How You Can Drive All Over Europe for Less Than $30 a Day

During the year and a half I spent backpacking, I did a lot of weird shit to stretch my savings. But only once did I actually defy basic economics to create a method of travel that was simultaneously the best and the cheapest. Summer of 2015, my best friend and I spent 98 days wandering up and down Europe -- 14 countries, 15 if you count half an hour in Bosnia -- for what amounted to $20/day total for transportation and lodging. Swiss Alps, remote Italian vineyards, those Croatian waterfalls you’ve seen all over Pinterest: Anywhere we felt like going, we went.

And nah, we weren’t on Eurail. The best way to get around Europe, we discovered, is to grab a friend, maybe two, and take out a short-term lease on a car. Here’s how you, too, can have a trip you’ll remember for the rest of your life -- even if you’re feeling first-world broke.

Cantabria, Spain
Cantabria, Spain | Funtravel/shutterstock

The magic words are "buy-back lease"

So long as you’re at least 18, have a valid driver’s license, and live outside the European Union, you can pay for what’s called a buy-back lease through the Peugeot Open Europe program. This gets you a factory-fresh car to call your own and take anywhere within 42 countries, sans mileage restrictions, for up to 175 days -- equivalent to returning a January 1 rental on June 24.

You prepay in American dollars and choose your car, which will have left-side steering and come with GPS installed. An international driver’s license is handy for any encounters with law enforcement, but it’s not required. If your car develops any problems, you just take it to the nearest Peugeot dealership and they’ll arrange a replacement at no cost. There’s no deposit to freeze a chunk of your savings.

“If you’re young and you’re backpacking, maybe you didn’t plan on having $1,000 locked up on your card like that, even if you’re just leasing for 17 days, 21 days,” Walter Kubeck, an Auto Europe reservations manager, told Thrillist. “If you’re in that specific age demographic, that’s when a buy-back lease is the biggest steal.”

Your lease also includes 24-hour roadside assistance (which on standard rentals incurs an extra a daily charge). If you’re on the road for long enough, you’re bound to need it. In Spain, someone smashed our rear window and took our computer bags while we were out having a nice breakfast. This sucked, obviously, but it would have been worse had the car itself not come fully insured.

“It’s life. Sometimes, cars are going to have problems,” Kubeck said. “But take it to a certified Peugeot shop, and they’ll arrange a new one at no cost. And the roadside network is so good in terms of responsiveness compared to a typical rental that there’s a lot more peace of mind.”

The insurance will only cover you inside the 42 approved countries, but if you don’t mind going commando, there’s not much to stop you from going wherever the road leads.

The excitement of Europe, with a dash of teenage nostalgia

I know this sounds almost unbearably whimsical, but that’s very much the point. Short-term leasing opens you up to stuff you could never do on an itinerary dictated by train routes or at the mercy of hitchhiking. And it makes cars themselves feel almost new again, with that high school-esque mix of autonomy and possibility. You know how at hostels you’d fumble through pamphlets and bus schedules and notice another traveler who seemed somehow to be doing more things, more easily? That was me, futzing not with rail schedules, but twirling my keys on the way to my car.

This bit isn’t exactly in the Peugeot literature, but the way we really unlocked our car’s full potential was by living in it. We’d get a hostel every fourth or fifth night (eventually one must wash), but the rest of the time we’d recline our seats to near-flat and just sleep. You may think this sounds uncomfortable, but that doesn’t really do justice to the full experience, which is that it was extremely uncomfortable. Again, though, I’d like to point out that we saved buckets of money.

And you can definitely improve on my improvised trip. A handful of European countries, generally the more northern ones, honor “everyman’s right” (sometimes called “right to roam” or “freedom to roam”), which more or less allows you to camp on any public lands so long as you don’t do anything embarrassing. While it saves money, in most other places sleeping outside like that is illegal. Sleeping in your car is less illegal -- restrictions around what circumstances allow you to do this are so nebulous and ill-defined that you’re not likely to get more than a warning even if you do attract attention. Rest stops are ideal; to my experience, your next best bet is a residential area, as far as you can park from any streetlights.

One night in the south of France, we slept in a lavender field, which I promise feels just as made-up to me still as it probably does to you, yet it happened. In Croatia, it was fig season, so we saved on food by pulling over and climbing into promising trees.

the South of France
the South of France | steve allen/shutterstock

What a buy-back lease winds up costing

Open Europe reps tell me the average lease lately is for about two months, so let’s assume you’re going on a 60-day trip. Let’s say you went the train route -- a second-class Eurail Global Pass for two months’ unlimited travel across 28 countries costs about $1,200, depending on your age. A downtown hostel in a popular European city can easily run you $50/night, and you’re still looking at half that even in remote locations. Let’s say you average $35/night. The cost for transportation and sleeping, then, comes to around $3,300.

Now let’s put maths to a buy-back lease. Rates vary, but if you pick up your car and return it in France (since Peugeot is a French company, there are no fees involved there) a two-month buy-back lease on an economy car with automatic transmission costs something like $1,640. We’ll assume you stay in 15 nights’ worth of hostels, stop for gas every 450 miles, and average around 200 miles/day. Total: around $3,050. If you split that with just one other person (there’s no fee to add other people to the lease), you’re ultimately in the neighborhood of $760/month.

Having more than one driver also means you can take turns doing several important things you’d miss on your own: sleeping, looking out the window at cool animals, and having the occasional glass of wine or four. (Keep in mind the legal limit varies across the EU, and that it’s not unheard of to get a DUI even while parked and sleeping. As a rule, avoid the driver’s seat when there’s any alcohol in your system whatsoever.)

Stelvio Pass
Stelvio Pass, Italy | welcomia/shutterstock

The real advantage, beyond cost, is the sheer flexibility

The romance of any cross-continental Eurotrip is the sense that you can careen through history and landscapes and cultures at your pleasure. Then reality always sets in faster than you can whistle “All You Need is Love.” Eurail passes can cost literally twice as much if you buy them last-minute as opposed to weeks or months in advance. And standard car rentals from companies like Hertz include international one-way fees that can surpass $1,000, easy; they also require you to declare up front all the countries you intend to drive through.

These are not unreasonable asks on the part of businesses. But a lot can happen during several months of wandering. Around the time we were leaving Croatia for Germany, for instance, news started pouring in about the horrific conditions at the refugee camps in Hungary. Our car being subject to no schedules or set limits, we turned east and spent the next few weeks using it to deliver medical supplies, water, and food, including more than 1,000 pounds of apples that a local farmer enthusiastically contributed. Our carefree trip turned into a humanitarian adventure on a dime.

I was 24 at the time. Most rental companies don’t cater to customers under age 25, which holds true in Europe despite the continent’s immense popularity among travelers in their late teens and early 20s (gap years; semesters and internships abroad; National Lampoon comedies). Companies that do rent to 18- to 24-year-olds hit them with a young-driver surcharge in the ballpark of $35/day. Buy-back leases get around that tax on youth. And because the whole thing’s prepaid, there’s no security deposit (which can also top $1,000) to freeze any of the savings better spent driving families to the Austrian border -- or just hoisting pints in Prague, wherever your heart takes you.

Over the last few years, Airbnb and the gig economy in general have done a lot to democratize where travelers stay, so it’s odd that the methods by which we get there have stayed more or less the same. My grandmother hitchhiked and rode trains around Europe in the early ’60s; Eurail passes date back to 1959. Their vintage doesn’t make them bad, but in 2018 you can do better. Buy-back leases are uniquely well-suited to anyone who wants to wander around cheaply, widely, and without a lot of pre-meditation. At home, buying a car may be too expensive and inconvenient to bother with; for traveling around Europe, leasing one is the best thing you can do with your money.

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Kastalia Medrano is a Manhattan-based journalist who’s covered mental health, physics, politics, archaeology, space, feminism, sex, drugs, and climate change. Please send branding suggestions to @kastaliamedrano