Getting around abroad is completely dependent upon the traveler and what he or she feels confident or comfortable with doing. If you are planning to study abroad, then it is safe to assume that you have the courage to put yourself in unfamiliar situations, and therefore it goes without saying you will most likely want to see and get the most out of where you are. Traveling by train and underground is a fantastic way to travel from one main city hub to another, however, if you are looking to be able to get out to the vineyards of France or to visit the Bavarian countryside of Germany, then traveling by car in Europe is a viable option. With that said it is an option that should be thought out before acted upon and If possible, try not to wait until you are at your destination to decide you want a vehicle. With a little bit of planning, you can turn a good study abroad trip into one you’ll remember forever. Here are some helpful pointers for traveling by car in Europe:
Get an International Drivers Permit
Although it is not necessary to have this in all countries, it will really save on any headaches if the time arises when you do need one. These act in a supplement to your own current U.S driver’s license, they do not replace them. They function as an official translation of a U.S. driver’s license into 10 foreign languages. Permits can be obtained at any AAA office in the U.S and only cost $15.00. You can print the application out online and bring it to an office beforehand.
Get Familiar with Road Signs
A simple online search on road signs prior to departure can be helpful. If you know what countries you are visiting, print them out ahead of time and keep them in the vehicle. It may also be helpful to get some “how-to” literature in hard copy book form to take along. This can be found at any travel section through large book retailers or purchased online.
Determine What Length of Time You Want a Vehicle
Depending on the length of your stay, you can find whether to do traditional rental vs. short term leasing. Traditional rentals are good for study abroad trips that involve using the vehicle for one to two weeks or less but they do come with their cons. These types of rentals are similar to that of the ones in the U.S in that you may need to supply supplemental insurance and certain age restrictions may apply. Another option that might be more suitable for someone staying for three weeks or more is that of the short term lease. These plans can offer you a brand new car of your choice that you can give back at the end of your studies. This option is generally more inclusive and allows for more flexibility in your stay without worrying about watching the clock or getting your own insurance coverage. However, if you are planning on doing a weekend warrior trip, the traditional rental may be the way to go.
The amount of planning also depends on the duration of your car needs. Although it is not necessary to get your vehicle booked before you go, it’s highly recommended. Language barriers, exchange rates, and general unfamiliar surroundings offer good incentives to book with companies in the states that handle international auto renting/leasing abroad. If it’s a last-minute (short) trip you want, you can probably skate by alright with getting it at the last minute while abroad. If you want something for a good portion of your stay, book your car a good few weeks (preferably more) before you go.
Travel in Small Groups
Although European cars are designed to be eco-friendly and fuel-efficient, fuel expenses in Europe are generally higher than those you might be used to in the states. If you are planning to spend a semester or two abroad, you are very likely to become friends with like-minded people that want to explore the same way you do. Traveling in small groups can really save on fuel expenses and can always help in navigating with unfamiliar areas, not to mention they can take pictures if it’s your turn to drive.
Similar to driving in the states, someone (if not everyone) in the group should have some sort of way to connect with the outside world. Check out our stay connected section for some ideas.
This is a universal concept that translates into every language. Follow the local rules of the road and be an attentive driver (i.e. no mobile phone while driving). Using the good judgment that you have learned at home you can enjoy the vast countryside of Europe at your own pace.
Some program sponsors include group flights to and from the program site. Others require you to make your own arrangements. If you do need to arrange your own transportation, be sure to do so well in advance of leaving, especially if you plan to travel during the summer or any other period when air travel is heavy. Make sure you know what arrangements have been made for the arrival of students in your host country before finalizing your flight reservations. Often a designated meeting place and time are established so that program staff can greet students upon their arrival. Many countries list a round-trip ticket as one of their entry requirements.
Even though you may not know when you want to return home and you may have to pay a surcharge to change your return ticket; it is still cheaper to buy a round-trip ticket instead of buying two one-way tickets. Shop carefully to find a flight that best suits your needs. Compare the price of open-ended tickets, in which you return at any point within a specified length of time, with the price of a ticket bearing a stated return date. If you are planning to travel on your own after your program ends, you might want to investigate “open jaw” fares, which let you return from a different location from your point of arrival.
Council Travel is an excellent source of information about student travel. It publishes the Student Travels magazine which is distributed free to over 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States. With your International Student Identity Card, you can sometimes get up to 50% off of commercial airfares through Council Travel. More information about Council and its travel services is available online. Another student travel agency offering airfare discounts is STA Travel.
Free travel literature is usually available from the government tourist office, consulate or embassy of the country or countries to which you travel. If you lose your airline ticket, contact the airline, travel agency, or other agency from which you purchased the ticket. If you bought your ticket from an airline, you will have to fill out a claim for a lost ticket and buy a new ticket. You’ll be refunded the cost of the replacement ticket, minus a fee. The fee varies with each airline. It takes about six months to get your refund. If you purchased Student Tickets, issued by STA Travel and other agencies, you don’t need to buy a new ticket; you simply pay a $25 fee and your ticket will be reissued.
Don’t buy a one-way ticket, even if you don’t know when you want to return home. Most foreign countries require visitors to have a round-trip ticket before they are allowed to enter.
In many countries, rail travel is probably the most widely used mode of transportation. Buying a rail-pass in the United States prior to your departure can greatly reduce your costs. Rail passes, such as the Britrail Pass or Eurail Pass, can be obtained from most travel agents. These passes usually offer unlimited travel for a specific amount of time. Just as there are special aifares for students, there are also special rail passes for students available at Railpass.com and Eurail Pass.
Aim to travel light. Keep in mind that, for most international flights, you are allowed to check only two pieces of luggage. Some airlines have restrictions for the weight of each piece of luggage; check before you pack. If your program is a study-tour, you will have to carry whatever you bring, so restrict yourself to one or two moderate-sized bags and a small carry-on bag in which to keep valuables, passport, and camera equipment.
Insure your baggage and personal effects for the full period abroad. If you bring a camera, buy a lead-lined film bag. Contrary to posted airport claims, some X-ray devices ruin film.