roadway will turn blue if Street View is available. Over the roadway, release the mouse button dropping the icon. You will then get an excellent view of the road you will be traveling.

Orient yourself in the correct direction.

Albarracín, Spain – Drivers view of the turn-off

“Driving” forward and back on this road, by clicking on the arrow icon, we clearly were able to identify the turn-off we were expected to take which was quite hidden and easy to miss.

Continuing with the arrow icon, take the turn-off and “drive” up the road looking for that mysterious gate.

Albarracín, Spain – Drivers view of the two parking lots

After maneuvering the twists and turns we finally came to our mysterious gate, currently in the open position, and there is the road to the left to the visitor’s parking lot. There is a little arrow above the parking sign that is very hard to see, pointing to the left, but you wouldn’t know what it refers to just by looking at it.

When we arrived, the only parked cars were in the resident’s area to the right; the visitor’s parking lot was empty. Simple logic would tell you to park where everyone else is parked but that can be a costly mistake in this case. There is a traffic camera mounted just inside the gate to catch, and presumably fine, those who parked in the wrong area.

Now it was easy. As we headed into Albarracín, we took the turn-off and drove up to the parking lot without a glitch. It was as if we had been there many times before. 

And that’s it!

Vejer de la Frontera, Spain

You now have the basics to plan your travels like a pro and using the many available resources you will have identified the best sites to visit. It may take a few hours to put a plan together but we think the effort is worth it.

Cheers from these stalled travelers,

Ted and Julia

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