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Driving in Europe
Can you drive in Europe? Of course you can, dummy! It’s safe and easy and the other-side-of-the-road thing is a piece of cake.
There’s nothing quite as liberating as a self-driven holiday. You don’t travel along the established travel routes, being beholden to the itineraries of transport companies that only go where the most people want to go. What’s intrepid about that? Where’s the adventure?
With your own wheels you’re only limited by infrastructure. You get off the highways and explore the villages via the national roads. You can take the long way between towns and wind up to dizzying heights as you make mountain passes. You can take farmers’ roads and dirt tracks to be utterly and completely lost.
But there are a few things you need to know before you get behind the wheel.
When are you going to drive?
We’re big advocates of open-plan rough itineraries that utilise a wide variety of transport options. There will be some legs of your journey that will call for flying, others that will see you on a train or bus, and then, when you want to get to parts of Europe that aren’t serviced by commercial transport and/or when you want to roll entirely at your own pace. Think of driving in Europe as an integral part of a well-balanced transport diet.
What are you going to drive?
Your options are to either hire, buy or borrow. If you know somebody who lives in Europe who has a car and who will also loan it to you, then gee whizz congratulations to you. If you’re a normal person, however, you’re probably going to hire a car. Buying brings with it a raft of complications that any hedonistic backpacker probably doesn’t have time for – from insurance, to inevitable breakdowns, to reselling. That said, if you see a good deal, it could be one heck of an adventure…
What will you need to drive in Europe
A full license as well as an international drivers license. The international license is issued at home and it basically provides a multi-language translation for your driving license. You will need some extra paperwork to hire a car, but we have a whole article on that. If you’re driving on the European continent you’ll be driving on the RIGHT SIDE of the road, which is something you will get used to really quickly – just jump behind the wheel and give it a go. You’ll also need data on your phone so you can use Google Maps, or alternatively load it up when you have wifi and use offline.
What are European roads like?
Amazing! There’s plenty of infrastructure here and major highways link most cities, often with three lanes going each way. Here are some points that we’ve noticed on the road:
- The speed limit on highways is usually around 130 km/h. You will notice people going wayyyy faster. Join them, if that’s your thing, but beware hidden cameras, helicopter speed monitoring and the highway patrol. 130 is fast enough! And in Germany some parts of the highway are speed limit free. Zoom!
- The highways are great, but often come with even greater tolls. Do your research on Google Maps and work out how much longer the toll-free route will take you. If it’s not that much further, and will save you some euros, go for it. The smaller roads have nicer views and better places for lunch anyway.
- European drivers are safe drivers, but they do like to tailgate and cut in fast once they overtake you. Don’t get mad, or if you do get mad, make sure you invent new curse words for them.
- European service stations usually sell beer, wine, spirits – you name it! But don’t buy them and then drive because of course drink driving is illegal here, dummy.
- Europeans are very serious about staying right if you’re not overtaking. So stay right, which is the same as staying left in Australia, etc.
- There are plenty of trucks on most European roads, in particular the highways and the national roads. They drive fast, they tailgate and they overtake each other going up hill. For the most part, they’re road bullies like in the rest of the world. Give them space.
“There are waaaaaay less police on the roads then i’ve seen at home in Australia or in the States. You can quite easily cruise 10 kms over the limit and never have to worry about getting caught. Not that I’d recommend that! Also, we used to use cancelled, or maxed-out credit cards at the toll booths. There was some lag between scanning the card and seeing if it actually worked. Got out of some pretty big tolls, €30+, using that little scam. Wonder if you can still do it…” – Leon, 35, Tent Maintenance
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It’s not ideal, but it is cheap, and that’s sometimes all that matters. The highways in Europe are spectacular and so the buses get to where they’re going with ease. Sometimes you’ve got to suck it up and save some cash.
Is it worth your while getting a Eurail Pass? There’s no more romantic way to travel across Europe than by train. They go everywhere, and they do so at a frighteningly rapid rate. They stop in the city centre. You can walk about and cavort with cute strangers. But sometimes the passes are expensive.
Planes, trains, automobiles… Europe has them all! But how are you going to move around the continent during your ultimate backpacking superduper trip-of-a-lifetime? The answer is: a little bit of everything.