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Trip Report Renting a car in Europe - our experience

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Driving in Europe (specifically Catalonia and Languedoc).

Hey, I’m a pretty confident driver. Add in a GPS and what could go wrong? ;)

Chapter One: Type of rental vehicle

When researching our trip to the region, our first challenge was what type of vehicle to rent. We had 4 women…and their stuff. We wanted to drive from Barcelona, stop overnight in Cadaques, and continue on the next day to Limoux France. We wanted to enjoy the travel and hoped to stop along the way. But what about our luggage? How could we stop unless our luggage was safely concealed in the trunk of the vehicle? Would all of our luggage fit in the trunk? Of course we could have rented a minivan, which would surely have held our luggage easily, but we were planning on using the vehicle for day trips during our week in France. A large vehicle would make driving through tiny village streets and on narrow curvy mountain roads more difficult.

In the end we packed somewhat modestly and kept our fingers crossed that a mid-size car would work for us. This was defined as a BMW 3-series type vehicle on the rental site. Luckily it worked out in the end. When we arrived at the rental agency the agent looked askance at our luggage (2 mid-size luggage; 2 carry-on size luggage; 3 soft-sided carry-on totes) but then confidently told us she had the right vehicle for us….and Audi A4. She was right. The trunk on that car is very large! Hurray! One problem down. A few others to go.

On another note, we had decided to rent an automatic. We are pathetic North Americans who only know how to drive automatics, so that was likely a wise decision! There are only so many automatics available in Europe for us pathetic North Americans so it makes sense, if you are a pathetic automatic-only North American driver, to go to a rental area with a reasonable selection of automatics. We chose Sants train station in Barcelona.

Chapter Two: Where oh where can the car rental agency be?

Our objective: The Avis rental agency located at Sants train station in Barcelona. The advance advice: Make sure the cab drops you around the back of the station as that is where the car rental agencies are. The reality: not Avis (or Budget…for those renting from them). The other reality: there is always construction in France and for sure your cab driver will get in a heated discussion with authorities as he tries to drop you off near the back entrance.

We trundled into the station with our luggage. Lo and behold, there were the desks for the rental agencies, immediately inside the back door of the station. Lo and behold, there was no Avis. We asked around. “Try this way.” Nope. “Perhaps it’s that way.” Nope. “perhaps it’s out the front door of the station immediately to the right.” Not quite. Lo and behold, gazing far across the parking lot, beyond the buses and taxis, we see an Avis sign on a parking garage. We gambled, not knowing if it was just their parking garage, and we won. The office was there. The staff were professional and helpful. (although perhaps providing a map of how to get out of town and where to drop the car off when we came back might have been even more helpful.)

Chapter three: Getting out of Dodge. (aka Barcelona).

You are just getting used to your new car. You don’t know where you are going. The GPS is saying one thing. The directions from the non-english-speaking-yet-trying-to-be-helpful-garage-attendant are not quite consistent. The person in the passenger seat is saying another. The person in the back seat is saying yet another. You find yourself turning at the first corner immediately into a bus-only lane, segregated by a barrier. What to do?

Let’s just say that GPS isn’t perfect. Let’s just say that Barcelona, just like other major cities, is pretty busy traffic-wise. Let’s just say that Barcelona has an incredible amount of pedestrian cross walks that appear out of nowhere. Let’s just say that Barcelona has a lot of round-abouts and one-way streets. Let’s just say that if you take the wrong turn it’s difficult to get back on track.

Take a deep breath and carry on.

Chapter Four: The car didn’t look very big by North American standards

There’s a reason why there are so many tiny cars in Europe. There’s a reason why everyone flips in their side mirrors once they park.

I can guarantee, that if you do any amount of driving through quaint European towns and villages and hamlets and communes you will find yourself in a tight predicament or two. When you drive around that tight curve on that mountain road, if you are in a small car, and if you simultaneously hold your breath, you can absolutely squeeze by that oncoming truck. I can say that we felt like champions when we returned our rental car without a scratch!!

Chapter Five: Practice makes perfect.

If you are timid when you start out, yet you have a sense of adventure, you will feel like a rally driver by the end. (Question: Why is the speed limit on rural mountain roads in Languedoc 90km/hour? We never got over 40, even once we were pro rally drivers. I’m not sure what the purpose of the speed limit was.)

Chapter Six: Know your signs

Shame on me. When I picked up my International Driver’s License they considerately included a pamphlet of international road signs. Nothing seemed too out of the ordinary. Easy peasy. No need to worry. There were only 2 signs for France. Those weren’t the signs that would have been useful to know. I should have done more research.

Hypothetical question for North American drivers. If you were to arrive at an intersection and you saw a road sign with a big red circle and a big red slash through it, what would you think it means? What if it had a big red "X" through it? What would you think that means? Our brain trust thought that these signs meant “DO NOT GO HERE”. This lead to a quandary at many a small village intersection. Clearly we couldn’t go in those directions. Instead we would have to make an impossible sharp turn to go up that tiny alley! Hurray…no scratch! Of course we would hit the next intersection only to face those same daunting signs again
.
Who in their right mind would have thought to make a sign with a big red circle and a big red X through it to stand for “no stopping”? With a big red slash through it to mean “no parking”? I ask you?? :blushing: :embarrassed:

Chapter Seven: Moseying back into town (Barcelona)

Well, we had hopes of moseying. After all we were now professional rally drivers. We had done death defying driving feats on cliff edges, through gorges and in teensy tiny dead end alleys. We were confident that driving back to Sants train station in Barcelona would surely be a breeze.

Let’s just say that GPS isn’t perfect. Let’s just say that Barcelona, just like other major cities, is pretty busy traffic-wise. Let’s just say that Barcelona has an incredible amount of pedestrian cross walks that appear out of nowhere. Let’s just say that Barcelona has a lot of round-abouts and one-way streets. Let’s just say that if you take the wrong turn it’s difficult to get back on track. ;)

Did I say that we felt like champions when we returned our rental car without a scratch!!? Did I??

Prologue:

We had a wonderful time driving through Catalunya into France. We had an exciting time driving out to the Cap de Creus, driving through rural Languedoc, driving up narrow trails to Cathar castles, driving through picturesque villages, and driving along hilly, winding scenic roads.

We would do it all again!

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