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Seniors on the Go: Notes from a European Driving Trip

Don’t ever think you’re too old to rent a car and drive through Europe. You can’t beat driving for catching all the interesting sights along the way and enjoying the many—and usually inexpensive—roadside restaurants. As far as I know, Ireland is the only country in Western Europe where renting a car is difficult to impossible if you’re over 70. If you’re OK to drive at home—really OK, not just barely making it—you should be OK to drive in Europe. Just make a few adjustments.

What to Rent: If you’re comfortable with a stick shift, you’ll pay about $50 a week less than you’d pay for an automatic. And you’ll also enjoy better mileage, although today’s automatics do a lot better than they did when I started driving in Europe. The main exceptions: I recommend an automatic in Britain, where driving on the wrong side of the road takes enough concentration that you don’t want to add the hassle of shifting—with the shift also on the wrong side. And I also recommend an automatic when you plan a lot of mountain driving, where, again, the driving is enough of a challenge that you don’t need to add shifting.

Air-conditioning, on the other hand, has almost disappeared as a problem. When I started renting in Europe, air was available only on luxury cars or at a huge price premium on a smaller car. Now, however, even European second-hand car buyers want air, so you find air in most cars—even in compacts—in most central and southern European countries. Get a diesel, if you can; the fuel is usually cheaper and you get fantastic mileage. Unfortunately, many companies won’t promise a diesel, but diesels make up a big percentage of their fleets.

Where to Rent: You’re going to drive through Austria, so you rent in Austria, right? Not necessarily. Sometimes, renting in a nearby country can cut your bills a lot. For example, on this trip, I rented in Munich rather than Innsbruck: It’s less than two hours away, and German rates are about $100 a week less than Austrian. Germany is also sometimes a practical option for higher-cost Switzerland and even northern Italy; France is sometimes a practical alternative for Switzerland or Italy. Don’t drive an extra day to cut the rental rate, but if you add only an hour or so, take a look. Also, in many countries, rates at downtown offices are less than those at airports.

Where to Fill Up: When I crossed the border from Austria to Italy, the price of diesel went up from €1.40 to €1.75. Obviously, I filled up in Innsbruck and waited to fill again until I returned to Austria four days later. To play the low-cost fuel game, check this website for country-by-country price variations.

Where to Stay: Driving is ideal for seeing the countryside, so you want to avoid cities as much as you can. That means finding hotels far enough outside the cities that you have open-lot parking next to the hotel. Even if you want to go into some of the cities, stay on the urban fringe, where you have a choice of driving into the city when you want to or leaving your car at the hotel and hopping a bus, tram, or metro.

Expect to make some mistakes. No matter how skilled a driver you are, driving in Europe is different than driving at home. You will make mistakes—take wrong turns and such. I find, especially, that it’s all too easy to find yourself in a “right turn only” lane because the only marking is an arrow painted in the street when you’re almost into the intersection. If that happens, turn right, find a place to turn around, and try again. Don’t let it get to you—laugh it off and figure it’s part of the experience. And if you hate to be tailgated, don’t drive in Italy.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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