Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Driving in Europe - Everything you need to know.

Planning a trip to Europe and just not quite confident enough in your abilities to rent a car?  Here is everything you need to know about renting a car in Europe to prepare you for what awaits you on Europe's roads.

Just as a personal aside.  I have driven almost everywhere in Europe, with some caveats.  I have never driven into the Balkans or towards Greece.  I have also never driven in the Baltics and only very briefly in Poland, so if you are planning a trip to those regions, keep in mind that if they are an EU country, they are going to have similar laws with some minor exceptions.

Let's get started.  I'm breaking this up into two sections.  The basics and then country specific advice.

The basics

Renting a car, what to expect

The first step and probably the most terrifying idea is actually renting a car.  This is usually a little daunting because you have to find the rental car place at the airport, and then you'll be scared that you won't understand the terms and conditions when you rent the car, or they'll try to add some extra charges.  Now this may happen, so make sure to read all of the conditions beforehand.  Most airports will charge a location fee and a airport pick up fee, and then they may try to add a cleaning or fuel charge when you drop it off.  You can avoid the last two charges by cleaning the car yourself and by signing to fill up the car before you drop it off.

On the other hand, expect a long, contracted battle to rent your car.  First of all, rental car places will take forever for you to find in just about any airport.  People will always give you really bad directions on how to get to the place, and oftentimes, you'll get there only to find out that you went to the wrong location.  So be prepared for a lot of walking, and get a luggage cart if you have the chance.  Then be prepared for a looooong wait in line before you even get to the right counter.  One way to avoid this is to become a premium member (most times it's free) before you get to the counter.  But you'll still have to wait awhile, so don't count on renting a car just before a very important meeting when you land at the airport.

Toll Roads vs. normal roads

This is a very tricky part about driving around in Europe.  Depending on the country you're in, you may have free highways or paid highways.  Keep in mind that just because a highway doesn't have toll booths, it doesn't mean that you don't have to pay to use it.  For these that do not have toll booths, you usually need to buy what's called a vignette, or a little tag that will allow you to drive on the roads for a year.  This is usually a very cheap and good option, but make sure you get one because the fine for not having one is quite steep.

The other important thing to keep in mind about the difference between toll roads and normal roads is that normal roads are usually tiny and are very difficult routes.  For example, I remember driving for the first time in the Italian Alps, and we were driving high in the mountains on this tiny mountain road, and my friend and I had been doing this for hours and were oh so tired, and we looked down the mountain and there going straight through the valley like a great boa constrictor was the Italian toll road, which we were just too poor to use.

This is more the case, however, when driving in the mountains, most normal roads are actually quite fine, and while they appear small to us as Americans, they are actually quite good roads once you get used to them with your smaller car.

Also, toll roads are usually the most handy place to go to find a gas station late at night.  Many gas stations will reject American credit cards, and the only way to get gas is to stop at a 24/7 station, which are quite realistically only found on the highways.

Another tip is to have a gps handy if you plan on avoiding tolls.  Most cars that you rent now will have one built in, but if they don't and you didn't bring one, you better put some data on your phone quick.

Finally, toll roads and highways in Europe avoid almost everything you'd want to see.  If you want to see things on your drive take the normal roads, you'll miss it all on a toll road.

Driving in cities

Cities can be one of the funnest and also craziest experience as an American.  The huge roundabounts of Europe can be overwhelming when you first use them, but you'll get used to them and how to use them.  Remember to use your blinker if you're taking a left or right exit, and if there are two lanes stay in the right lane if you're planning to exit at the first exit, or if you plan on going straight or exiting at the third exit, hop into the left lane as you enter the roundabout.

Cities can also be downright terrifying because of their size.  If you are entering an ancient city I'll just say that you're probably best served by just finding a parking spot on the outskirts of the city and taking public transport from there.  Of course, this is only for those small tiny cities that have streets that were built by the Romans, for the Romans.  Beware of those.  You find these most often in Spain or Italy.  France and other countries have them, but usually has built a road to it, and then provided parking at a reasonable space near the city center.


Be prepared to pay a lot to park in Europe.  This isn't always the case, but while there are free spaces, they are usually limited to use for an hour and a half, or you are allowed to park in street parking from 7 or 8pm to 7 or 8am.  The further you get from the city center, the more likely street parking will be free as well.  But if you plan on being a tourist and you don't want to walk a long way, you may want to pay for a day parking pass at one of the nice tourist lots near the city centers.

Additionally, some countries like Switzerland and Germany have a little blue meter that you put in your car to show when you arrived at a parking spot.  If you don't have that they can automatically ticket you even if you are parked in a free for 90 minutes parking place.  These are also usually color coded.  For example, in Switzerland they're blue spaces, whereas white spaces are free.

Finally, just remember to hide everything when you park.  Usually hatchbacks will have something to hide what you put in your trunk, and you should make sure to put everything there when you leave.  Make sure that no one is watching you put stuff in your trunk either.  Rule of thumb is if you feel uncomfortable with someone watching you where you parked, park somewhere else!

Radars & Speeding

Radars are one of my most hated and liked things about Europe.  I hate them because sometimes no matter how you avoid them, they'll get you.  But they're also nice because they have made it so that police are not as agressive on the roads.  In fact, it is rare to see someone pulled over by police, but keep in mind, that it does happen!

So radars.  Basically in the EU, countries are required to put up a sign before you see a radar.  So you can usually see them if you're watching well enough beforehand.  They also have alerts for them on gps units, these will usually alert you for a zone of when you can possibly see a radar.  For whatever reason, sometimes it will say there is a radar and there won't be one.

There is a lot of debate on how fast you have to be going to get a ticket.  Usually I think it's around 3 to 4 km/hr faster than the limit because radars supposedly have a 3 km/hr tolerance zone just in case it makes an error in speed.  Non-EU countries will still have radars, but they aren't governed by the same laws for letting you know beforehand, so for example, Switzerland, here it depends on your canton, doesn't have to alert you beforehand, you can just expect to find radars on Swiss roads.  Yeah that sucks.haha.

When you do get a ticket, it could take two or more months to get it in the mail.  If it's your car, you can go to the post office and pay it, if you are renting the car, however, the rental company will pay for it and then charge you 20 to 30 euros extra for a service fee.  (Remember to thank them for going out of their way to send a check...)

Fueling and costs

Fuel in Europe is also much more expensive than in the US, although recently with the drop in oil prices, it isn't nearly as bad.  In France, currently you can expect to pay about $4.07/gal for gas.  Diesel is cheaper than unleaded, and most cars will get around 50 miles to the gallon.  Yes that's pretty cool.

Country Specifics


If you're going to drive in Italy, probably forget everything you've learned about driving up til now.  Italian roads in the big cities often get rid of lines altogether.  You may think it's just a one way street, where Italians will turn it into 4 lanes.  They'll also come whizzing by you and honk rather quickly, although not nearly as fast as in France.  Italians also seem to have weird gently rules of how to interact with people turning into ongoing traffic.  It isn't surprising to see a brave Italian inch out into oncoming traffic and stop both sides to turn.

Also keep in mind that Italians have a lot of moped deaths every year, and once you see how crazy they are on their rather unprotected beasts, you won't really wonder why.

Finally, Italian toll roads are expensive, but they're much better than France.  If you find yourself getting annoyed with Italian country roads, take the toll road, it won't hurt your pocket nearly as much as you'd think.


Spain has free highways and good roads, you can avoid the tolls almost altogether in Spain, and you should.  It's quite easy.  The green signs mean non-toll, the blue mean toll.  Just skip the ones where you need to pay.


Driving in France?  Be prepared to be annoyed. Not only does every road lead to a toll road, but they annoy the crap out of you with roundabouts on the way to those toll roads.  And tolls are ridiculously expensive!

All isn't lost, however, Brittany, is unique in that there are no toll roads!

One last piece of advice in driving France is that they have a special sign in small towns giving right of way to people entering main roads and turning right.  Yes, it sounds preposterous and like it will cause a lot of accidents right?  Well, it is a way to get you to slow down.


More annoying than French roads?  Swiss roads!

Here there is just a vignette, no tolls, but since you can't tell where the radars are you have to go their ridiculously slow speeds.  They also have some of the fastest changing green lights I've ever seen.  Oh and let's not mention the towns like Zermatt that are "car free."  What that really means is they have cars, but they're going to put a big tax to have cars in those towns too.


Germany is awesome.  Use the autobahn.  Drive as fast as you want.  Just remember to slow down around cities, where they do have speed limits.

Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria & Hungary

Get a vignette


Watch out for the radars in tunnels.  Not only do they measure speed, but they also measure speed between two radars!  So if you slow down and then speed up and then slow down, they'll get you too.


Ummmmm....Just don't rent a car.  If you must, then remember that the big cities have horrendous traffic, and out on the highways it's like driving on wagon ruts, so just stay on top of the ruts.

If you have any suggestions or would like to contribute click here to send me an email.  If you would like to sponsor my trip somewhere to showcase your business or to work with me please send me an email as well.

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