I love trains. You can idly look out the window, catch up on your reading, and meet some locals that have no other choice than to hang out with you. If you've never been on a train in Europe, you're missing out on an exciting way of getting around. Train travel isn't always the best option though.
One of the downsides to this mode of travel is having to lug your baggage to the station and then being held prisoner by it. You can't really leave it anywhere. When you've arrived at your destination, you have to figure out where you're staying and get your belongings there. During this debacle, you might be carrying suitcases up and down stairs in the metro while you're trying to figure out where your hotel may be. It might be at the far end of a cobblestoned street so bumpy you could have made your own butter if you'd had the foresight to put whipping cream in your suitcase before the walk. One solution to these problems: a rental car. Using a combination of rental cars and trains can make for a wondrous varied travel experience.
Many people I know are terrified of driving overseas. There's a fear of having to drive on the other side of the road (in England) or the uncertainty of not knowing where you are and being responsible for a vehicle you'll never see again. Where do you park? What if you get lost? There is no doubt you'll have to develop a new skill set, but renting a car can set you free.
Whether you're traveling between cities or visiting places outside the center of town, there might be must-see sites are entirely too difficult to get to without your own wheels. If you're using public transport, you might have to wait hours for your bus to make its cycle again. If it's raining or freezing cold, a tram stop can be miserable. With a car, you can put your umbrella in the back seat and crank up the heater.
Safety can be a factor as well. You're unlikely to get pick-pocketed in your own car, and if you don't feel good about a neighborhood, you can get back in your vehicle and lock the doors. Putting your luggage in the trunk and out of sight is much more secure than dragging it around through the streets. The only time I have been robbed was when I was carrying my luggage to my hotel and someone stole my day pack right off my shoulder. It was difficult to do anything about it because I was worried my other stuff might be stolen if I gave chase.
Driving yourself can be a lot cheaper than other transport and you have more hotel options than if you're relying on foot power. If you're renting a car, I've found the best strategy is to make a giant loop that begins from the airport or train station where you arrive and then returns there or to another hub that doesn't have expensive drop-off charges. You can visit all the best sites in the country and come back to a place where it's easy to get transport to the next leg of your journey.
There are a few caveats to consider, however: One-way fees can be astronomical if you intend to leave your car off in another country, and sometimes you're not allowed to take a car over a border. So what if you want to visit several countries on your trip?
A few years ago I was in Bulgaria and wanted to visit Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. Train travel wasn't a good option since I wanted to stop in some rural places and the distances between them were significant. I couldn't find any rental companies that would let me take a car across the borders, so I came up with another plan. I rented a car in Bulgaria and made a circle through the country visiting the highlights. I dropped the car off in Sofia, where I originally picked it up, and I caught an overnight train to Romania. When I arrived in the morning, I rented another car and did the same thing in that country. Moldova was small enough that a car wasn't even needed, and Ukraine was having a few political issues, so I took a train to the Crimean coast, then rented a car to drive around the peninsula. Crimea was one of my favorite drives in Europe and witnessing all of its best scenery would have been impossible by train.
Getting a Good Deal
Setting up your car through CarRentals.com or Expedia the day before you arrive often allows you to get the lowest price. In some countries where the price seems ridiculously low, read the fine print. Mandatory insurance can hike your bill up as much as $75 a day. Make sure you double check the location of the rental so you don't end up in the wrong place. Usually, you'll just need a driver's license and credit card. Many travel websites suggest an international driver's license as well, but I've rented cars all over the world and have yet to be asked for one.
Getting Where You're Going
As far as finding your way around, Google Maps has a great feature where you can plug in all the places where you want to visit and create a route map. Your phone GPS works without wi-fi, but you'll need an Internet connection to pull up a map. If you accidentally lose your map while driving, you can find another wi-fi area to re-download it.
Alternately, you can also download map apps that retain a map on your phone without Internet and can provide you with directions to major sites. I make a list of where I want to go in priority order, plug them in the Google map on my desktop (the mobile app sadly doesn't permit multiple destinations), then move my route so there's no backtracking. I can rarely squeeze in as much as I originally plan, so I'll often cut out little side trips if necessary during my trip if time is a factor.
Pay Attention to Local Rules and Regulations
Asking about the local rules concerning parking, tolls and speed can help save you money. A friend lent me their Maserati in UAE and, to be honest, if you're in the desert on a long, boring road and you've never driven a Maserati, you might be tempted to go very fast. Isn't that what Maseratis are for?
Luckily, I was warned before I started the drive about the numerous radar traps between Abu Dhabi and Dubai that can cost you $200 per violation. You can barely see the little machines hiding between the date palms, and it would have been very easy to rack up a bill for thousands of dollars in the one-hour drive if I hadn't known. Pay attention to the parking rules, too; it's no fun trying to find your car when it's been towed and you don't speak the language.
It can be a little bit of a challenge at first, but renting a car can give you freedom while traveling that trains, planes and taxis can't.