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.
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. As the process of obtaining a driver's licence is a lot harder than in the U.S. or many developing countries, for example, and as there are plenty of alternatives to driving especially in urban areas, drivers tend to be confident and comfortable with driving. Cars are usually in good working order as most European countries have requirements for a regular check-up to ensure all cars on the road meet minimum safety standards.
Interacting with police
Many traffic violations have "automatic enforcement" – speeding tickets will be issued based on a stationary or mobile speeding camera and many traffic lights have a built-in camera to detect red light violations. Traffic cops will still stop cars from time to time to check whether the driver's licence, registration and other things are up to date. They may also perform breath tests for alcohol, particularly around drunk driving "hotspots" such as beer festivals or discos. In general, traffic cops do not expect interactions with motorists to turn violent and are usually polite but professional in those interactions. While there are no border controls in the Schengen Area and no customs barriers within the EU, police will stop and search cars on the highways looking for drugs and sometimes also checking up on the immigration status of the people in the car. While some fines can still be paid on the spot (you'll be issued a receipt) concerns with corruption have increasingly led to you getting issued a "ticket" with instructions where and how to pay and many fines are simply delivered by mail to the address under which the car is registered.
- See also: European Union#Get around
Countries outside EU have not harmonized their rules. See the individual country articles.
The European Union has a standardized driver's licence. A licence obtained in one EU country is valid in the entire EU, even if the holder moves to a different one. To obtain a driver’s licence in a particular member country, you must be a resident of that country for a period of at least 180 days.
Rules on driver's licences from non-EU countries vary widely, but in general they are valid for short stays.
Two exceptions to the rule on EU driver's licences:
- If you convert a foreign licence to an EU one and then move to a different country, you may be required to convert the licence again (or obtain a full EU licence by taking a driving test).
- Expiration is governed by the country of residence, not the issuing country. For example, German licences issued before 2013 do not expire, but if a holder of such a licence moves to Italy, that licence 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 licences).
There may occasionally be issues with law enforcement refusing to recognize old licences issued by other EU members before the EU model was introduced (or before these countries joined the EU), even if they are still valid. It is safest to exchange these licences for a new one.
Fuel is highly taxed in most EU and EFTA countries; as of 2020, a litre of 95-octane petrol is about €1–1.50; 98-octane costs around 10% more. In Russia and other eastern non-EU countries it is around 30–40% cheaper.
Car rentals cost around €30/day and more, but in Eastern-European countries you may find cars as cheap as €10–15/day. Parking often costs more than €2/hr and can work up to €50 per day in the most expensive cities.
Toll roads, toll bridges and toll tunnels have a fee (or toll) assessed for passage. Those are very common and some might be quite expensive for foreigners. While most surface roads are 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. City centre congestion charges, getting more common, are a separate cost.
Toll systems vary widely. Different types include:
|Type of fee||Description||Albania||Andorra||Armenia||Austria||Azerbaijan||Belarus||Belgium||Bosnia and Herzegovina||Bulgaria||Croatia||Cyprus||Czech Republic||Denmark||Estonia||Finland||France||Georgia||Germany||Greece||Hungary||Iceland||Ireland||Italy||Latvia||Liechtenstein||Lithuania||Luxembourg||Malta||Moldova||Montenegro||Netherlands||North Macedonia||Norway||Poland||Portugal||Romania||Russia||Serbia||Slovakia||Slovenia||Spain||Sweden||Switzerland||Turkey||Ukraine||United Kingdom||Comments|
|Distance-based||A fee based on the distance driven in kilometres and the type of vehicle. These are used primarily for revenue generation to repay for long-term debt issued to finance the toll facility, or to finance capacity expansion, operations and maintenance of the facility itself.||Go‑Maut||LKW‑Maut||(few roads)||LSVA|
|Period-based||A vignette or sticker is bought for some period (a day, week, month or year) and then attached to a vehicle for easy check-up. These toll systems are used as general tax funds to maintain roads of a country in a good condition.||(state and regional roads)||(state and regional roads)||(all roads, all vehicles)|
|Congestion||Used a tool to reduce peak hour travel and the associated traffic congestion or other social and environmental negative externalities associated with road travel such as air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, visual intrusion, noise and road traffic collisions||Milan Area C||Jūrmala||Curonian Spit||Curonian Spit||Stockholm||London||Limited to a few cities and urban roads as of 2020.|
France and Italy are examples of countries that have distance-based systems and France has a lot of private, for-profit highways. There are however sometimes bridges or tunnels with considerable tolls for relatively short distances and you might consider avoiding them for whatever reason. Some toll collection points are autonomous, and the user deposits money in a machine which opens the gate once the correct toll has been paid. To cut costs and minimise time delay, many tolls are collected with electronic toll collection equipment which automatically communicates with a toll payer's transponder or uses automatic number plate recognition to charge drivers by debiting their accounts. In Spain a seemingly indecipherable system exists where some highways are tolled and others aren't depending on whether the national government or the autonomous community built and operates them and sometimes other factors. Annoyingly tolls can often be "odd" amounts (like €5.31) and there might not always be an easy option of paying cashless.
Many countries have vignette-based systems, which are fixed fees for driving a vehicle in that country. You need to buy this before you enter the country. The vignette fee can be paid at a customs center, some gas stations near the border, or online.
In some countries, you pay the fee and receive a sticker to affix permanently to the windshield of your car. In other countries, physical stickers are unnecessary now. Your payment is recorded electronically and can be looked up automatically via the licence plate number (and will be, by licence-plate-reading cameras that automatically issue hefty fines against unpaid vehicles that have barely crossed the border). Rental cars usually have the necessary vignette for their country of origin but not for neighbouring countries, so be sure to ask.
The systems vary greatly even inside the EU. Some countries charge all types of vehicles, and some demand tolls based on some combinations of these parameters: number of axles, maximum weight, passenger number, vehicle height, and vehicle category. Tolling systems can be relatively flexible and cheap (only €6 in Lithuania for 24 hours transit) or quite expensive for foreigners (Switzerland only offers annual vignettes regardless of the origin of driver or car for CHF40 €37).
Some alpine passes have a separate toll, which you have to pay in addition to the general motorway toll, although in theory if your only toll road on your trip through the country is one of those, you don't have to pay for a general vignette.
|Country (date of check)||Vehicle types||Vehicle description||Periods and prices||Roads and map||Comments|
(as of July 2020)
||Major roads outside of cities.||Electronic vignette. Heavier vehicles are exempted from vignette, but have to pay distance-based tolls (Streckenmaut). Official website|
|All passenger vehicles with full mass ≤ 3.5 tons.||
(as of July 2020)
|Motorcycles.||Free.||All roads outside of cities.||Electronic vignette. Official website|
|Light motor vehicle. Trailer with full mass >3.5 tons.||
|Trucks.||Free. See distance-based tolls.|
(as of August 2020)
|Motorcycles.||Free.||All main roads around Prague and all highways leading to other countries (outside of cities).||No electronic vignette. Physical vignette can be bought at any gas station.|
|Light motor vehicle with full mass ≤3.5 tons. The mass of trailer doesn't matter.||
|Trucks.||Free. See distance-based tolls.|
(as of July 2020)
|Motorcycle, cars and trucks with gross weight ≤3500 kg. Buses. Towed trailers have additional toll.||Vehicles D1M: motorcycles, D1: with full mass ≤3.5t or ≤7 passengers, D2: all others
||Most of the main state and regional roads (see official map).||Electronic vignette. Official website|
|Trucks with gross weight >3.5 t||Free. See distance-based tolls.|
(as of July 2020)
|M1 category vehicle, N1 category vehicle with mass ≤ 3000 kg||Free||Almost all main state and regional roads (outside of cities). Official map||Electronic vignette. Official website|
|N1 category vehicle (transportation of goods with full mass from 3001 kg to 3500 kg); all kind of trucks and buses.||
(as of July 2020)
|Motorcycles, M1 category vehicles (passenger vehicle with full mass ≤3.5t).||Free.||Most of the main state and regional roads.||Electronic vignette. Official website|
|M2, M2, N1, N2, N3, A, B categories (any vehicle with full mass >3.5t or >8 passengers). Only M1 category vehicle is exempted from charge.||
(as of August 2020)
|Motorcycle||Free||All roads.||Electronic vignette. Official website|
|All vehicles with 2+ axes.||
(as of July 2020)
|Motorcycle||Free||Almost all main state and regional roads (outside of cities).||Electronic vignette. Official website|
|All other vehicles||
(as of July 2020)
|All two-track motor vehicles or vehicle combinations <3.5 tons and for two-track motor vehicles of M1 category regardless of their total maximum permissible weight.||
||Half of motorways, expressways and 1st, 2nd and 3rd class roads. Map Map of subject to toll collection||Electronic vignette. Official website|
(as of August 2020)
|Motorcycles (one-track motor vehicles).||
||Almost all main state and regional roads.||NO electronic vignette. Make sure to always carry the receipt of the vignette purchase with you during your trip. The police often checks whether the fee has been paid and sometimes doesn’t accept the vignette as proof. Official website|
|Caravans (regardless the height above the front axle) and two-track motor vehicles, whose height above the front axle is up to 1.30 m, and whose maximum permissible weight does not exceed 3,500 kg, with or without a trailer.||
|Two-track motor vehicles whose height above the front axle is 1.30 m or more, and whose maximum permissible weight does not exceed 3,500 kg, with or without a trailer.|
(as of August 2020)
|All vehicles with full mass ≤ 3.5 t||1 year (CHF 40 ~€37)||All main roads. Official website. Official map.||No electronic vignette.|
|All vehicles with full mass > 3.5 t.||Free. See distance-based tolls.|
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 and Northern 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. For example, in the Latvian capital Riga, not a single bridge has undergone maintenance since the fall of the Soviet Union, and there are still nine bridges that don't belong to anyone. 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. Minor country roads are sometimes in bad shape also in countries with an otherwise well developed road network, such as England or Finland.
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 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.
Rules of the road
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 roads (check the yellow diamond symbols) in most continental countries, there is a general duty to give way to traffic from your right in crossings and intersections that are not otherwise marked by stop/yield signs and other drivers have every expectation you adhere to this. This also applies to unmarked T-intersections, unlike in North America, 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.
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. The most basic symbols are geometric shapes according to the Vienna Convention on traffic signs that are adhered to in large parts of the world but which differ markedly from e.g. those used in the U.S. Familiarizing yourself with the most common Vienna Convention signs should be the first thing you do before planning a trip by car in Europe. 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 the Nordic countries, 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 (a Finnish millionaire probably holds the record with €100,000 for speeding).
- Almost everywhere, especially in the EU, you need to be at least 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- See also: Travelling around the Schengen Area
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.
- See also: Driving in Denmark
While the bicycle can be a good alternative to the car in Denmark, driving is usually easy. Parking in cities can be a hassle, though.
- See also: Driving in Finland
With exception of the coastal areas, Finland is sparsely populated. Some roads are very scenic.
- Main article: Driving in France
Similar to much of Europe, driving in France is very straightforward unless you go through the cities.
- Main article: Driving in Germany
Germany is known for its motorways, called Autobahns.
- Main article: Driving in Iceland
Iceland is a long way north (in fact, farther north than you'd probably assume) and doesn't have a large population, but it is a fairly large island. That makes driving the obvious choice for getting around Iceland.
- Main article: Driving in Italy
It shouldn't be hard to get around Italy if you have the money to pay tolls, and therefore drive on quieter roads.
- Main article: Driving in Norway
Norway goes a long way north to south, and by driving you can reach places in Norway that are difficult to reach using other forms of transport.
- See also: Driving in Poland
Poland has a decent system of public transport, though if you find it inconvenient you always can hit the road. Beware that roads are often congested, not up to western European standards and highways frequently go through small villages.
- Main article: Driving in Russia
The largest country in the world is so large that it is hard to get around, even if you're getting around by car. While viewing the countryside by driving is an interesting idea, it's best to know where you're going so you don't end up on the Kolyma Highway.
- Main article: Driving in Spain
Getting around for example central Madrid by car is usually a bad idea, but if you plan on exploring La Alpujarra it can be really convenient. Also, Spain has a good road network and is one of the largest countries in Europe.
- Main article: Driving in Sweden
Generally, driving in Sweden works well, but be careful about driving in winter or going into wilderness areas and be careful about drinking before you drive.
- Main article: Driving in Switzerland
Switzerland is a small but mountainous country, so you will generally not need to drive long distances to get from place to place but the drive itself may be challenging.
- Main article: Driving in the United Kingdom
A rental car in Central London or other major cities is a liability but if you're driving around the country or going through small towns, a car is useful.