Self-drive in Central Europe/ Alps – II (Itinerary & Car rental)

This post covers issues like Itinerary, Car rental, Visa, Stay options, Communication, etc., which would help plan such trips by Ghumakkars.

Itinerary

For the 25 days trip spanning May–June’13, Prague was chosen as the main destination. Apart from being almost the geographical centre of Europe, car rentals ex-Prague are usually less costly than the cities westward. Finnair happened to be offering reasonably fared tickets at INR 37 K; with an option of a return flight with almost a day’s break in Helsinki.

Last year, while at Kampaeng Phet, Thailand we met a cyclist couple, Bills, from Vienna. In course of our adda over Thai Singha beer at Mr Charin’s (our host), Bill started talking about Vienna, its rich heritage, etc. His description conjured an image of a nice enough place with its impressive architecture, boulevards, rivers, museums and elegant people; located somewhere near the centre of a European map. He also suggested that we must visit it once.

Vienna, however, was nothing but an abstract idea then. A concept, which could be superimposed on any other European city. It was too distant for the imagination to attempt crystallise it into something definitive. How were we to know that we would be visiting the place in about 14 months?

Perhaps we may call it ‘Ghumakkar’s blessing’ – that Bill endowed on us. We do not know where Bills are now, probably cycling across another continent, doing what Ghumakkars do – seeking new places and friends. We wish them luck and fulfilment.

1 vienna

When flying to Europe, it may be preferable to opt for an EU based carrier, since Schengen visa permits you to enter almost all EU destinations. Hence, if the flight offers a break at the changeover destination, you can walk out of the airport and visit the place without any visa hassles (unlike, say, a non-EU flight, viz. Aeroflot – where, even if you get a day free in Moscow, you would need to have a separate tourist/transit visa to get out of the airport). More about Visa later in this post.

The driving route, ex-Prague was planned to be a circular type, rather than to-and-fro. Circular route (Pic 1 in Part 1) was meant to cater for delays/ obstructions/ unforeseen changes in the route, to enable us cut short the trip and drive straight back to Prague. Well, car rentals also offer one way rentals, where you pick up the car from point A and return it at B; A & B being in different countries/ states, but it entails extra charges, amount depending on distance of drop-off station from origin point.

We had the car for 18 days. Route was planned to limit the driving time to 4-5 hours between the destinations. Time spent in each destination was 2 or 3 days. So, starting on Day 1 morning, we would reach the next destination the same afternoon. Spend 1 or 2 days there and thereafter move to the next destination, to reach there the same day.

The route we drove across was as follows;

Prague – Bavarian Forest ( Southern Germany) – Steckborn (Eastern Switzerland, on Lake Constanz which borders three countries viz. Germany, Austria and Switzerland) – Italian Tyrol (located on the southern side of the Austrian Alps) – Salzburg (Austrian city famed for baroque style architecture, Mozart, and the movie ‘Sound of Music’ which was shot here) – Vienna – Budapest – Banska Bystrica (heritage city in central Slovakia) – Prague;

The drive covered, in varying measures, 7 countries; over highways and lesser roads, apart from the majestic Alps (Swiss/Austria/Italy).

Crossover national borders within EU is as good as traversing from Delhi to Gurgaon, minus the toll gate (and its associated pains). One should, however, be in possession of requites documents, both personal and those of the car. Changeover of country does entail some changes, like language (from one unknown language to another), signboard markings, traffic regulations (differences are generally not much) and the landscape.

While choosing the accommodation, we short listed those which offered free parking (paid parking can be expensive in Europe, specially near city centers), were located generally on the outskirt of the cities (for ease of accessibility by car); and well connected to the centre (Centrum – that is what the city/town centre is called and marked on the sign boards) through public transport. Local sightseeing, specially in cities, was to be done in public transport wherein the car was left behind at the hosts’ parking lot.

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3 BUDAPEST

Do keep in mind that though Schengen visa permits you to traverse seamlessly across EU, the car rental guy may not be so generous. Like, some rental companies based in Berlin may not allow you to drive into Czech Republic or Poland. One should seek clarification on cross-border driving before renting the car,specific to the countries you intend to visit.

Car Rental

I discussed car rental issues in the previous Thailand article, whose link has been provided above (Self drive trip across Thailand, Part 2 http://www.ghumakkar.com/self-drive-trip-across-thailand-7-days-2000-kms-part-2-preparing-for-the-trip/ ). Now let me try recap/ cover some additional points.

4 rental area

5 bobs car

‘Car rental’, wherein one rents self-driven cars, is a popular concept in the west. Apart from ‘Car rental’, some places in Europe also offer something called ‘Car leasing’ (this offer, valid for a minimum of 21 days, open to non-EU tourists comes with a brand new car/full insurance and no additional cost). This option is worth exploring if you intend renting a car for longer durations, say for a month or more.

Car rental comes in three options, viz.

1. Standard international companies like AVIS, HERTZ, BUDGET, SIXT, EUROPCAR, etc. They usually operate from all the major European destinations and cars can be booked directly from their websites. Their prices, though, tend to vary widely, and are often on the higher side vis-a-vis other two options listed below.

2. Car Rental Websites – These are the intermediaries, like flight booking sites linked to a number of rental companies. They offer you cars from different rentals, mostly at a lower price than quoted by the rental sites. Websites that we came across are economycarrentals.com (which came highly recommended from users across the continent), cartrawlers.com, kayak.com, etc. This option is also offered by many flight carriers, tour companies, etc. who would eventually take you to one of these sites. Points to keep in mind  are; they may not disclose the provider company till the last moment, they may ask for an upfront part-payment while booking and above all, not being the providers themselves, there may be issues on promise v/s deliverables.

3. Local Rental Companies – major cities also have local rental companies, which are not highly visible on the net; neither would they have very responsive network towards your queries. They, however, usually offer the cheapest options, one-to-one contact / booking through mutually verified e-mails and usually providing all such facilities which are on offer by the big brothers in the business. On the flip side, there may be issues on quality/ service so one needs to be extra sure about their reputation/ deliverability.

Our car was rented from such a company based in Prague (rentplus); and we were more than satisfied by the end of it. Bob, the renter, was in touch with us throughout and forthcoming with all queries.

One important factor while renting the car is additional charges. These quickly add-on to the basic rental price and can inflate the price hugely. Some of them are–

Insurance.   Though the rental company provides for a basic insurance (probably mandated by law), there is a catch. The insurance kicks-in only after an initial cut-off figure; for e.g. insurance included in the rental price could be $ 500 ‘excess’, which means that any damage/ claim upto $500 will be borne by the customer and expenses beyond that will be paid by the company. Now, this excess amount can be reduced to ‘Zero’, or kept in between full excess and zero, albeit for additional payment. There are different types of insurance, at different rates. The details are usually available in fine prints, but one needs to be sure about them to avoid rude shocks later.

Deposit.   A good amount is kept as deposit, in addition to the rental. This is usually done through blocking of credit card.

Add-ons.   You can rent additional stuff, like GPS, baby seat, winter gears during specific months, extra racks, extra driver etc, all at additional costs.

International Driving Permit        Indian passport holders need a valid IDP along with the original (Indian) driving license, to drive in Europe. Nothing much has changed since I last obtained it during Mar 2012, including the price, INR 500/-. No inflation effect on sarkari prices yet! Details about obtaining an IDP have been explained in the Thailand article (Part 2 ), whose link has been provided above.

Visa

There is something about Schengen visa! OK, this visa permits entry into any of the 26 Schengen EU countries and/or permits seamless travel between them.

Now; if one intends to visit more than one EU country, which embassy will issue the Schengen Visa?

The rule says that Schengen Visa should be sought from the country which you visit for the main business. Rule of thumb is, the country where you plan to stay for maximum period of time should be the one to issue you the Schengen. Maximum number of days rule, however, may not hold good in some cases, e.g. if you intent to spend max time in the country which is not of your main business.

In our case, we approached Czech Embassy for the visa, since we were to spend maximum period (about 6 days) there.

Schengen Visa regime has also altered the procedure for entry into EU zone. For instance, thanks to the FINNAIR flight, we changed flight at Helsinki. Now, after landing at Helsinki Airport, we shifted into ‘EU Zone’ part of the terminal. So, it was here in Helsinki that we underwent immigration/custom checks. Thereafter, once you get into in EU zone, all flights within EU were like domestic flights, despite flying from one country to the next.

Stay

This is one issue about which many of our friends were curious about – ‘how could you organise your stays’ (spread across many places/ countries), ‘were they good enough’, ‘how’d you find/ choose them’, etc.

Well, internet is the best resource available to us planning any travel anywhere in the world. One could generally start with random search on hotels/ accommodation of the intended destination. The initial search throws many options through websites like tripadvisor.com (a travellers’ portal with numerous reviews/ comments/ discussions), booking.com, hotels.com, individual sites, etc. One must remember that the options here are by no means complete and many good options may not be covered owing to various reasons. Thereafter, having shortlisted a few of them, one must go through reviews about them posted by the users. Trend of the reviews (preferably by following more than one site), provide a reasonable indication about the positives and negatives of a particular hotel/guest house. Follow it up by communication with the owners if possible; and with some of the reviewers (it is possible on sites like tripadvisor.com where a member can send message to others).

Another option we tried this time is Airbnb.com. In fact, we booked three accommodations through this site. This turns out to be a great experience, worthy of a mention. Airbnb typically lists stay options offered by individual hosts from across the globe, who rent out a part of their accommodation or an independent extra accommodation, viz flats/ bungalows, etc. The customer can choose an option by going through detailed description/photographs/reviews available on the site. Clarifications, if any, can also be sought from hosts through message board of the site, after you have registered yourself. However, booking can be done only after making full payments. Thereafter you are given the contact details of the host for direct communication.

An interesting aspect about Airbnb is that the site allows for a two-way review viz. both hosts and guests put forth reviews about each other. This enables hosts to get an idea about their prospective guests (and perhaps the liberty to refuse if the guests do not have good reviews). The hosts usually are travellers themselves, for whom this is also an opportunity to interact with people from far and near. Hence a stay in these accommodations, apart from being lighter on wallet, enables you to stay with a local host who is friendly, knowledgeable and a traveller himself.

So, you see, enough online resources are available offering accommodation as per one’s needs and priorities.

Well, an essential factor about any booking/ trips, as I see it, is the Ghumakkar’s faith. To have faith in the choices you make; and the will to enjoy it out. Thereon, it is very unlikely that you will be disappointed. Else, look up the reviews of the best and most expensive hotels and you will invariably find some very negative experiences that travellers have had there, despite paying fortunes for their experience.

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Communication         Need to remain connected, if you intend to drive across the countries, need not be emphasised. We had our primary Airtel number on international roaming (for emergency only, since the exorbitant international roaming charges preclude regular its use). For regular use while there, we had the skype paid option activated (it offered unlimited Europe calls for a few Euros). We also bought a Matrix card, which offered substantially lower call rates than the Airtel (or other telecom companies). Matrix has an outlet at the IGI T-3 International terminal, where a ready to use card can be bought off the shelf. The simcard gets activated as soon as you land in the destination country. Our simcard with European plan got active when we landed at Helsinki and it was constantly operational without a hitch.

All the places we stayed at had free wi-fi on offer (one more factor you may like to consider before booking), enabling us internet/skype access. This also helped maintaining uninterrupted communication with the next hosts as we were moving on. Regular communication with the hosts is advisable since it makes the task easier for both, guests as well hosts.

Credit/debit Cards           Credit/debit cards worked almost fine, barring one or two hitches for the credit card. We also carried a Forex Traveller’s card which turned out to be quite handy. This prepaid card is issued by almost all the banks at a nominal fee. Before departure, it needs to be topped with Indian currency. Once in Europe, this can be used both as a debit and credit card. Since they incur lesser transaction fee and are less prone to card frauds, their usage makes sense specially when one goes abroad for a longer duration. An example of such a card is here http://www.axisbank.com/personal/forex/travel-currency-card/faqs.aspx

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Moving on to Part III – Driving in Europe.

Thanks,
Auro.

11 Comments

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Dear Aurojit,

    You are simply brilliant.

    The information you have given in the post, no embassy or consulate would ever share, nor is it available at the internet in the vivid style you have described. The minute details of visa obtention, driving licence requirements, car rental possibilities and formalities are of immense value to any traveller.

    As a matter of fact, after reading the Part I of the series, I and Nandan wanted to request you to give as much of information about travel to the Central European countries as possible, since not very much is available from an Indian Traveller’s perspective. Looks like you read our minds through some telepathy.

    Looking forward to your next write up.

    Warm regards and God’s blessings.

    • AUROJIT says:

      Hello Mr Ram Dhall,

      I am really grateful for your generous words. Feel delighted about the fact that you find the information here adequate and relevant.

      Thanks really,

      Auro.

  • Naturebuff says:

    Hi Aurojit,

    The pics are so pretty and the Tipi so cute!

    A very disciplined, step by step DIY ‘travel kit’ of a post! Any Indian travelling to these places need read this series and nothing else to get a complete and exhaustive guide to the ‘how tos’ of this trip. After reading this post, a road trip sounds very doable , tempting and fascinating ….

    Hats off to this effort!

    Regards

    • AUROJIT says:

      Hi Naturebuff,

      Thanks for your nice review.

      ‘ …..a road trip sounds very doable , tempting and fascinating’ – you have so aptly described it !!

      Thanks again,

      Auro.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Brilliant. And I guess it is just the beginning.

    I think, ir-respective of whether I am ever able to do a road-trip or not, I would get a IDP done,hehe, that in itself give me a lot of peace. I do not see any trip coming up for me but I would wait for my chance.

    Two comments

    1. First on Insurance, for our road trip to Scotland (my friend was driving), someone bruised our car in a parking lot at ‘Lake District’. My friend thought for a while and we could not spot any CC Cam so we sort of moved on. When we returned, we were told that the damage is of GBP 200 and we wont get covered since it is less than the min amount, so it is a good idea to pay extra premium so that every expense is covered. Though I didn’t drive the car, my name was scribbled on the papers since we thought that it would be better for me to report than him who is a citizen there.

    2. Communication – Airtel is prohibitively expensive. I used this option few times to my business trips to US and then later stopped it. Recently, we took plans from local providers and it seemed to have come at a good price. We paid 15 GBP for a 15 day plan in UK from ‘3’ (they are one of the providers) which almost included everything (enough of local minutes and unlimited data). Same was the case in US where it was coming out to be at/about USD 1 per day. For call-back-home, skype/google-talk are best options since they are indeed very very in-expensive.

    Good info about travel-cards and Air B-n-B is indeed a great site to discover special places. All in all, you get 12 out of 10 for this log. Wishes.

  • AUROJIT says:

    Hi Nandan,

    I guess with an IDP, you would already have covered more than half the distance (since they give it only after you have the visa). So if the visa and IDP are done, it won’t really make sense not indulging in self-drive there. So, go ahead and procure an IDP soon as it comes your way. I sincerely wish it happens sooner than later…..and also that my wish turns out to be a ‘Ghumakkar’s blessing’ :-)

    Agree with you that one should get full insurance (zero excess), at least during the initial trips. And this part is quite ‘bargainable’ – specially with those renters who provide one-to-one communication.

    Airtel was approx INR 80/- per min , matrix was somewhere near INR 40/-. As far as I learnt, UK has some very good options if you buy sim cards locally, whereas EU charges are very high.

    About 12 being within 10 – I would squarely put the blame of this blasphemous transgression on your immense generosity rather than the merit of the post :-)

    Sincere thanks.

    Auro.

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Hi Auro,

    Awesome Post!

    The planning part looks both daunting but with all the details doable too.

    I was wondering if all this can be done on the fly renting cars, BnBs since it all entails advance payments and what if the plan changes.

    Looking forward to the next posts. In the meantime will go through the Thailand post.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • AUROJIT says:

    Hi Nirdesh,

    It looks daunting probably because I have crammed the things over which I worked for a few months, in one post here :-) Planning, actually, was quite an enjoyable part.

    Advance payment – well the beauty here is that it is only Airbnb where I made advance payment. All other bookings including car rental were tied up through e-mails and based on mutual faith. On my part, I also ensured that in case of cancellations/changes, I kept them informed about the same.

    Thanks for liking the post,

    Auro.

  • Tarun Talwar says:

    Aurojit,

    This t-log will become a much referred resource for ghumakkars and inspire many to realize the Europe dream. The details you have managed to cover so far are much appreciated. I cannot say anything more than what others have already said. One of the very best travelogues I have come across. Thanks for sharing.

  • AUROJIT says:

    Hi Tarun,

    Nice to hear from you.

    Really grateful for such positive comments.

    Thanks,

    Auro.

  • Anil k says:

    Hi thanks for writing such an imp and informative article of immense value to first timers…i plan a family visit next year to almost same destinations in europe as yours..i hv two kids under 15…can you please guide us in full details ..i want self drive and home stay in rural or suburbs areas…start from prague or vienna…any other details you may please share with us…like health insurance…advance amount for car rentals and refund process by car rental company…regards anil..delhi..

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