The tips, tricks, and rules you need to learn before your next European road trip.
Europe’s famed cities—such as Paris, London, Barcelona, and Rome—hog the spotlight and most travelers’ attention. But to experience some of the best of this continent—from the massive cavern, Postojna, in Slovenia to the world’s largest stone circle at Avebury in the United Kingdom to the windswept rural villages along Spain’s Death Coast—you’ll want to explore by car.
Plan your European road trip for early fall or late spring to enjoy the best weather and manageable crowds. As you would for any destination, research the road conditions, laws, and driving norms of the places you plan to visit before you arrive; the U.S. Department of State’s official webpage is a good place to start. Talking to an experienced travel agent or locals in the know can also be helpful. And of course, don’t forget travel insurance.
But beyond the basics, there are a few more things you should know before you hit the road in Europe. Read on for our best tips.
You’ll need more than just your driver’s license to be ready to roll. “Most countries highly recommend [an International Driving Permit (IDP)]; others require it, as do many car rental companies,” says Julie Hall, spokesperson at AAA, one of the two U.S. organizations that issue IDPs (the other is the American Automobile Touring Alliance). AAA members should bring their membership cards, too—the organization has reciprocal arrangements with motor clubs worldwide that provide traveling members with access to complimentary or discounted roadside assistance, maps, route planning, and certain discounts depending on location.
Reserve your rental car about 50 days before your arrival, which, according to leading international car rental service AutoEurope, is the best time to get deals on prepaid rentals. Booking ahead is especially important for peak season trips from mid-June to late August. Because manual transmissions are more common throughout Europe, be prepared to book further out (and pay a little extra) if you prefer an automatic car. And before you head out, make sure to ask your agent about nearby road closures, area rush hours, or tricky local traffic laws.
While legally required emergency items (such as reflective vests and emergency triangles) are typically provided with your rental vehicle, if you plan to cross borders, don’t assume you’re set for the long haul. The United Kingdom’s Automobile Association has a downloadable guide to the gear different European countries require you carry.
Beyond the compulsory items, AAA recommends packing an emergency kit with first aid essentials, a map, a phone programmed with emergency numbers for Europe (112) and the United Kingdom (999), a phone charger, an emergency escape tool, a blanket, water, snacks, and a flashlight with spare batteries. If your rental company offers them, jumper cables, a spare tire, and chains aren’t a bad idea, either.
Rules of the road
Many of the same driving rules that you’re used to in the United States also apply in Europe. With the exception of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, and Malta, drivers in European countries drive on the right-hand side of the road. According to the European Commission, seatbelts and car restraints (for kids up to 12 years old or under four feet, nine inches or 80 pounds) are mandatory. Cameras enforce speed limits and traffic indications, and taxi, bus, and bike lanes are only for taxis, buses, and bikes, respectively.
But there are some significant differences. Generally, you’re not allowed to turn right at a red traffic light. Drunk driving laws are strictly enforced in Europe and legal limits are very low. In many countries, a driver’s blood alcohol content cannot exceed 0.5 g/L and that drops to 0.0 g/L in places like the Czech Republic and Hungary; in the United States, the limit is 0.8 g/L. It is illegal to talk on a handheld cell phone behind the wheel throughout the European Union. It is even illegal to use certain hands-free phone sets in some countries, such as France and Spain.
And leave the road rage behind: In many European countries, certain discourteous behaviors—such as rude gestures in Germany and honking without cause in urban or residential areas in Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom—are fineable offenses.
In addition to the basics, there are some surprising country-specific driving laws and customs you’ll want to know before you go, too.
Ireland and the United Kingdom
In England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Ireland, drivers should be especially cautious as they adjust to driving on the left; exiting roundabouts, in particular, can be disorienting. Zoe White, senior director of communications at Hertz, suggests practicing in a less populated area before attempting to drive during peak traffic periods.
But while driving on the left is mandatory in the United Kingdom, you can usually park in any direction you want—at least during daylight hours. According to Elliot Pritchard at Avis U.K., you’ll want to avoid driving in chaotic central London, but if you must do so on a weekday between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., prepay the congestion charge or face a £160 (US$210) fine. Consult The Highway Code, what Pritchard calls “Britain’s driving bible,” for more information about driving here.
The right-of-way works differently at intersections in France: Drivers coming from the right have priority even when entering large avenues from much smaller side roads. Speed camera detectors are highly illegal, and even having one on board may get your car and your license confiscated. Finally, drivers should avoid using their credit cards at highway tolls; machines are known to eat rejected cards. Carry cash instead.
In Italy, drivers can expect few traffic lights, and those that do exist are often disregarded. Locals are fond of passing at high speeds and the polizia will likely demand any traffic tickets be paid up front. So drive defensively and carry cash. Also, snow tires or chains are required in winter weather, and pets must be transported in carriers or secured in seatbelts.
Headed for one of Italy’s historic downtown areas? You’ll need a ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato) permit. Cameras photograph plates at the control points and you’ll accumulate fines with each click. And don’t think you can skip out on payment: The tickets will be forwarded to your home address as listed on your rental car contract. You can, however, appeal these types of tickets via a written request to the local government representative called the prefetto or to the justice of the peace. Get more information from the U.S. embassy and consulates in Italy.
Sweden, Norway, and Finland
In these Nordic countries, gas stations may be fewer and farther between, so fill up when you spot one. Snow tires or chains are obligatory in Sweden from December to March and from December through Feburary in Finland, and headlights or daytime running lights must be turned on day and night, all year long—midnight sun or no.
Less than a third of the roads in Iceland are paved, and many are impassable from October to July because of snow, ice, and mud. Offroading is illegal, and designated, labeled mountain roads can only be driven in 4x4 jeeps. As in the Nordic countries listed above, headlights are required to be on any time you’re on the road. Get extra tips from Elfis, the Metallica-tee-wearing elf, or consult road conditions here.
For further official country-by-country details and handy quizzes about current regulations, download the European Commission’s Going Abroad app.