27 November, 2014
Tips for a European Road Trip
So, you’ve decided to tour Europe on the open road. The thrill of scenery flashing by as you speed through the countryside, the quaintness of finding road stops and out of the way tourist attractions you might have otherwise missed and the horrendous headaches of having no idea where you are, infringing on laws you didn’t know existed and inciting rage from your fellow drivers. Wait, what was that last one?
If you are travelling by car in a foreign European country, whether you are European yourself or travelling from further abroad, it pays back tenfold to know what to expect. Driving regulations may differ from country to country, motorways cost money to use and most countries require certain equipment to be present while driving for safety reasons. It all boils down to being prepared which makes a driving holiday safe and enjoyable instead of a disaster. The following are some things that should be considered before starting out.
What to bring
When packing you of course think to bring the necessities of clothes, toiletries and maybe even a first aid kit, but did you consider you may need a throw away breathalyser? In France this is required equipment for any vehicle, enforceable by law. Different countries have different regulations on what a vehicle needs to have in order to be considered legal. Common items that may be overlooked are reflective jacket, warning triangle (in case of break downs), and a fire extinguisher. Some go as far as requiring replacement light bulbs to be on hand in case a signal or head lamp should fail. It pays to research and know what different countries require when it comes to vehicle equipment.
There is paperwork necessary to have a worry free trip. Ensure that the driver (or drivers) license is up to date and valid in all the countries you will be travelling. Ensure that the entire party’s passports are up to date as well. Vehicle breakdown cover is an important peace of mind in case of unfortunate breakdowns and making sure that the insurance policy you have is valid in the countries you will be driving can’t be overlooked. It may also pay to look into your policy and ensure you have breakdown coverage to cover all eventualities.
The motorways in Europe are the fastest ways to get from one place to another, but they are not free to use in all countries. Much of Mediterranean motorways are populated by tollbooths, for example, that will charge based on miles travelled. Other countries, like Switzerland, use permits that are displayed in the vehicle windshield. These permits are available for shorter time periods (weeks) in some countries, and in other countries are yearly purchases. Generally being caught using a motorway without the proper permit will result in a substantial fine; not worth the risk. It should be noted that using secondary roads does not require any permits.
Different countries have different driving laws. Passing laws are different in many countries, for example, and how to pass can cause confusion if not prepared. It is illegal in many European counties to turn right on a red light, unless specifically stated. Driving under the influence of alcohol has a lower tolerance in most European countries than it does in North America. If planning to drink alcohol, planning an alternative ride back to your hotel is always best. Be safe, know the local rules of the road. Most road stops will offer pamphlets if you’re unsure.
Most people like to know where they are and how to get where they want to be. Old fashioned maps are still very useful in this respect and TISPOL, the European Traffic Police Network, has accumulated a massive database of information that answers many of the questions you might have. These are available as PDF’s to download/print if wanted.
Satellite navigation systems by companies like Garmin and TomTom offer up to date driving information, directions and traffic reports. Mobile phone apps like Google Maps are also extremely useful for those drivers that have a smart phone, but keep in mind roaming charges. While mobile apps have less features than dedicated systems, they will usually lead you out of the woods if you so require. One important note about onboard SatNav systems that employ the use of a radar or speed camera detectors is that such detectors are illegal in France and a heavy fine can be leveled against any caught using one on French roads. Find a way to deactivate that feature if it exists when driving in France.
Driving is a wonderful way to enjoy the beautiful European countryside and so long as you plan ahead a driving trip can be vastly enjoyable and very rewarding. Another useful resource for European driving advice is GEM’s wonderful knowledge base, which I’ve regularly used on my trips to Europe.