I’m going to preface this by saying that you need to drive in Western Europe.
There is so much to see outside the major cities. Places whose names you have not yet heard. Places where the train doesn’t stop. Places full of real people and rich heritage that can make you fall in love with a sunset, or a café, or the ringing of a church bell. Towns so enticing that the draw to live there forever will becomes something you have to resist, if only to keep moving to the next incredible village.
As part of four different legs to the this journey around the world, we drove in Spain, Monaco, France, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium, Andorra, on the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores, and on the Spanish island of Mallorca.
While there will certainly be exceptions to the rules I have outlined here, this is a generally accurate account of our experiences driving in the western portion of the European continent. Tips for driving in the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales) will be shared in a separate post.
1. Rental cars are expensive, but you get a discount if you rent for a month. It was slightly cheaper for us to pay for a full month than for the 24 days that we actually needed the car on the European continent. This will not always be the case, but it’s worth comparing the monthly discounts for each company. We wound up saving about $50 USD.
Also, depending on where you plan to drive, you may want to upgrade to a more powerful engine. We rented a manual transmission Volkswagen Polo and had some trouble pulling the inclines in the Swiss alps. And, speaking of manual transmissions, you will almost always save money if you can drive a stick. Automatic transmissions will invariably incur a higher rental price in Western Europe.
2. Petrol is also quite expensive and is occasionally difficult to purchase in remote locations. E95 is the most readily available fuel, so make sure you rent a car that uses it. In most cases, when fueling up, you pump the gas first, then pay inside the station. Credit cards are widely accepted, even in the more remote towns. Gas pumps are often equipped with a tap feature for your credit card, so you can pay at the pump if you have that type of card.
Many Europeans also use a variety of apps on their phones to pay for gas, but those tend to be country-specific. So you will need to plan accordingly, download the appropriate apps, and link them to your credit card/bank account beforehand.
We did encounter a few unmanned stations in the Faroe Islands and remote parts of France that required a credit card PIN to turn the pumps on. These stations didn’t take our debit cards (even with a PIN), and they wouldn’t take our credit cards (even with a PIN), so we just drove on to the next station in those cases. Don’t get stuck with no fuel and no way to pay for a fill up.
3. For the most part, roads are clearly marked with speed limits, town names, and exit numbers. Although we used Skyroam and Angela’s iPhone for incredibly accurate turn-by-turn navigation, it would be possible to drive most of the regions just using road signs. You will likely encounter new road construction or repairs that don’t yet show up on your GPS, but those tend to be well-marked with signage and easy to figure out on the fly.
4. As one would expect, roundabouts predominate every intersection. If it’s your first time working with roundabouts, they can seem intimidating until you learn a few simple rules.
First rule: Cars already in the roundabout have the right of way. Most drivers in Western Europe respect this rule and will adjust their speed accordingly to merge with existing traffic.
Second rule: Don’t stop! Throughout western Europe drivers expect you to merge seamlessly into the flow of traffic within the circle. Even if there is a stop sign as you enter the roundabout, most drivers treat it like a yield. And, whatever you do, don’t ever stop once you’re in the circle. If you miss your exit, simply keep going around until you come back to it again.
Third rule: The earlier your exit off the roundabout, the further right you should enter it. We experienced some circles with four or even five lanes of traffic and as many as eight exits. You need to know which exit you will be taking before you enter the circle so you can merge easily into and out of traffic.
With Angela navigating, she would let me know as we were approaching each roundabout: “You will be taking the third exit at your ten o’clock.” And I would adjust lanes accordingly. If she told me I would be taking the first exit, I would enter the circle in the far right lane. If I was taking the second exit but it was to my twelve o’clock, I would still enter in the right lane, but would know to watch for traffic entering from my right. For anything from eleven o’clock to seven o’clock, I would enter in the left lane and watch for a chance to merge right within the circle and exit at the appropriate time.
Logically, the bigger the roundabout, the more difficult it is to gauge the appropriate lane. When in doubt, enter on the far right, go slow, and watch for merging traffic. You will get honked at. Don’t take it personal.
5. Speed cameras are everywhere. Although fair warning is given with posted signs, the cameras can appear when you least expect them. In the middle of nowhere, hanging from signs over the freeways, hidden behind bushes… Just learn to watch for them and adjust your speed accordingly. It is important to also note that the speed cameras are often ignored by other drivers. In every country, we saw cars zipping past us even though we were doing the speed limit in an area where cameras were clearly marked.
6. Always overtake on the left. On freeways and large divided highways with two or more lanes, the left lane is always the fast lane, and it’s typically reserved for cars that are exceeding the speed limit. The only time you should be in the left lane is if you are overtaking a car on your right.
Signal left, overtake quickly, signal right, and return to the right lane until you need to overtake again. European drivers get terribly annoyed when cars cruise in the left lane. For that matter, drivers in the United States do as well. But in Europe they will let you know about it. Also, they will never pass you on the right. Instead, they will tailgate dangerously close, flash lights, and honk until you move over. Don’t be a hero. Move over.
7. Be prepared to pay tolls. While almost all countries in Western Europe have their fare share of toll roads, France is notorious for them. We began our month-long road trip diligently noting how much we spent on tolls and where the toll stations were located. But they were honestly so numerous in France that we gave up. Suffice it to say that we spent over €150 ($170 USD) in toll fees during the month. And, while some toll stations did take credit cards, most were either cash-only or only had one lane open for credit cards. Save yourself some time in the queue and keep a stock of small bills and change readily available in the car.
8. Speed limits tend to be standardized throughout Western Europe. With a maximum of 130 km/h on large freeways, 90 km/h on two-lane highways, 70 km/h on rural roads, and 50-30 km/h posted within towns, you will usually know how fast to go simply by knowing your surroundings. Most cars, however, exceed the posted speed limits by 10-30 km/h. This is especially true on freeways where we saw drivers traveling over 160 km/h. Even in tiny rural towns with speed bumps, speed cameras, and digital, flashing, frowning faces, drivers will tailgate you while you’re doing the speed limit and overtake just as you exit the town.
9. The use of turn signals varies widely from country to country, so don’t expect that the other drivers will broadcast their intentions to you. I probably overcompensated for this by signaling my every move. Signal to overtake. Signal to exit a roundabout. And, of course, signal to actually make a turn.
10. Horns are almost always used as a warning, not as a friendly gesture. Unlike the almost incessant honking you hear in African and Asian cities that could mean “Hey, I’m letting you in front of me,” the horns in Europe are less frequent but almost always indicate that the other driver doesn’t like what you are doing and would very much like for you to stop doing it.
So, if you hear a horn, do a quick assessment about your speed and position on the road to determine which rule you are potentially breaking. And adjust accordingly.
11. Paid parking is readily available on the street and in designated lots and garages throughout larger Western European cities. For street parking, you will either pull up to an individual meter or you will need to find a parking kiosk that will issue a receipt to be displayed on your dashboard. Most often, the meters accept Euro coins only, although we did find a few that accepted credit cards. Both meters and lots are often free on the weekends, especially on Sundays. But be sure to read the fine print to avoided getting ticketed, booted, or towed.
In smaller towns, street parking was almost always free and easy to find.
Although there are many more tips I could provide here, that starts to become unwieldy for a single post. And driving is, of course, very different in the UK than the rest of Western Europe. Have something to add? Please include it in the comments!