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Driving in Europe

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Most of Europe has good roads, but fuels and other costs for driving are high. A car is usually the most practical vehicle for moderate distances (10 to 1000 km) in the countryside. In big cities, street congestion often makes public transportation and cycling better options. On very long distances, rail or air travel is usually faster, and intercity buses often cheaper.

Driver's license[edit]

See also: European Union#Get around

The European Union has a standardized driver's license. To obtain a driver’s license in a particular member state, you must be a resident of that state for a period of at least 180 days.

A license obtained in one member state is valid in the entire EU, even if the holder moves to a different state. Two exceptions to this rule:

  • If you convert a foreign license to an EU one and then move to a different member state, you may be required to convert the license again (or obtain a full EU license by taking a driving test).
  • Expiration is governed by the state of residence, not the issuing state. For example, German licenses issued before 2013 do not expire, but if a holder of such a license moves to Italy, that license can be used in Italy for a maximum of 10 years (the validity period in Italy, beginning with the first day of residence for non-Italian licenses).

There may occasionally be issues with law enforcement refusing to recognize old licenses issued by other EU states before the EU model was introduced (or before these states joined the EU), even if they are still valid. It is safest to exchange these licenses for a new one.

Rules on driver's licenses from non EU countries vary widely, but in general they are valid for short stays.

Costs[edit]

Fuel is highly taxed in most EU countries; as of 2017, a litre of petrol is around €1.30. It is cheaper in Russia and other eastern non-EU countries.

Car rentals are around two to three times more expensive than in North America. Highway tolls are very common, city centre congestion charges increasingly so, and even parking can work up to €50 per day in the most expensive cities. Driving can be an enjoyable and feasible way to see the countryside and smaller cities, but hardly for cities such as Paris, Brussels, Berlin or Amsterdam, where many residents do not own a car either.

Tolls[edit]

Highway tolls and toll systems vary widely. France and Italy for example have distance-based systems and France has a lot of private, for-profit highways. Switzerland and Austria have vignette-based systems. They can be expensive for foreigners: in Austria the shortest periods are for ten days and one month – both awkward periods for a two week holiday – whereas Switzerland only offers year vignettes regardless of the origin of driver or car. Germany does not charge a toll on cars, but plans are underway to introduce a vignette-based system.

While surface roads are usually toll-free for private cars, trying to avoid toll roads is hardly ever worth it in either time or money even on the shortest transits, but you may prefer rural roads for the scenery and landscape. There are however sometimes bridges or tunnels with considerable tolls for relatively short distances and you might consider avoiding them for whatever reason.

Road conditions[edit]

The ease of driving on the continent varies greatly, and, as a general rule, east and west of the erstwhile Iron Curtain are two different worlds. Western Europe for the most part has good road conditions and an extensive and well-developed highway network, whereas Eastern Europe is still working hard on the large backlog left from communist days. That said, Poland and to a lesser extent the Czech Republic have built a lot of highways since the fall of the Iron Curtain to cope with rising automobile ownership. The end of the Cold War caused a shift in traffic patterns with some road and rail connections now appearing oversized while others are still strained to the breaking point after years of upgrade and expansion.

During vacations, especially during the summer and around major holidays such as Christmas, driving on the motorways (freeways) can be very tiring owing to high volumes of traffic. In France school summer-holidays start on the same day all around the country and driving during that weekend should be avoided. See country articles for holiday calendars.

Avoid large cities if you are not used to driving in Europe. Most central districts were built long before the introduction of automobiles, and were not meant to cope with the levels of car traffic common these days. So for the most part it may be a slow, frustrating and potentially dangerous experience, and even then, finding a parking spot can take a long time and cost several euros when you find it. Instead park on the outskirts of town, where it is often free, and use the (usually extensive) public transit system. If you are renting, try to "work around having a car" while visiting large cities. Getting a car into an old town can be physically impossible, prohibited, or at least very difficult.

While drivers need to prepare for winter driving through the cold season in northern Europe and the high mountains, snow can occasionally disturb traffic even in the south. In general, snow and ice disrupt traffic more the less common it is in the affected area and the first snow of the season tends to have this effect to an even greater extent. Snow that might be shrugged off in Sweden in January may lead to total chaos on the roads and grind everything to a halt in Italy in November.

Road rules[edit]

Speed limits on highways in Europe - Germany is unique in having an "advisory" limit of 130 km/h that has little meaning unless there is an accident

Traffic circulates on the right-hand side of the road, except in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Isle of Man, Guernsey, Jersey, Malta and Cyprus (there is no land border with change of side). For the left-hand countries any references to right or left below might be reversed.

Speed limits differ between countries. The fabled limitless German Autobahn is now confined to mostly rural sections. The majority of motorways/freeways have a 110–130 km/h (68–81 mph) speed limit, while the limit on undivided highways varies between 80 km/h (50 mph) and 100 km/h (62 mph). For North Americans, a major difference is the left lane on motorways, which is not the "fast lane" you're used to, but rather the "passing lane". It's illegal to overtake on the right, so you should only occupy the outer lane when you are overtaking someone; stay there, and you will have other vehicles tailgating while flashing their lights in annoyance and traffic police eager to fine you. Remember to use turn signals when changing lanes.

Except for priority streets (check the symbol in the table) there is a general duty to give way to traffic from your right in crossings and intersections that are not marked, and other drivers have every expectation you adhere to this. This also applies to unmarked T-intersections, unlike in North America, England, Australia, Japan and most other places where the ending road should normally yield to the through road even if unmarked. But in the ubiquitous roundabouts (circles) you find everywhere across the continent, cars already in the circle always have the right of way; don't give way to incoming drivers while in the roundabout, or you will mess up the system, potentially causing a nasty accident. Finally, don't do right turns on red lights, it's illegal, and because it's not common practice, also dangerous. (In Germany and Lithuania, it is permitted if the traffic light has a green right arrow sign and you come to a full stop first.)

Markings and signs are similar throughout Europe but variations in design and interpretations exist so it may be best to research each country individually before you travel. In Germany there are so many signs that even the Minister of Traffic showed on television that he was not exactly sure what they all meant. Several signs are strung one after the other on the same pole and are in some way related to each other. In the Nordic countries the part of signs that are usually white is often yellow for better visibility in snow and ice.

Fines vary widely. While most of Europe has fixed rates (sometimes with higher fines for foreigners), some countries, especially in Scandinavia tie traffic fines to income and/or wealth the way it is commonly done for criminal fines. While this is arguably juster and more equitable, it can result in quite significant fines.

  • Age
    • Almost everywhere, especially in the EU, you need to be 18 years old to drive, even supervised.
    • In countries with learning schemes, it's usually an exhaustive procedure to get a permit, and rarely applicable to foreign citizens anyway. Exceptions include Portugal, Ireland and the UK.
  • Equipment
    • A warning triangle is compulsory nearly anywhere, as is using it in case of breakdowns.
    • Carrying high-visibility (reflective) vests in cars is compulsory in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Serbia and Spain and gaining popularity elsewhere.
    • Headlamp adjusters are compulsory equipment in most countries, but in the UK and Ireland only if you are driving a continental car.
  • Paperwork
    • Original registration document is compulsory.
    • Motor vehicle insurance certificate is compulsory.
    • A black and white, 1–3 letter country identity sticker is compulsory (although in the EU, an EU licence plate that includes the country code suffices).
    • International driving permit, while not compulsory for certain nationalities in some European countries, is cheap, and could save you from nasty incidents with authorities.

Renting a car[edit]

See also: Car rental

If you plan to rent a car to drive around Europe, it often makes sense to check the rates in different countries rather than just getting a car in the country of arrival. The price differences can be substantial for longer rentals, to the extent that it can make sense to adjust your travel plans accordingly, e.g. if you plan on travelling around Scandinavia by car, it will often be much cheaper to fly into Germany and rent a car there. Compared to North America, you should be prepared for smaller, more fuel efficient cars, and most of them have manual transmission, so don't expect an automatic without requesting one when placing your order (and often paying extra). Some rental agencies also have stipulations in their contracts, prohibiting the rental of a car in one country and taking it to some others. It is for example common that a car rented in Germany may not be taken to Poland due to concerns of theft. This is less common the other way round, so if you are planning on visiting both countries by rental car, it might be easier (and cheaper) to rent a car in Poland and drive to Germany with it. Rules on whether you can enter inner city areas with a car and which preconditions have to be met vary from country to country and from city to city. In Germany, virtually all cities have "low emissions zones" where you can only enter if your car meets certain particulate and NOx emission standards and – crucially – if said compliance is displayed with a sticker in the windshield. German rental cars will usually have this sticker, but foreign cars in general do not, and they are not exempt of the requirement, even on a cross border trip of just a few hours. In some Nordic cities and London, you will have to pay a "congestion charge" or other toll for entering the city centre with varying modes of payment and enforcement. Just do not even think you can evade it – municipalities have gotten quite good at enforcing those rules even for rental cars and the grasp of the law can reach quite far indeed.

Crossing borders[edit]

See also: Travelling around the Schengen Area
The sign displayed when entering Germany (as symbolized by the "D"): speed limits within built up areas is 50 km/h, outside it is 100 km/h, and there is an "advisory" limit of 130 km/h on the Autobahn

For the most part crossing borders in a car is a painless process. This at least applies to the Schengen countries. However, rental car contracts may have limits on the countries the car can be taken to or on crossing any borders altogether. Normally the only sign of crossing a border will be a sign welcoming you to the new country as well as a specific sign telling you the rules of the road across the border in pictogram form. Do keep in mind that posted limits at individual roads may obviously be lower. In countries with vignette-based tolls you should ideally get a vignette before crossing the border and they should be available at rest stops in the border area.

Countries[edit]

See also[edit]

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