Although many European countries are known for their effective mass transit, renting a car is still the best way to explore off the beaten path, seeing the beautiful countryside and getting the flavor of authentic small-town life. As long as you bring your passport, driver's license and proof of insurance, most aspects of renting a car in Europe are very similar to what you experience in the United States – although be prepared for a few surprises.

Acceptable Identification for Driving in Europe

There's a lot of back-and-forth discussion about whether you need an international driving permit to rent a car in Europe. Take it from the world-renowned expert on travel in Europe, Rick Steves: In most European countries, your American driver's license and passport are all you need to rent a car. Requirements do vary by country, however. When in doubt, check with the embassy of the country you'll be visiting, or simply carry a permit just in case. You can get international driving permits – which are simply legal translations of your driver's license – from the American Automobile Association or the American Automobile Touring Alliance.

Check on International Insurance

Not all auto insurance companies will cover car rentals in Europe – so always call ahead and ask to be sure. If your existing auto insurance doesn't cover international rentals, many carriers allow you to purchase extra coverage for a fee. The credit card you use to pay for the rental might also offer coverage – check the fine print or call the company to ask – and you can always purchase extra coverage from the car rental company or, if you're thinking ahead of time, third-party brokers.

Many Things Are Similar

You'll find that quite a few things are no different when renting a car abroad. Rates vary enormously from company to company, so always shop around. As in the United States, young drivers under 25 might incur extra fees or be turned away entirely – so always call ahead and check if you fall into that age bracket. Interestingly, older drivers (age 70 and above) may also have issues in some European countries.

But There Are Some Differences

With all that said, a few things might surprise you about European car rentals. The roads are smaller, and so are the cars. If you can't drive a stick shift, be ready to pay extra for an automatic transmission. Gas is also much more expensive and priced by the liter; calculate about 4 liters to the gallon. The gas prices are offset somewhat by more fuel-efficient vehicles and shorter distances to travel between destinations. If you rent a car in the United Kingdom or Ireland, you'll have to adapt to driving on the left side of the road; but in the rest of Europe, everyone drives on the right.

Speeding Tickets and Pedestrians

You'll also notice that distances and speeds are provided in kilometers instead of miles. If you tend to go heavy on the gas, you might not know you were caught in a photo speed trap until you receive the bill for your speeding ticket in the mail. Finally, depending on where you travel in Europe, be aware that the pedestrians may be much more aggressive about jaywalking or crossing in front of you than you're used to.

Tips for Getting Started

Before you hit the road in a European country, take the time to review local driving regulations. It'll save you the trouble of guessing when you see street signs or hit enormous multi-lane roundabouts, and it will reduce the risk of playing chicken during left turns or close encounters on narrow country roads. You may very well end up renting a make and model of vehicle that's foreign to you, so take a few minutes to find out the location of all the controls – including the headlights, windshield wipers and hazard lights – before you drive off.

Crossing European Borders

Contrary to common belief, Europe isn't a single country. Most member countries of the European Union do have very open borders, so you can drive freely from one to the other, but you may encounter additional requirements to drive across borders in Eastern Europe. If you're up-front about your travel plans when you arrange the rental, the rental car company will make sure you have the right paperwork and requirements for any of the more stringent border crossings.

You Don't Always Have to Drive

In big cities like London and old city centers, which are often a maze of one-way or pedestrian-only streets, it can be much more pleasant to park your car for the day and walk or take mass transit.