I’ve been driving around Europe for over 2 months now through 8 countries and finally feel ready to make some general observations about driving in Europe. Here is a taste of what we’ve been experiencing.
Once we’ve decided where we want to go (an entirely different process), we need to plan how to get there. This usually involves a choice between taking a freeway (if one is available), a secondary road, or a scenic route.
The freeways are the most direct and the fastest. The use of tunnels seems much more common here, and freeways tend to go straight through mountains rather than up and over. Speed limits on freeways are higher than in Canada, typically 120 or 130 km/h. However, extra payments to use the freeways are very common. In some countries this is handled by purchasing a ‘vignette’ (a sticker) that must be displayed on the vehicle window and that allows use of the freeways or roads for an entire country (e.g. Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia). They typically cost $5 to $15 for 7 to 10 days and they can be purchased for longer periods. In other countries tolls are paid roadside (e.g. Italy and France). These tolls can be very expensive, from $5 up to more than $30 for each segment of road, so being conscious about which road you are taking is important.
The secondary roads are generally more interesting and enjoyable. They take longer, often much longer. But if there are tolls on the freeways, the extra fuel cost is usually balanced off by the saving of the toll. The driving on these roads is more challenging as they are often narrow (with no shoulders), windy, hilly, or traffic congested. Scenic routes, usually along the coast or through the mountains, are more beautiful and the driving sometimes even more challenging. Despite these trials, we recommend taking the secondary and scenic routes where possible.
On the plus side, the distances in Europe are not great compared to Canada. We drove from Munich to Berlin in about 6 hours on the freeway, which is about half the distance from the northern to southern end of continental Europe. If you could drive all the way on freeways (which isn’t always possible), you could drive all the way across Europe in under 2 days.
Navigation seems to be more of challenge here than in Canada. Perhaps it’s because there is a plethora of roads in densely packed Europe relative to the sparse hinterlands of Canada. A GPS (‘satnav’) navigation system is essential. Even with this, it is a challenge to drive and navigate at the same time. I recommend that the driver have a co-pilot/navigator at all times to plan the route, refer to maps, help with the GPS, and also to watch for signs, lights, and hazards.
Our borrowed GPS (Thanks Lee!) seems to be fairly accurate when estimating travel times on freeways. When taking the secondary roads, it usually takes us longer than the GPS predicts (sometimes much longer). Occasionally, like in Germany, the narrowest cart path will have a high posted speed limit, which fools the GPS into thinking it is a viable option, when in fact we’re only able to average about half of the posted limit.
A great feature of the GPS is that it allows you to avoid things like toll roads (a money saver in France). Depending on the device you have, it can also be used to locate a wide variety of points of interest like parking, gas stations, tourist information offices, grocery stores, etc.
I find driving to be both more interesting and more challenging in Europe. I’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that I’m driving an RV with right hand drive (i.e. the ‘wrong’ side in countries where people drive on the right as we do in Canada), and with a manual transmission (which requires shifting with the left hand). I’ve pretty much got these things mastered now.
The road signs are different in Europe than in North America. The only two that seem to be the same are Stop (Red Octagon) and Yield (the inverted triangle). The signs here follow an international standard and are generally consistent throughout Europe. It took some time to get used to them. Also, it seems that there are many more road signs here. Perhaps it is because at home I can view and process most road signs almost subconsciously, whereas here it takes a more conscious thought process. But I suspect that there are just more of them. For example, there will often be very short sections at a particular posted speed. The speed might increase for just a couple of hundred meters, and then drop back down again.
What’s unnerving is that although the signs here are standardized, the descriptions that accompany them usually aren’t. This is most troublesome on warning signs other than the common ones that have their own standard and understandable images (e.g. slippery when wet, wildlife, falling rocks, etc.). The standard warning sign here is an upright triangle and usually underneath it are some words to describe the hazard, which are of course in a language we usually can’t read. One then needs to be hyper alert, on the lookout for any and all possible hazards – you never know what it could be.
On the German autobahn, there are sections with no posted speed limits. It is common for cars to pass at astonishing speeds (150 to 200 km/h or more). On the autobahn, I always drive in the right hand lane, venturing out into the second lane only when I need to pass. I never drive in the leftmost lane where cars come out of nowhere from behind and have to brake hard to avoid colliding with anyone going less than 150 km/h.
It is common to have no shoulders on roads, even on highways. Secondary roads are sometimes so narrow that they do not have a dividing line (even though traffic is two way). In these cases the sharing of the road with oncoming traffic is a negotiable matter, often decided by an elaborate game of ‘chicken’, where oncoming vehicles try to dominate the center of the lane moving aside only at the last moment. Some roads are not wide enough for two cars to pass abreast (e.g. in Saxony and Tuscany), requiring one to pull over somewhere to allow the other to get past. We’ve been on streets so narrow that we had to fold in both parking mirrors to squeak through the parked cars. We’ve also been on small roads so steep and with such corners that 1st gear is required to make the turn.
Unlike Canada, most countries in Europe don’t use different colours of painted road lines to indicate traffic going in opposite directions. So, unless you saw a sign when you entered a multiple lane roadway, you can’t tell if it’s one-way or two ways by looking at the lines on the road. As a result, it isn’t always clear if you are about to change lanes and about to pass. If in doubt, I always drive in the right hand lane!
It’s annoying that there are often no stop lines at intersections. If there are, they are sometimes very far back from the light to allow trucks to turn on the narrow streets. In most countries, the street lights are not hung above the intersection, but sit on a post on the right side of the road before you enter the intersection. This means that if you advance too far (due to the lack of stop lines), or once you’ve entered the intersection to make a left turn, there are sometimes no lights visible to the driver. There are also no secondary lights on the left side of the road on the opposite side of the intersection (as we have in Canada), which are essential when you’re in the intersection making a left hand turn (when all the other lights are behind or above you). In these situations you have to ‘go by feel’ as to when the light has turned green (to proceed) or red (to complete your left turn). It’s helpful to stop well back of the intersection to avoid the first problem, but the second seems unavoidable (unless one doesn’t advance on the green when preparing to make a left).
In Europe it is not permissible to make a right turn on a red light, unlike most of North America. So, if the light is red, one waits. Sometimes there is a special green arrow indicating that you can turn right or left, but not drive straight through.
Traffic circles are very common. Some of them are huge in diameter and may have as many as three lanes going around, with optionally one cutting across the center (in Spain) and/or bypass routes around the outside. There may also be traffic lights within in the circle. Knowing in advance which exit you’ll be taking is key (information provided by a good GPS with accurate maps). A nice feature of traffic circles is that if you’re not sure which way you’re turning, you can keep going around until you figure it out from the signs or GPS. Traffic circles work well when the traffic is light. When it gets really busy (like in rush hour traffic) they tend to clog up and it is difficult to both get in and out of the circle.
In the cities (especially in the Northern countries of Europe), bike lanes are common. When turning right, it is important to check your right side mirror because there is often a nearly imperceptible bicycle lane running down the right side of the road (or even down the sidewalk) and there may be bikes in it that are going straight through. They have the right of way as the bike lane is considered the rightmost lane of traffic.
In some countries (especially Italy) there are a lot of scooters and motorcycles piloted by aggressive drivers. They often split lanes (i.e. pass between two cars) or pass on the right. At stop lights, they weave their way through the cars to get to or near the front. When the light turns green, they beat the cars off the line and use the distance created to change lanes or turn in the intersection across the path of the cars coming behind them. It is necessary to look for motorcycles and scooters on both sides of the vehicle before changing lanes or turning.
There are a greater variety of vehicles on the road here. In addition to the many motorcycles and scooters, we’ve seen three-wheeled cars, motorcycles with twin front wheels (3 in total), and motorcycles with roofs (fairings that go all the way over to the back of the bike). In some countries they also license quads for the street. They’re only allowed off-road in Canada.
Parking is often a challenge. In congested cities with narrow streets, it is very difficult to find a place to park. There are very few large, open, free parking lots like in North America. In most cities, every available inch of space is used for parking. Because of the narrow roads, in many places it is expected that you will park partially on the sidewalk…
or fully on the sidewalk, which is tough to do with a larger vehicle.
Parallel parking spaces are delineated on all sides to make sure that people don’t stick out too far into traffic. In tight spaces, it is essential to fold in your parking mirrors or they will be removed for you by a passing car.
Emergency telephones are common on the side of major roadways, providing a way for people to seek assistance in the event of a problem. In the age of cell phones they’re perhaps becoming obsolete, so we’re unlikely to see them in Canada any time soon.
Rest stops on the freeway are often elaborate affairs, far superior to what we have in Canada. In addition to being much larger with room to park 50 or more semi-trailers, they are often equipped with public bathrooms, gas stations, food stores, and nice restaurants (not just fast food). Sometimes they even have hotels there, accessible only from the freeway! In Germany, these elaborate rest stops occur much more frequently, about every 20 kilometers or so.
Many fines for traffic violations in Europe are levied on-the-spot, which means you must pay the police officer immediately at the roadside (“with that be cash or charge?”). Although this probably has the greatest deterrent effect by closely associating the violation with the penalty, I can’t see how this could possibly result in anything but more corruption.
The allowable blood alcohol percentage for driving varies across Europe. Some countries (e.g. Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary) have zero tolerance (0.0%) and others (e.g. Sweden, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) have percentages so low (0.01 or 0.02%) as to be effectively zero. This means that after only one drink, you’d better not drive until the following day. In most countries, the allowable limit is lower (or zero) or the consequences of a violation more severe for younger drivers. Most countries have fines that begin at 0.05 percent with greater penalties and driving bans at 0.08.
Radar use by police for speed control seems less common than in Canada. Radar detectors are illegal in most countries. Radar cameras are more common (we no longer have these in British Columbia) and there are a lot of signs warning about electronic speed controls. Interestingly, in some countries it is illegal to use the feature in your GPS navigation system that warns about upcoming radar camera locations. If the goal is to get people to slow down, does it really matter how it is achieved?
The Costs of Driving
Fuel is expensive here, over $2.00 per liter. More cars and vans use diesel than in North America, but it costs almost the same as gasoline. With the added costs of tolls and vignettes, the overall costs of driving are higher. However, when the costs are shared among 2 or more people, as opposed to buying multiple separate train or plane tickets, it becomes more practical.
Renting a vehicle can be done for a reasonable price, especially if done for a longer period of time (a week or more). If you purchase or borrow a vehicle, it can also be difficult or expensive for foreigners to get motor insurance and this definitely needs to be arranged in advance.
Benefits of Driving
Outweighing the challenges and costs are the many benefits of driving in Europe. With our own wheels, we can go almost anywhere, seeing things that most tourists do not. We can stop virtually anywhere, whether to take a photo, make a purchase, or stretch our legs. Overall, the benefits greatly outweigh the challenges (some of which are exciting in their own way!)