Road trips are as much a part of our culture as apple pie and Johnny Cash, blue jeans and Ford pickups. Ask any American kid to tell you a favorite childhood memory and you’re likely to hear a story about piling into the battered, olive-green Plymouth Belvedere for a road trip to a national park, a weekend on the coast, or just a leisurely drive to parts unknown. After moving to Europe, we realized that public transportation certainly has its benefits, but we still prefer the freedom of the good old fashioned road trip. That said, a leisurely drive across France or Germany is quite different than driving in the US. Knowing these 12 tips for driving in Europe might help you have a more pleasant experience on the road if you’re planning your own European driving adventure.
#1. Know which European countries require a driving vignette.
Many European countries require that you purchase a driving vignette, either a sticker that goes on your car window (Switzerland and Slovenia) or as is the case in Hungary, a paper “receipt” that you must keep in your car to prove you’ve paid to drive on that country’s road. Usually these are just for the larger motorways, which Americans would refer to as freeways. Some of these are actually privately owned.
Depending on the country, you can either purchase the vignette online before your travel dates, buy it upon entry at the border crossing, or pick one up at a nearby gas station before entering your destination country. However, don’t assume you can buy it directly at the border crossing – they’re frequently unmanned. The fine for driving without a vignette is hefty and is heavily enforced in countries like Slovenia where they use radar and traffic “police” to dole out tickets to unsuspecting foreigners.
With the exception of Switzerland that only offers a single duration annual vignette for 40 chf (roughly the same in USD or euros, depending on the exchange rate), other countries offer multiple options – weekly, 10-day, monthly, or yearly vignettes.
I have to give a shout out to Romania here because they not only keep it simple by requiring a vignette for driving on any of their roads, but they offer the cheapest short-term vignettes: €3 for a week or €7 for an entire month. It’s just one of many reasons to make sure Romania is at the top of your European “bucket list.” Plus, driving in Romania is more fun than driving just about anywhere in Europe!
#2. Be prepared to pay road tolls in certain countries.
European countries that don’t require a driving vignette often have road tolls instead. Keep loose change available in the currency of the country you’re visiting, as well as a universally accepted credit card such as Visa. Of the countries that require tolls,
Spain stood out as a place where we really enjoyed driving. Though they do have some tolls on privately owned freeways, they’re infrequent and fairly inexpensive. We found France quite challenging, on the other hand, due to the frequency of tolls and overall cost of driving across much of the country. If you’re looking to avoid tolls and vignettes altogether, head to Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein, or Germany.
#3. Find out what kind of fuel your car requires and the word for it in the language of the country you’ll be visiting.
If you’re driving a rental car, remember to ask the agency what fuel it takes or check the inside of your gas cap: it’s not uncommon for European cars to have a list of terms for that car’s required fuel in different languages. Gas is often referred to as petrol, essence, natural, sans plomb, or any number of terms referencing either benzene or 95/98 for the octane.
Diesel is typically more easy to recognize – either diesel or dizel, but it can also be gazole, nafta, or simply fuel oil. Since it’s much more common for compact cars in Europe (than in the US) to be diesel, it’s also much more common to find diesel at most gas stations. In particular, watch out when you you’re traveling in Spain or Italy since their words for diesel can be confusing: gasóleo and gasolio, respectively. They’re referencing “gas oil,” not gasoline.
#4. Know the general speed limits of the countries where you’ll be traveling.
Unlike the United States where speed limit signs are posted at numerous locations on all types of roads, signage is much less frequent throughout Europe.
The signs that are posted typically list the maximum speed limits for that country for the 3 main types of roads: freeways, highways, and city streets. It’s not always clear if you’re within city limits or what type of highway you’re traveling; when in doubt, drive conservatively until you figure out the legal limit.
While in the States a speed limit reduction is marked by a sign with the new maximum speed, in Europe it’s often more frequently marked with a sign signifying the speed reduction has simply ended without posting the new limit. It’s expected that drivers will already know the speed limit before it was reduced on the road they’re traveling and that they’ll know the absolute limit for that particular road.
On European freeways, it’s very common to see round white signs with multiple diagonal grey lines indicating a speed reduction has ended. This typically means resuming the maximum speed of 120 or 130 kmph. On Germany’s autobahns, it means the speed limit is again completely unrestricted.
#5. Be prepared for higher maximum speed limits on freeways than those allowed in the US.
Though Germany is famous for its “Autobahn,” which lacks speed limits, autobahn is simply German for motorway, or what most Americans would refer to as a freeway. While it’s true that many sections of Germany’s autobahn system have unrestricted speeds, nearly half actually post restricted speeds.
Not only do German-speaking countries like Austria also have autobahns, but European motorways in general have maximum rates of speed of either 120 kmph (Switzerland) or 130 kmph (Austria, Hungary, and many other countries). This is the equivalent of 75 or 80 mph, faster than the legal limit on almost all US freeways, regardless of the state. In Poland, the max limit in some places is 140 kmph. It’s pretty fantastic, but it also means staying to the right at lower speeds and staying alert as traffic moves much faster in general than you might be accustomed to.
#6. Allow extra drive time.
Anywhere you drive, you’re likely to encounter delays at some point from rush-hour traffic, accidents, and periodic road construction. While driving in Europe, you’ll also want to allow additional travel time to stop to buy vignettes, pay at toll booths, wait in line at border crossings, and sit at red lights when you want to turn right, pondering why it isn’t permitted! If you take rural roads, you’re also likely to pass through what at times feels like an endless stream of tiny towns with reduced speed limits and inconvenient and random corkscrew turns. Of course, this is the case for small towns on rural roads the world over. We actually prefer those kinds of roads, but for those used to city driving, you might be venturing into new territory.
Eh? New territory? Did you see what I did there?!
Particularly in countries like Romania and Ukraine, you can expect to experience delays from road closures, detours, and poorly maintained road surfaces. After leaving a remote campsite in Bucegi Natural Park, Romania, we abruptly reached a road block where workers had closed the entire road for repairs. High in the mountains, we were forced to turn back and take an alternate unpaved, ungraded road that added over an hour to our route. Keep this in mind if you have tickets for an event or if your sight-seeing is time-sensitive.
Potholes and work crews don’t give a hoot about your travel plans.
#7. Driving across Europe with a pet? Don’t forget Fido’s pet passport!
If you’re like us and prefer to take your dog or cat with you on vacation, they’ll need a pet passport for unrestricted transit throughout Europe. The primary purpose of the passport is to serve as proof that your pet has been vaccinated against rabies.
Getting a passport is as simple as taking your dog, cat, or ferret to a veterinarian, having him implanted with a European microchip (if he doesn’t already have it), and getting a current rabies vaccination or booster. Your vet will document this in a little booklet – the passport – and likely charge a small fee for the passport itself. We paid about 25 chf apiece for our dog and cats’ passports in Switzerland.
Though the passport is technically intended for use within the EU, many other European countries accept it: Andorra, Monaco, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, etc. We’ve been asked for our dog’s pet passport at border crossings in Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, and Slovakia; all allowed her entry.
#8. Have a trust-worthy way to navigate your route.
Finding your route in Europe can be a challenge. Signs are in a variety of languages you may or may not understand, roads frequently branch off with little notice, and if you happen to miss your exit, the next chance to turn around might be 20 km further up the road, on the other side of a 10-km tunnel, or in an adjoining country. Whether you choose an app for your phone, rely on the navigation system in your rental car, or are old-school and prefer paper maps, make sure you have a reliable way to help you get from Point A to Point B.
Even with decent navigation, we’ve accidentally crossed into Austria, arrived at a campground in Hungary that ended up being in the middle of a river, and driven countless miles out of our way because of missed exits.
One tip? Use a smart phone map app that allows you to access maps offline during travel; this way you don’t have to use data or incur roaming fees. Just make sure you download the maps you think you’ll need while you have internet before you travel! We’ve used Maps.me for years and haven’t yet found anything to beat it. Give it a try; you won’t regret it
#9. If you’re going to drive in Italy, forget everything you’ve ever learned about road safety.
I don’t know why, but Italians are
crazy creative drivers. I think their style of driving must have spawned the phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Ignore all street signs, lights, and official directions.
While waiting at a red light in the left turn lane in Turin, a steady stream of drivers came up next to us on the right, which had a green light. Sharply cutting in ahead of us, they essentially parked in the middle of the intersection at our red light. By the time our light turned green, we were no longer the first car at the light – we were the fourth or fifth!
Our advice? Just drive as the Italians do, and you’ll probably be fine.
#10. Expect to pay to use public restrooms along the wayside and at gas stations.
Though many are free, some are not, especially at the nicer, larger gas stations. If you see a mega gas station that resembles a Flying J for truckers in the US, you’ll likely have to drop in the equivalent of 50 or 75 cents to access the turn-style bathroom. Some even have paid employees standing guard full-time at the bathroom entrance to ensure that folks don’t try to sneak in, which is ironic – it seems like having to pay an employee to police the bathrooms would cost more than just making them free, but apparently not.
#11. European roads have tunnels – lots of them.
Short tunnels that are liberally sprinkled along the French and Italian Riviera and long tunnels that bore through entire mountains, like Switzerland’s St. Gotthard Tunnel, one of the longest in the world. I personally still think they’re a fun novelty, but they also tend to add two things to your driving experience; they often add time to your trip because of reduced speed limits and backed up traffic, and many of the larger tunnels charge high fees for passage. Depending on the season, it’s often possible to drive over a nearby pass, but in the winter, these tunnels are often the only available option for auto travel.
#12. Fixed cameras with radar speed detection are very common throughout Europe.
We found this to be the case particularly in France, where we saw more traffic cameras in a single day than an entire year living in Switzerland. We also learned that they can be quite unforgiving. Though we thought we remained within the legal limit during the duration of our time driving in France, we apparently exceeded the speed limit at some point because a month or so after our visit, we received a speeding ticket in the mail.
I paid the ticket, but thinking about it always reminds me of my mom’s story about driving through Montana when my sister and I were kids. Apparently speeding, she was pulled over by a police officer who clearly felt some sympathy for the two grubby little girls in the back seat. At the time, my mom was a single working parent who didn’t have two nickles to rub together; a speeding ticket would have eaten up money needed for the monthly heating bill or groceries. Rather than giving her a ticket, the officer let her off with a warning, gave us coloring books, and sent us on our merry way.
Ahhh, Montana in the ’80s…
These 12 tips round out the biggest differences we’ve noted about driving in Europe. If you happen to be a fellow American driver, one final suggestion is to ratchet down the impatience. After living in Europe for the last year and a half, we’ve driven in about 15 different countries, and across the board, Europeans in general tend to adhere to speed limits, drive more cautiously, and be just plain nicer on the road. If you’re a bit of an aggressive driver, try to ease off the lead foot, turn up the radio, and enjoy the fact that you’re hopefully enjoying a fantastic road trip across Europe!
- For a general list of European countries that require a driving vignette or have tolls, see here.
- A pet passport simply allows your pet to travel throughout Europe and is different from the process of importing a pet into Europe. For information about international pet travel, www.pettravel.com is a fantastic site.