HOW TO EUROPE
The Complete Travelers Handbook
Internet edition. By John Bermont.
Photos by the author except as noted.
A page from
with photographer and author
Traffic on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, France is well spaced and flows smoothly. One of Paris'
icons, the Arc de Triomphe in the background, is the center of a huge traffic circle, the Étoile, with no lane markers
and chaos galore.
Drive it or park it, if you can find a parking space.
RENT A CAR OR TAKE THE TRAIN
I love the trains of Europe. If you are visiting the major cities of Europe there is
no other rational or more pleasant way of getting from the center of one to the center of another, unless
there is a big body of water between them. Then you take a ferry, another utterly enjoyable
experience. For an illustrated introduction to trains and ferries see chapter 17,
Trains in Europe.
But if you are planning a trip to see the bucolic regions of a country or two, the smart way to
go is the good old American way — by car. I have driven throughout much of Europe on various trips
— Holland, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, Turkey, Sweden, and at least a half dozen other
countries. Having a car is certainly the best way to
explore specific regions like Burgundy and Bavaria in depth. Have a plan or amble about the villages and
Dorfs, stay in small country gites and Gasthauses, and dine in auberges and Stubes. If you plan some
shopping you don't need to worry about carrying your purchases around. I love old and unusual junque
from flea markets in Europe and can easily fill a car trunk in a few weeks with new found valuables.
It will be a trip you will never forget. But before you hit the road, get familiar with
some of the differences between driving in the USA and driving in Europe. There are plenty of unfamiliar
things for the first timer. Your life depends on knowing the basics. And make sure that you
have good maps and/or a GPS device.
The biggest difference between driving a car in Europe and
driving in the United States is that driving in Europe costs more. The price
of automobiles, insurance, gasoline, maintenance, tolls, parking (when available), and
violations can be two to three times higher in Europe than at home.
You will probably be renting a car if you wish to drive in Europe. There are a number of
auto rental agencies. Special considerations apply in Europe. There are minimum
and maximum ages for renting autos. Cars rented in one country may or may not be
allowed to enter another country. If you return the car to a location other than the one
where you rented it the drop-off charges may be boggling, especially if your drop-off is
in another country. Plan ahead.
Almost Everything Else
Other significant differences in Europe include the types of cars in
use, roads and road markings, courtesy or lack thereof, speed, and rules of
the road, both official and customary.
Driving toward Cambridge, England you see the major difference when driving in
the UK. Drive on the left. You are not allowed to turn right at the first intersection due
to that round red sign with the white belt. At the second intersection you can turn right
to catch the M11 motorway to London or Stansted Airport. Route numbers are given but no distances.
Before you can drive in Europe you need a drivers license.
Home State Driver's License
A valid driver's license is required to operate an
automobile, motorcycle, or moped in Europe. Your home state
driver's license is sufficient in most countries, often up to 180
days. In some countries
operation of anything other than a normal sedan requires a special
license. For example, you may need a special license to
ride a motorcycle in Europe.
International Driving Permit, IDP
It would be a good idea to have an IDP when driving in Europe.
It is required in Italy and some other countries. Even if you do not plan to
drive in Europe, I recommend an IDP. It is a handy additional piece of
identification which can sometimes be left as deposit when renting
a bicycle or a deck chair. You don't want to leave your passport.
The IDP is an official document. The US State Department's web site
describes it thus:
Although many countries do not recognize U.S. driver's licenses,
most countries accept an international driving permit (IDPs).
IDPs are honored in more than 150 countries outside the U.S.
(See AAA's application form for the list of countries.) They
function as an official translation of a U.S. driver's license
into 10 foreign languages. These licenses are not intended to
replace valid U.S. state licenses and should only be used as a
supplement to a valid license. IDPs are not valid in an individual's
country of residence. Before departure, you can obtain one from an
automobile association authorized by the U.S. Department of State
to issue IDPs. Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on Road
Traffic (1949) authorizes the U.S. Department of State to empower
certain organizations to issue IDPs to those who hold valid U.S.
driver's licenses. The Department has designated the American Automobile
Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA) as the
only authorized distributors of IDPs.
Here is the cover of an official International Driving Permit. It is a rather
plain looking document. The pamphlet is 4"x6" and has 18 pages. Your mug shot
and vital stats are on the inside back cover.
So basically all that the IDP does is translate your driver's
license into a bunch of foreign languages and shows what class of
vehicle you are authorized to operate. In case of language
difficulty with local police the IDP will probably save you
some grief. You never know when you are
going to be pulled over and you never know the attitude of the cop
until it happens.
Your home state driver's license is still needed when
driving in Europe with the International Driving Permit.
The IDP is sold at offices of the American Automobile
Association. Bring one valid driver's license, two passport photos,
and $15.00 to an office of the AAA and you'll have an IDP
in about ten minutes. Most AAA offices can take your picture if you
don't have extra passport photos. The IDP is also available by mail at the
AAA web site,
When I had a German drivers license, I bought
my IDP from the German authorities. It is basically the same piece
of paper as issued in the USA.
European Driver's License
For those planning to live overseas, it is a good idea, if
not a requirement, to apply for a local driver's license.
I obtained a license in Holland simply by presenting my
California drivers license. As long as your home state license is
valid, you can obtain a Dutch license without taking expensive
lessons and a rigorous test.
Obtaining a driver's license
in Germany was not as simple as in Holland.
You must make application within a year of taking up
residence, and take an eye examination at a regular optometrist's
office. They use sophisticated instruments to check your eyes, not
one of those simple wall charts. Unfortunately my test resulted in
determining that I needed eye glasses. Not for me
again, I decided, and talked the doctor into changing the results
of the exam based on the fact that I had been partying the night
before at local Fasching events and couldn't see straight
yet. He bought my story and gave me an OK to drive without glasses.
The technician who gave me the test was
not happy. She gave me one of those looks. By the way,
Fasching is a time when Germans drink and party hard. It's
one of the German names for Mardi Gras, known in some countries as
"International Driver's License"
There is no such thing as an "International Driver's License" even
though you can buy one from fraudulent Internet hucksters
at twice the price of a valid IDP. Again I quote from the US State Department web site:
The Department of State is aware that IDPs are being sold over the Internet
and in person by persons not authorized by the Department of State pursuant
to the requirements of the U.N. Convention of 1949. Moreover, many of these
IDPs are being sold for large sums of money, far greater than the sum charged
by entities authorized by the Department of State. Consumers experiencing
problems should report problems to their local office of the U.S. Postal
Inspector, Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Better Business Bureau, or
their state or local Attorney General's Office.
Some of these lying forgers have professional looking web sites with claims of
authenticity, even citing the United Nations Convention and showing images
of their krap which look like very official documents. They can easily fool you.
But go to any office of the American
Automobile Association, the AAA, and get your IDP there. Otherwise, if you want
to mail your money to a PO Box in Kentucky, go ahead and be a sap.
By the way, I have a bridge to sell you. I don't know where it is but I'll get one
if you send the money. And a further caution. Amazon.com and Google.com are
promoting some of these shysters. Remember there is only one IDP
and in the USA you can only get it from the AAA and the AATA.
There are a number of ways to have a car available in
Europe. These are: rent one, lease one, buy a new one, buy a used one, bring
one with you, or let your company provide you with one. The choice
depends on the length and purpose of your trip, the weight of
your wallet, or the attitude of your employer.
European vs. American Cars
European cars are different. They have nothing to compare
to the standard home grown Ironmobile with ho-hum automatic
transmission and swish-swash suspension.
Here is the midget of cars, the Smart Car, parked in front of a drugstore
in La Baule, France. There is about enough room inside for the driver and a sack of groceries.
[0770xSmartCarLaBaule.jpg. Photo by Stephanie.]
European car has a tight manual transmission, sports car type
steering, and road-wise suspension. A medium size car, both in
physical size and in engine performance, used to be the Volkswagon "Beetle."
Families of four traveled in what in America was considered
the student's car. Even after the end of production, maybe half
the cars in Europe are smaller than that little German "rollerskate
with headlights," as my neighbor used to refer to my first car,
a V-dub. The trend is toward bigger cars, but you'll often see the new
Smart Car. The Smart Car is about half the size of anything else.
American cars are rare in
Europe. Most American cars in Europe are owned by American
servicemen. The rest belong to the well-to-do, to American
businessmen, to Swedish teenagers, and to those engaged in shady
businesses. They really appear out of place in the narrow
streets and abbreviated parking spaces of Europe.
Auto rental and leasing agencies are located throughout
Europe. Advice and assistance on renting a car in Europe are areas
where a good travel agent can help. Also consult the AAA and the
international car rental companies. Hertz, Avis, National, and
Budget maintain offices in the major cities and in some surprising
out-of-the-way places. These companies operate under their own name
or affiliated company names in Europe. Call one of the majors and
request a world-wide directory. These directories list agency
locations, car types, rates, taxes, insurance requirements, minimum and maximum
age, and other conditions. Look in the
TRAVELERS YELLOW PAGES
section Auto Rental in Europe
for web site URL links.
These auto rental agencies have an office at the Toul, France train station.
It's possible to save money by renting from one
of the local European car rental companies. Inquire at the national
tourist office before departure, or at the local tourist office on
arrival. European airlines are also a good source for information
on local car rental agencies. And even the European railroads,
recognizing their natural limitations, can help you rent a car. The
French National Railroad, SNCF, promotes special combination
rail/car vacation packages.
At all rental agencies, the style and price range are more
varied than in America. Individual agencies rent autos ranging from
the cheap and under-powered midget cars to the most expensive
Mercedes Benz sedans. Some agencies specialize in Porsches and other
high performance sports cars.
Major rent-a-car companies have contact information at the Copenhagen, Denmark train station.
There is also a map directing you to the nearest gasoline pump of Statoil. When you return
there is a handy key drop box right there on the wall.
Standard transmission is standard. You pay more for an
automatic. Air conditioning is getting to be standard, something unheard
of just a few years ago. Maybe you'll want to get a car cover
if you are traveling around the Mediterranean in the summer.
A car cover keeps the car much cooler when parked in the sun.
This may be the first time you have rented in Europe, or the first time
that you have rented a European auto with manual transmission. If so
get educated in a hurry. Ask the rental agent to show you how to turn on the
windshield wipers, the turn signals, the headlights, and cruise control. This is all
rudimentary but these features are always different in different models. Another
important point is how to get the car into reverse. Unless you are familiar
with foreign cars these simple things can plunge you into frustration and
evil cussing. You'll also need to know where the gas cap is located and how to open it,
and location of the emergency brake, hood latch, and trunk latch.
Generally, you must be at least 21
or 25 to rent a car, and for some expensive models, 30 years old.
Some companies also have maximum age limits.
This sub compact parked on a street in Paris, France rented for €5 per day in 2008, with
100 km included. The rate is quite a bit higher as of early 2013. Sixti also rents in 8 other countries.
Renting an auto always involves insurance. The
collision damage waiver, CDW, is as high or higher in Europe as it
is in the USA. For a small car this can double the rental charges.
When using major credit cards, this cost is usually paid by
the credit card company. However, the collision cost may be covered for only
a limited time, say two weeks, and may not cover any vehicle except a
standard sedan. Also, some rental agencies in Europe may want to
sell you the insurance so bad that they won't accept your refusal
to sign off for CDW.
It would be a good idea to carefully read the
policy information from your credit card company and bring along a
copy stating what is covered and under what conditions. For example, my credit
cards specifically do not cover CDW in Italy and Ireland. The reason is the high
rate of claims in those countries. The credit card policies generaly have a limit for the
length of time you can rent and they cover only sedans, no trucks or fancy stuff.
It has been reported that auto rental companies in Europe are fanatical
about dings and nicks. Small stuff can turn into mountains in their eyes. The
next time I rent a car in Europe I am going to take a photo of every side and
the bumpers so that if I am charged for a dent I will know whether or not it
was there when I rented the car, and so will they and so will my credit card
Prices and taxes vary between companies and countries. Special deals exist for weekends. You
can get weekly or monthly rates, and rates with unlimited
"mileage" (kilometers over there). Tax concessions can be had in
some countries to bait you in. Look at the total cost of the car,
including CDW, personal accident insurance, theft insurance, taxes, and fees.
I just priced a tiny car from one of the major auto rental agencies in Holland.
The "car" is quoted at $120 per week, but after adding in all that stuff in the
last sentence the cost ends up at $500 for the week. Wow!
A nice Mercedes will cost about $1,700 per week. Wow! Wow!
Make sure to consider the cost of that other extra when renting an
auto. Gasoline is never included in the rental price. This is
generally two to three times the cost in the USA, and you know how high
If you have a choice in the matter it would be better to
avoid renting a car in Germany and driving it to adjacent
countries. The reason is that there is still some bad feeling over
WW II. Even though your parents or grandparents may have helped defeat
the Nazis, the people in Poland, France, and Holland only see the
German auto tags. With German auto tags, I had one bad experience
in Holland and a colleague had his windows wantonly busted out in
France. I put a USA oval sticker on our car when we made the
trip to Istanbul.
For extended travels in Europe it may be less expensive and more convenient
to lease a car. Lease programs operated by Peugot, Renault, and Citroën have been
doing business in France for decades. Cars can be picked up in several dozen cities
in France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, and others. You receive a factory fresh new
car of your choice. Leasing is practical for those wishing to have a car for at
least 17 days and up to about 6 months. Students and those on short term work
assignments are eligible for up to 360 days.
Renault's web site advises "Reminder: when comparing our prices to our competitors,
keep in mind that the price quoted above includes: unlimited mileage, brand new car,
full insurance with no deductible, multi-risk insurance in 32 countries, the exact
model you order, no airport service charges, no second driver charges, minimum age
18 years with no upper limit." That is a liberal rental policy.
How do they do that? Technically, so to speak, the lease program is really a purchase
and buy back program. You purchase and they buy back. There are tax advantages to
the car company granted under French law. This allows them to keep the price
much lower than traditional auto rental.
You still must buy your own gasoline and pay tolls and parking fees. Add it all up.
Auto Purchase, New Cars
European cars can be purchased through some car dealers and
through specialized agencies in the United States for tourist
pickup at the factory or at a dealer near your European
destination. In the good old days, you could order a car for
foreign delivery, pick it up on arrival, drive through Europe on
vacation, and have it shipped home. This can still be done.
However, the cost savings are not as great as they once were. And
problems, because of the distances, become earthshaking. I know of
one man who ordered a luxury German sports car for pickup, but
delivery was delayed throughout his six week trip. He had to go
back to Europe a couple of months later just to pick it up. And I
know of another who ended up with the wrong color because he did
not double-check the order. You have to really want those oval
plates to go through with it.
If you are considering the purchase of a new European auto,
talk to a dealer about his tourist delivery program. You might want
to make this part of your European experience. Get references and
speak to recent customers to see whether the deals go through
smoothly or not. My experience in going to half a dozen auto
agencies is that tourist delivery is something that they don't do
very often and something that they are not especially interested in
doing. That's what you have to watch out for. Disinterest breeds
sloppy paperwork and mistakes. Purchase of a car to return it home
requires a significant amount of work and hassle. You save the amount of
foreign taxes which may easily be consumed by insurance and ocean freight
costs. Some states will slap a sales tax on cars which have
recently been purchased overseas. Off setting the expenses, you save the cost of renting a
car while you are in Europe.
Having said all that, if you want the thrill of driving your new Porsche on
the Autobahnen at 120 MPH go for it. European delivery is also available for Mercedes,
Volvo, and other performance cars.
Besides the auto companies, a few specialized firms in Europe offer
auto purchase services. Some models are available immediately.
Inquire about package deals, possibly including insurance,
shipping, taxes, customs, and trip planning. The
Shipside company near Amsterdam's
Shiphol Airport has been selling ready to drive tax-free new models
of every make for 50 years. Unfortunately most of their models are European
specification. Importing a European spec car to the USA is a nuisance. See
the used car section below.
If you are living in Europe and decide to buy a new car, be
ready for surprises. Prices of European cars vary considerably.
They are almost always cheaper in the country where they are made,
but are usually cheaper in America! For instance, my Porsche 911S was
priced 20% higher in Holland than what I had paid for it in
California, even though Holland borders Germany where the car was
made. The equivalent model for sale in Holland had none of
California's engine trashing pollution control equipment and did
not sail half way around the world, but it did have some exorbitant
"accessories" value added tax (VAT), import duty, and a luxury tax.
Cars in dealer showrooms usually have two prices, the price
before taxes and the price including VAT. VAT goes under different names in
different countries. It is equivalent to a sales tax but is usually in the
range of 15% to 20% and for most goods it is included in the posted price.
Tax them to death is the rule in Europe, and dodge the taxes is the most rewarding game
in town. In general, you can avoid VAT if you export the vehicle soon after you buy it.
Prices of American cars in Europe are really high, maybe
two to three times the price at home. To save, shop in the vicinity
of an American army base in Germany. Used car lots remind you of
those on the outskirts of your home town.
Auto Purchase, Used Cars
Purchase of a used car in Europe is no less risky than
doing the same in America. As always, it is likely that you are
buying someone else's problem.
This used car dealer in Haarlem, The Netherlands parks some of his product out on the street.
You will probably need an address before you can buy insurance. Te Koop means
If you are buying a European model used car with the intention of shipping
it back home, know that modifications are going to be required to
meet American safety and pollution control requirements. The price
on that Mercedes may look pretty sweet until United States Customs
orders you to post bond and have it modified, or else export it or
destroy it. Some autos require many more, and more expensive,
changes than others. For instance, do not bring a car home that
does not have DOT etched on every window. Another big nuisance
would be a British car with right hand drive. You can do better. In
fact you could hardly do worse. Another problem will probably be
insurance. European specification autos may be more expensive to
repair and consequently your insurance company may be reluctant to
extend coverage. Simple things like tail light covers are often different
so importing a replacemnet is very expensive and can take time.
Before shipping a used car home, contact the US Customs
Service, the EPA, and the Department of Transportation to find out
what officialdom will require of you, your bank account, and your
vehicle. You should also contact your state motor vehicle
department and local pollution control agency to see what standards
the car will have to meet in order to be registered in your state.
To determine used car prices in Europe, locate a copy of a
major European city newspaper and check the want ads. Large
libraries and some news dealers carry these papers. You can also
read the major European newspapers and their classified
advertisements on the web. Most have an internet site.
Bring Your Own Car
Nobody except the POTUS would bring their own car to Europe for a short holiday.
But if you are relocating for a year or more this may be a very practical and
economical thing to do. I did it on my first move to Holland. My experiences are
detailed in chapter 22,
Moving to Europe:
Things to Know Before You Go.
I accepted a job relocation to Haarlem, The Netherlands for two years and shipped my
Porsche over from California. I parked it on the bank of the Spaarne River across
the street from my apartment (ground floor of the corner house with the big black door)
because the landlady would not rent her garage to me. Most things in Europe are
negotiable, but she wouldn't budge on that garage. She gave me exclusive use of
a new washing machine in compensation. That was a good deal. If you have a car then you
should rent an apartment or house with a garage if you can find one. Vandalism is a
continuing nuisance throughout Europe.
STREETS AND ROADS
Probably the best road in the world is an hour stretch of
the E19 through Belgium. It is a straight, flat, wide
freeway and completely lighted at night. For real excitement
try keeping up with the Fiats on the winding A7 tollway
through the mountains of Northern Italy. Sweaty palms, even in my Porsche!!
The variety of roads in Europe is greater than in America.
There is a superhighway system throughout Europe that is equivalent
to our Interstate Highway System. Parts of it, particularly in
France, Greece, Spain, and Italy, are tolled. Austria, Switzerland,
Slovakia, and some other countries
charge an annual fee to use the expressways. You will be required to buy
a sticker for your car as you drive into the country. In all other
countries it is generally freeway.
This view shows a motorway passing through the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Notice that all
of the cars are going the wrong way! Traffic travels on the left in Britain and Ireland. At one time
this was the rule in Sweden also, but they got smart.
Here is the open road in eastern France on an early spring day. Most French
expressways are tolled, thus there is very little
traffic except when school lets out for the summer and every French family heads south for 6 weeks.
There are no speed limits on most German Autobahnen but that doesn't mean that you will get
there faster. This is a stand up traffic jam on the westbound A3 on a sunny summer Sunday just southeast
of Frankfurt am Main.
Off the superhighways, road quality drops suddenly to
winding, two-lane asphalt paving. There is usually little or no
shoulder and the road sometimes narrows to one and a half or even one
lane. You might find yourself driving under a haystack in rural areas. Since
most of Europe is agricultural, be prepared for livestock and
slowly moving produce wagons. In eastern Europe, horse drawn wagons
are common on the highways. Sunday afternoon is walking day in
rural areas throughout Europe. You may run across (not literally,
I hope!) whole families walking abreast on the road.
In the cities and towns, anything is possible. Surfaces can
be concrete, asphalt, brick, dirt, or tooth rattling
cobblestone. There are very few cities with wide boulevards, and
not many with a one mile stretch of straight street. Besides having
narrow, winding, brick streets, names sometimes change at irregular
intervals. A good example is a major ring road in Düsseldorf,
Germany. The name changes eight times within one mile.
Good maps are essential. Because of the narrow medieval streets,
there are many which are one-way. If you miss a turn, it is
difficult to double back. Gothenburg, Sweden reminds me of a
whirlpool. Once I get in the center of town, I find it almost
impossible to get out.
What is going on here? These drivers did not see or chose to ignore the do not enter
sign. They were immediately confronted by bollards, those two pipes sticking up in
the street, preventing entry to the city center of Cambridge, England. Only buses and
bicycles are allowed. The four drivers are making some sort of U-turn to get out of there.
In the background is an open-top tour bus. This cruises the streets and allows hop-offs
and hop-ons. One of the stops is the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial which is
dedicated to American soldiers and airmen who lost their lives in World War II.
Some streets are posted to allow entry only for busses, taxis, or
local merchants. It's easy to miss these because
the sign may be in the local language. They usually have hydraulically
operated pipe barriers which rise and lower when an authorized person inserts
a special magnetic card in the control mechanism. German cities are almost
always in reconstruction with detours galore. These can be
The problems of the streets should be added to the problem of
parking and then added to the crime problem. Then you come to
the conclusion that driving in the cities of Europe is not a
good idea. Leave your rental car at the city gates.
There is a definite lack of route signs on the roads. Those
roads which are numbered on maps seldom have the numbers posted
along the roads. Compass directions, e.g. north and south, are not
posted at intersections or expressway exits. To get to where
you are going, you often need to know the
name of every village or Dorf in between. It's not
difficult to get lost.
This sign on an expressway near Milan, Italy shows that small
engine mopeds and scooters are prohibited, along with pedestrians and horse drawn
wagons. Stopping is
not allowed so make sure you have enough gas to get to the next exit.
In the cities street names are seldom seen on signposts at
intersections. The usual practice is to have the street name posted
on the corner of a building just above the ground floor. New
buildings and redecorated buildings often have no street names
posted. Again, it is not difficult to get lost, especially on a
Do Not Enter
European road signs are mainly symbolic due to the large
number of languages and the great amount of international traffic.
These signs are virtually unknown in America, though they are
coming into use in some areas and it's easy to learn the most
important ones. However, modifiers to the posted regulation, e.g.
"Sunday only," are always given in the local language.
The most important street sign is the
symbol for DO NOT ENTER WRONG WAY. It's about 18 inches in
diameter with a horizontal white band on a red background. Here is one in Italy with an exception
written in Italian. Unless you know Italian just don't go into this street.
One way signs in Europe are usually blue or black with a large white arrow on a
horizontal rectangular plate. Inside the arrow
is usually the local word(s) for one way, e.g., senso unico in Italy and
Einbahnstraße in Germany. One-way signs in Ireland are white round
boards with a red border and an arrow pointing up. The ones I saw in England
were round blue boards with a white arrow and a sign underneath saying "One Way."
This one way street in Copenhagen, Denmark allows exceptions for bicycles. Keep your
eyes open for approaching bikes.
Although STOP signs are rare in Europe, they pop up in some
unusual places. French speaking locales seem to have the most and they are popping up in eastern
Europe. They are also used in Ireland.
Here is one of those rare stop signs, in Riga, Latvia. The sign underneath indicates no standing.
A yield sign in London, England with accompanying translation, in English.
At an intersection in Kiev, Ukraine, I saw the red octagon hanging right up there next to a
nondescript sign with the word "stop" in Cyrillic.
Priority and Yield
Another common sign is the yellow diamond, indicating
PRIORITY over the intersecting road. The intersecting road will
have an inverted triangle sign, white with a red border, meaning
YIELD. If neither road has
a sign, the vehicle coming from the right has
the right of way.
Unposted intersections are rare in the countryside but common
in the cities. Watch out. Europeans, especially taxi drivers, who
are making a right turn do not even look for oncoming traffic since
they have the right of way at unposted intersections. If they are
going straight through, they only look to the right. If they see
that a pump on the accelerator will get them into the intersection
before another vehicle gets there, they do it. Sometimes it gets
interesting. In Amsterdam I heard the standard "whoomp" of an accident
and looked over to see one of the cars skidding on its roof.
Speed limit signs are round. These signs have only a number
indicating the speed limit, in kilometers per hour on the Continent. In
Britain the number is miles per hour. In Ireland the number has km/h under it. Speed limits
within cities are generally 50 kph (30 mph). Speed limits between
cities are normally 90 to 110 km per hour (approximately 65 mph) on
the major roads. Speed limits on most expressways in Europe
are 130 kph (80 mph). In some countries citizens obey absolutely
and in others they sing and laugh as they put the pedal to the
Speed limit signs on the Autobahnen (expressways) in
Germany are for the most part merely advisory, as you will learn
soon after getting on a Autobahn. The legal limit is no limit.
My daily drive to work in Germany in a 1.9 liter Opel was
normally at 105 mph (170 kilometers per hour) and I was passed often.
In the frequent construction zones speeds are severely regulated.
Speed limit signs in Germany with the added
words bei Näse indicate that the limit applies only when the
road is wet.
The speed limit is 20 kilometers per hour on this small street in Paris, France. Helping to enforce it is
a sign warning of speed bumps ahead. It is also a one way street except that bicycles are allowed in
[0881Ralentisseurs. Photo by Stephanie.]
Trucks longer than 10 meters are prohibited on this dead end street in Dresden, Germany. Parking is allowed with
a parking voucher. Leave it on the dash board of your car.
Also round are signs indicating that ENTRY IS PROHIBITED
for certain types of vehicles. A silhouette of a car, motorcycle,
or truck in the white circle is specific for that type of vehicle. A round
sign with two cars, the one on the left being red, means NO
PASSING. A round plaque with no picture means NO VEHICLES of any
kind may enter.
A round blue sign with the silhouette of pedestrians means
that the road or path may be used by PEDESTRIANS ONLY.
Any road sign with a diagonal line across it means that that action is
prohibited, or that this is the end of the condition. You see this most often on
signs with a direction arrow. A sign with the diagonal band
means NO LEFT TURN or NO RIGHT TURN depending on which way the arrow is pointing.
If there is no diagonal band the sign means that the turn is required.
Triangles pointing up warn of SPECIAL ROAD CONDITIONS. They
usually show a silhouette of the condition such as curves, skidding
auto, running children, crosswalk, overhead clearance, or just a large exclamation
This sign warns of running children near a school in Paris, France. After stopping, the
speed limit is 40 km/hr, about 25 MPH.
Traffic signals are the same as in America, green for go
and red for stop. Signals are normally turned off at 11 PM, or
changed to blinking yellows or blinking reds.
In Germany, traffic lights change from red to yellow before
going green. As soon as the yellow comes on, everybody shifts into
first gear and revs up. When the green comes on, they pop the
clutch and move out. Austria has a similar system.
Between stop lights in many German cities,
a small lighted number will be seen on a post by the curb. This
indicates what maximum speed (in kilometers per hour) you can drive
in order to avoid stopping at the next light.
some traffic lights are synchronized for the maximum speed allowed.
This will be posted as Groen Golf (green wave) on a green
sign of course. Don't speed and you don't have to stop. I read
recently that some American cities have just inaugurated this
decades-old traffic system. We're catching up to those clever
Most intersections with traffic signals also have a pedestrian walk-stop
signal. This is normally controlled by a person wishing to cross. The
pedestrian pushes a button and waits for the walk signal. Many do not
wait. Jaywalking is almost universal in Europe, except in Germany. People
obey the law in Deutschland. In other countries it is common to see
a brigade of jaywalkers jumping out into the street. The ones at the rear
are at risk because drivers are more inclined to honk than slow down.
Pedestrians in some cities are treated to audio versions of walk
and don't walk. This is to assist blind persons.
City Center Prohibitions
Many streets in city centers are reserved for local business people, residents,
city buses, or pedestrians. To enforce this the entry to the street is always
marked as such, in the local language and with standard signs, and
is often blocked by a couple
of 8" diameter steel posts rising up from the road. Those with permits have a swipe
card which lowers the posts momentarily so they can drive through. If you try
to sneak through right after someone goes in you might hear a sort of crunching
sound as the posts come up under your car. This will be embarrassing and expensive.
Ignorance or disregard of the ZTL sign has cost millions of drivers
tons of euros in Italy. This one is in Pisa but similar controlled zones exist in
Florence, Milan, and other popular tourist cities. As you can see, Z.T.L. stands for zona traffico
limitato, restricted traffic zone. You can NOT drive past this sign. If you break the law a hidden traffic camera
will photograph you. The picture is then sent to the car rental agency which tags your credit
card for $50 or so for administrative work in providing the municipality with your name and home address.
Things move slowly in Italy so it will probably be about six months before you get the ticket and are ordered to
pay a few hundred euros. I don't know if they have a way to collect from across the ocean but if you don't
pay you will probably stay in their files for a while.
The empty red circle ALWAYS means "do not drive on this street" no matter what. The red circle
with the number 30 means that the speed limit,
IF you are allowed to drive here, is 30 km/hr, about 18.6 MPH. In most countries the typical 10%
American slack is not an option. Stay under the limit. For more about km, kilometers, see
chapter 27, The Metric System in Europe.
[0031ZTL.jpg. Photo by Stephanie.]
Other cities are also doing this to control traffic in the city center, and to fill the city coffers.
If your hotel is in the center of the city it is likely that it is in a restricted
driving zone. Contact your hotel to get a temporary pass if possible. Otherwise
you may end up paying a few hundred dollars just to get to your room.
DRIVING HABITS AND LAWS
There is a myth prevalent in America regarding the
difficulty of driving in Paris. Au contraire, I find that
driving in Paris is actually sane, almost easy, except for the
problem of blocked intersections during rush hours. It is comical.
Amsterdam, though, is a city that will test your command of
sailor's English. You must bully and bluff your way through narrow
streets jammed with unruly drivers, streetcars, buses, mopeds,
bicycles, dogs, and double-parked trucks. And pedestrians should be
aware that painted crosswalks in Amsterdam are not safe. Drivers
stop for dogs, but humans receive an insulting blast on the horn.
The Dutch joke is that a driver turns on his wipers if
a pedestrian is crossing the street. That's to wipe the blood off
the windshield. Typical Dutch humor, but not far off the mark.
A few cities where it might even be worse than Amsterdam
are Lisbon, Rome, Madrid, and Athens. In these cities you'll find
massive horn-honking traffic jams as citizens go home for the
afternoon lunch and siesta. At times when there is no traffic jam,
every driver seems to be racing for the checkered flag.
In the eastern cities, there are not so many autos, yet,
and the traffic situation in the cities is moderate.
This is the kind of everlasting traffic jam you will find throughout the center of London, England.
The only vehicle moving is that blur of a bicycle.
A large number of cities in Europe have pedestrian zones. It is
illegal to drive in these areas. They are usually marked by a round
blue sign with a silhouette of an adult holding a child's hand.
Sometimes the zone is marked with a sign in the local language. You
might see cars and trucks in the pedestrian zone but these have special permits
to enter, usually for business deliveries.
Europeans tend to be fast, aggressive drivers, with the
exception of Scandinavians. The Swedes and Finns are the most
courteous drivers on either side of the Atlantic. But for the rest,
watch out for tailgaters riding in your slipstream and general
lack of good sense regarding the margin of error. The
Autobahnen have no speed limits. Germans love to drive fast
and push those machines to the limit. "Doing 200" (meaning 200
kilometers per hour, equal to 125 mph) is not uncommon. Just keep
to the right and stay out of their way. It's their road and they
will be happy to remind you with their flashing high beams!
As you get off the ferry in England this sign shows the speed limits and the direction
that you must drive — on the left.
As you enter Romania check this sign to find your type of vehicle and the maximum speed
in cities and in the countryside. The top speed of 80 km/hr is about 50 MPH. The Romanian
language is similar to Italian.
Every other country has speed limits on their expressways.
The limits are generally 130 kph (80 mph) or less. The limits are
pretty much ignored in Italy and on some roads in France. It can
cost you dearly if you are caught. A friend told me that he was a
passenger in Holland when the driver was stopped by the
Rijkspolitie (National Police) driving one of
their white Porsche Targa police cars in the good old days. The driver was ordered to pay the
equivalent of $480 on the spot or walk home. He paid.
A significant difference between European and American
driving is the variation in speeds. On an American road, most
drivers will go at approximately the same speed, about
10% above the posted speed limit. Not so in Europe. There are a
large number of underpowered small autos in Europe, along with
certain very roadworthy sports cars and luxury sedans. An extra danger in
rural areas in the east is the number of
horse drawn wagons on the highways. You can be on top of these
faster than you expect. On our drive through the mountains of
Croatia we were often impeded by large logging trucks. You want to
pass just to avoid breathing the horrible diesel exhaust fumes but it's very
difficult to find a hundred yards of straight road.
This Citroën 2CV ("deux chevaux") in Copenhagen, Denmark is a real economy vehicle.
It was made of sheet metal and had a canvas roof. The 33 HP engine certainly
wouldn't get you there very fast.
In Portugal, they drive fast and recklessly on the mountain roads, and
toot the horn at every curve to warn whoever might be coming the
other way. At night, many drive with parking lights only, or even
European trucks do not have the array of night
running lights outlining the rig as they do in America. Their rear
lights are usually covered with mud. They
generally travel slow, especially uphill, so be careful not to run
into one at night. Trucks also have a bad habit of quickly changing
lanes without warning. Trucks are prohibited from German
Autobahnen on Sundays until 10 pm. Get home before those
gentlemen start their engines.
On all roads, it is strictly illegal to pass on the right.
If you're accustomed to metropolitan freeways in the USA where you frequently
do a right hand pass on those cars poking along in the supposedly
fast lane, break the habit or risk your life. Also, it is strictly
illegal to drive in the left lane on any expressway except to pass
another vehicle. To announce your approach and intention to pass
when the left lane is blocked, turn on your left turn signal. If
that fails to budge him/her over to the right lane, flash your
bright lights, day or night. All Europeans respect the left
lane rules except the Dutch, especially those pulling a camper van up hill.
On an expressway in the Netherlands a Dutch highway patrol, Rijkspolitie, has the
left lane. This photo is from an earlier day when the police drove Porsche Targas.
The high speed lane would be the right lane in Britain and Ireland. However,
as you can see by the photo of the motorway in Belfast above, they drive
in whatever lane they want on the islands.
In Sweden the law says that the headlights must be on
whenever you are driving. Sweden does not have many miles of
expressways but does have super wide roads with heavy duty
shoulders. To facilitate passing, Swedes by custom pull over and
drive on the shoulder (if it is clear) and let the fast guys have
the road. Once a driver pulls over to the shoulder he must stay
there until the car behind him passes. So don't pull over unless
you can see a long clear stretch of shoulder ahead, and if someone
pulls over for you, pass quickly.
Greece has heavy duty shoulders on the tollways. Most
people drive with two wheels on the shoulder, leaving plenty of
room for others to pass in the driving lane.
The highways in Poland generally have wide shoulders making
it relatively easy to pass the horse wagons. In Hungary, there is
virtually no shoulder. If the car behind the horse wagon is one of
those under-powered commie things and his car is typically full of
family and friends, he will be extremely reluctant to pass. A long
line can build up and slow you way down.
highway patrol is fairly easy to spot in green Opels. In fact, most
police vehicles are as easy to spot as at home. Virtually all have
large emergency lights mounted on top and have POLIS or
POLITIE or some similar word painted in big letters on the side.
In Ireland police are known as GARDA. The driver of this patrol car in Cork found it
convenient to park in the pedestrian walk zone.
In driving through Poland, one thing that I saw on
entering and leaving every village was a blue police car parked by
the road with a very watchful officer inside. I assume that they
are there to enforce the speed limit of 60 kph through the village
since it's very easy to fly right through most of these little
towns. You'll also notice that the second largest building in most
Polish towns, after the church, is the police station. Police
presence is so visible in this country that I came to believe that
the word "police" is derived from "Poland."
I got lost in the Old Town of Riga, Latvia looking for a great restaurant
where I had eaten the night before, the Lido. This patrol car came by so I waved it down and
asked how to find the Lido. The officer thought for a minute and looked around. I guess he
couldn't explain it so he said "Get in. We drive you there." On arrival he consented to have
his picture taken. Sorry for the red eye caused by my camera flash.
The common American law requiring drivers to pull to the
right and stop for all emergency vehicles with siren and lights blazing
is rarely followed. In Europe, drivers race ambulances to
intersections. Police and fire vehicles generally get equal
disrespect. The only countries where I saw some regard for
emergency vehicles were Finland and Spain and the eastern
countries. Emergency vehicles usually have blue flashing lights and
a two-tone wailing siren. Only in Spain do they have the good old
American screeching sirens.
In Britain and Ireland, all drivers drive on the left side
of the road. Steering wheels are mounted on the right hand side of
the vehicle so that the driver tends to sit in the middle of the
road. An American auto would be a bit difficult to drive in Britain
Pedestrians should be especially wary of vehicles
approaching from the right. The streets of London are plastered
with signs warning "Look Right" and on one-way streets, "Look
Left." It's best to look both ways and over both shoulders before
crossing. Always use the walk buttons and wait until you get the walk
signal. Cars can seemingly come from out of nowhere so don't risk your
This road sign outside Edinburgh, Scotland shows your options as you enter the round about.
Typically these are oriented so that you are driving upward in the diagram and you must turn left, indicated
by a break in the road just to the right of the entry point.
One for the Road
Drinking and driving is an extremely serious offense in
Europe. Every country has strict laws and strict enforcement. You
can be stopped without apparent cause at any time and any place.
The police will request your personal and automobile documents. At
night, the police will willy-nilly stop anyone and everyone and
"request" the driver to blow up a balloon for an alcohol test.
Although this test should prove positive after the consumption of
more than two beers within the last hour, I have seen a couple of
cases where it was borderline on more than that and the driver was
allowed to drive on to the next tavern.
Speeding laws are variably enforced. Radar is becoming more
generally used. One of the ultimate big brother devices, being used
in Holland, Germany, France, and Switzerland particularly, is a combination
radar/camera/strobe light set mounted in an unobtrusive, dull green box here and
there around the country and in the cities. The Germans move them
around a lot and usually have a cop hiding in the bushes to make
sure nobody jumps out and steals the radar/camera set.
The radar/camera/strobe device detects and photographs speeders, red light
runners, and tailgaters.
Via the license plate number, a notice of violation is sent to the
owner. The picture is available on request. Formerly the Dutch
police would mail the picture with the notice of violation, but,
ah, some drivers were photographed with front seat passengers not their
spouses, which led to, ahem, some further difficulties when their
mates opened the mail. I've
been photographed for speeding twice in Germany, but only had one
notification mailed to me for payment. Locations of the radar
camera boxes are posted on various web sites, in the local
There are about a dozen countries in Europe which strictly prohibit the use of a
cell phone while driving a car. In some countries the prohibition applies
only to hand-held cell phones. The European countries which
restrict or prohibit cell phone use while driving include: Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina,
Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, Holland (The Netherlands), Hungary, Iceland,
Poland, Slovak Republic, and Slovenia. This is a fluctuating situation so ask
your rental car company about cell phones before driving away.
Help on the road is available in Holland from the little
yellow Wegenwacht (literally "road watch") cars. These are
a service of the ANWB, Dutch auto club. They cruise the
major roads helping motorists who have mechanical problems. The
German auto club ADAC has similar cruisers on the roads.
Members of the AAA are accorded some privileges by the various auto
clubs in Europe. Check with your local AAA office before departing.
The Swiss automobile club offers outstanding road service
for its members. I was a passenger in a car which caught a stone in
the radiator and sprung a leak at midnight Sunday way out in the middle of
France. That was the end of driving for the night. The Swiss auto
club paid for towing to a local garage, a couple of hotel rooms for
the night, a rental car for a week, and then delivery of the
repaired car back to Switzerland.
Those planning to live in Europe may want to join one of
the national auto clubs. Free maps, trip planning, maintenance
assistance, and other services are available to members.
Rules governing traffic circles are not uniform. Check with
a local tourist office to see if the circle or the entering traffic
has the right of way. Watch all signs and road markings at circles.
The inverted triangle YIELD sign, if present, will indicate whether
incoming or circle traffic has the right of way. In addition to a sign
the triangles are normally painted on the road way.
On the continent traffic goes counter-clockwise as in the USA. In
Britain and Ireland, where the circle is known as a roundabout, traffic goes
clockwise, i.e., backwards to us. It scares me even in a taxi. As you approach
a roundabout you'll see a diagram of the branches indicating destinations for
each branch. The circle will be broken just to the right of the branch you are
entering from. This indicates that you can't turn right. Go left only.
Are we there yet? London traffic is as bad as it gets.
Kids in the Back Seat
Children less than 12 years old must ride in the back seat.
In some countries the age limit is 6 or 10. You normally see young
men driving around with their wife in the back seat holding the
baby. It looks like chauffeur service.
Small children must use a child seat. Very small children must use a booster seat.
Ask your car rental agency about local rules and availability of child seats.
There are more cars than parking places.
On my first drive to Paris I found PLENTY of parking places — on the Champs-Élysées,
the grandest boulevard in the city. In the morning the sanitation crew worked around my little Porsche and
I got it out of there before the tow truck was called.
Here is an alternative parking method as practiced in Paris. Notice the green container
in the background. That is for recycling green glass, e.g. wine bottles. Cities throughout Europe have similar
containers to encourage recycling. There is another Do Not Enter sign. They are everywhere.
The NO PARKING sign is a blue circular board with a
diagonal red band across it. NO STOPPING is a blue circle with two
perpendicular diagonal red bands across it a big red X if
you will. Both also have a red border. NO PARKING signs may also be
found in the local language posted on gates and garage doors,
whether there is a sloped drive at the curb or not. If you see a
word like interdit or verboten, find out what it
means before you walk away from your car.
Another indication that you are not allowed to park is a large X
in the parking place. This is two diagonal lines from corner to corner.
Parking within reach of a No Stopping sign is a favorite European hobby.
This Mercedes in Riga, Latvia has a souvenir on his windshield.
You probably don't need to know German to understand what this sign means.
Hint: if you park your car in this place in Vienna, Austria it will not
be there when you return.
Europeans normally park anyplace they can fit their car. Sidewalks
and the middle of streets are used. Cars are often ticketed, but
usually not towed unless they are blocking traffic. With American
license plates, police would often put a kind notice on my car
rather than a ticket. In one case when I went to the Haarlem police station
to pay a parking ticket, the official looked at the ticket, looked
at me, and asked, "Are you American?" I answered, "Yes." He
replied, "American no pay!" and tore up the ticket. However, after
having been ticketed a couple of times for parking on the sidewalk
in front of my house, the police angrily announced that they would
tow my car away the next time. There was no next time.
The German police can be downright nasty. I stood by my
doubleparked car waiting for Elizabeth to run into the post office
and drop off some letters. An officer walked over and told me to
move it. I did, but I got a violation notice in the mail a week
The Denver boot is known as
"The Clamp" throughout Europe, and the process is called clamping. The Dutch police,
unhappy that some German drivers ignore parking meters and
violation notices, usually clamp German licensed cars in addition to
the ticket. This is an expensive thing to get removed. My car was clamped in
Bratislava, Slovakia. Late at night I had inadvertently parked in the space
reserved for the Chief of Police, right at the front door of the police
station of all places. I discovered the clamp the next morning and asked the hotel to call the police.
It would have been a very expensive ticket, equivalent to a few hundred dollars. While the police
were removing the clamp, I talked them down to half price, and then
kept negotiating and got it down to zero. Our common language was German and it sure paid
off for me that day.
The Amsterdam police have a special vehicle full of clamps. The officers cruise
the streets and canals looking for parking violators, ticket them, and promptly clamp them.
Parking on many streets in Amsterdam is reserved for locals with a permit. If you ever
find an empty parking space in Amsterdam read all the signs, if you can read Dutch.
This warning sign in London, England should be enough to suggest that you park somewhere else.
Metered parking is available on many streets and parking lots in
Europe. In Paris, a sign in French announces that you must pay to
park on the street. The sign points to an automat where you
buy a ticket which you place on your dashboard. Many European cities and parking lots
use a similar system. If you don't see parking meters look for an
automat somewhere on the lot. Many of these have a photovoltaic
panel on top. The panel generates the electricity for the machine.
Here are the instructions for using a parking automat machine in Paris, France.
Visitors pay €3 per hour. Residents of zone 8F pay only €0.50 per day.
I'd rather spend my money on a beer than parking.
This sign indicates parking structures in downtown Düsseldorf, Germany with the number of
available places in each.
Parking structures are becoming common. Look for a
rectangular blue sign showing a large white P
with a roof over it. In parking structures you
often pay at a cashier or automat before going back into the
garage to get your car. Then insert the validated card in the exit
gate machine while driving out.
In the US, the "blue zone" is reserved for handicapped
persons. In Europe the "blue zone" is totally different. It allows
limited time free parking on the honor system, for everyone.
Zone Blue parking means that you must place a blue card on
your dash board and set the pseudo clock face to the time that you
arrived. You can then park for free for the time allowed as stated
on the street sign. Buy it in a stationary store and use the Blue
Zone card in France, Germany, and other countries. Some businesses
give them out for free.
When traveling by car, it pays to use the Michelin Red
Guides to find hotels and for other travel services.
These guides show which city hotels have a
garage or off-street parking. Very few do, and those which have it
often charge extra. Hotels with garages rarely have enough parking
spaces for all the guests. Claim a space early so you don't have to
park out on the street. Most of the motels along the highways have free
parking and plenty of it.
Finally, in discussing parking, the Paris method comes to
mind. It explains the derivation of the word "bumper," as on the
front and rear of your car. In the tight parking spaces on the
streets of Paris, this method tends to create a larger parking
space and helps to minimize the work of turning, backing, and going
forward again. Just back in until you hit the car behind you. Then
turn in, drive forward and smack the one ahead of you. Turn out,
and quickly rip into the car behind you again. Straighten out and
inch it forward. If you're going to live in Paris, I recommend a
six-year-old never-washed Peugeot. The Paris method is also
practiced in Amsterdam, with gusto.
Tanking up starts with knowing where the gas cap is located
on your car, and knowing how to open it. These rudimentary minor
items are not standardized in our modern world. To save yourself
some potential embarrassment and frustration ask the auto rental
company before you drive off.
Also be clear on their
gasoline policy, i.e., how much, if any, should be in the tank when
you return the car, and how much will it cost you if it is below
that level. They may charge you the maximum local price plus a
commission plus a service fee to go get the gas.
Gasoline generally costs 2 to 3 times as much as it does at
home, throughout Europe.
Here is the price of gas and diesel in Paris, France, December 2008. The middle price
for 95 octane is equivalent to about $5.80 per gallon. At that time the US national average
price for regular gas was about $2.30.
They don't call it gas in Europe. It can be called
petrol, benzine, benzin, essence, or some other name.
Diesel can go by diesel, gasoil, nafta, or some other name.
You can't buy a gallon of gas in Europe. Gas is sold by the
liter, spelled litre
in some countries. Our gallon is equal to a tad more than four
liters. To be more exact, it is 3.785 liters per gallon.
You'll see more about the metric system in chapter 27
The Metric System in Europe.
Both high and low octane are sold. The octane ratings in Europe are slightly
less than in America. Although my Porsche ran fine on regular in
the USA, I had to use super (the common name for "high
octane") in Europe. I used super in my 1.9 liter Opel in
Germany also. Just because the gas cap states the minimum octane
doesn't mean that you have to use it. I generally use the highest
octane to get some extra power out of the engine. This is very
useful in passing slower vehicles on some of those winding roads.
Unleaded gas is sold almost everywhere. The German word bleifrei,
(lead free) is often used
in the east. French for unleaded is sans plomb (without lead).
Many stations are self-serve. Pump your own and go inside
to pay. It is becoming more common to be able to insert your credit
card at the pump so you don't need to go inside. Some stations
allow this even if they are closed. But don't count on being able
to use a credit card everywhere for gasoline. Some stations are
cash only. Never travel without a few days supply of local cash in your pocket.
Gas stations provide free air and water, and have all the
usual items for sale. Maps are expensive. Restrooms are free and
are generally cleaner than in America. You can buy booze at gas stations in
Britain where you see the "off license" sign.
This gas station near Monza, Italy is closed on Sunday, but it is open if you have a credit
card. Use that white box with the CRT monitor.
Self serve stations like this are common throughout Italy. Senza Pb means unleaded.
A good rule to follow is keep your tank at least half full, especially on
Sunday nights. As with most restaurants and shops, gasoline
stations are often family businesses. The general practice is that
stations in towns have open hours similar to the hours of other
businesses. Europe never was like America with a gas station (or
two or three) on every corner open until midnight. However, there are a growing number
of 24 hour stations, attended and unattended. The 24 hour stations
usually have basic provisions like the USA's "7-Eleven" stores.
Dealers and a large number of independent garages service
automobiles. Quality of service ranges as widely as it does at
home. The biggest difference is cost and how long it will take to
get parts and make repairs. My experience in Holland is that it can
take months to get simple items from Germany if the dealer does not
stock the part.
I drove over to Stuttgart to get the Porsche tuned up at
the factory, sort of an aside to a vacation trip to the south of France.
I left the
car at the factory for two days and enjoyed the tail end of a wine festival
and some nice sightseeing while they worked on the motor. Apparently
the mechanics had a little too much wine festival themselves
because 70 miles south of Stuttgart the engine went dead in a small
Dorf. Neither of the garages in the town knew what to do so
I had to take a room overnight and call the factory the next
morning to get help. After getting the supervisor on the line, I
handed the phone to a mechanic, he said "Ja, ja, ja," hung up, took
a screwdriver over to the car, adjusted something, and I was on my
way. About a year later, shortly after I returned to the USA, the
timing chain went kaput and the engine blew up, costing some $4,000
for repairs. So much for German quality.
For my German Opel, my company had leased the car and took
care of all maintenance expense. I would just drop it off and the
dealer drove me to the office. Pretty simple. However, you just
about have to know some German to get special items taken care of.
Auto mechanics only speak the native tongue.
One surprisingly weak point in older and cheaper European cars is the
windshield. Simple tempered glass had been used in some vehicles.
In years past I have seen quite a few autos stopped by the side of
the road with the windshield shattered and glass chips all over the
passengers. If you are buying an older used car in Europe, make
sure that it has the sandwich-style windshield (safety glass) which
does not shatter. Look for D.O.T. on the glass and read the US
Customs brochure on importing a car.
If you buy a car in Europe or ship your own car over you are going
to need insurance. Only a fool would drive in Europe without insurance, and
only a clever fool could get away without it for any length of
time. Your home state auto insurance does not cover you. You must
purchase insurance valid in Europe.
There are two basic types of insurance. The "all-risk"
insurance, identified by the green card, protects you
against everything. It is required before crossing borders in
Europe. The other plan is a limited protection insurance available
to residents of each country valid in that country only. But if you
have an accident outside that country, expect to be held by the
police until you settle up for the damage you caused.
I bought my own insurance when living in Holland. In Germany, my
employer provided it. However, they were initially going to provide
only the basic service until I requested them to change this to "all risk"
insurance. I was driving all over Europe.
Insurance is very expensive, upwards of double the rates in
a large American city. Substantial discounts are available.
Your company may be in a group policy arrangement allowing up to a
30% discount. Furthermore, with a good driving record and no claims
on your policy at home, you may be eligible for up to 30% off the
balance. Bring a copy of your policy, an affidavit from your agent,
and a state motor vehicle report of your good driving record as
evidence. Thus, it is possible to be insured for about half the
Where to Buy Insurance
Auto insurance is sold by banks and directly through European
insurance companies. If you are purchasing an auto for tourist pick
up, insurance is an obligatory part of the deal. You will not be
allowed to pick up a car at a dealer or at the port unless you have
a green card with you.
Theft and Vandalism
Theft and vandalism against automobiles is a common problem
in Europe. The large cities are the worst for it, but it can happen
anywhere. In Haarlem, a medium sized city in Holland, my car suffered a
stolen antenna, stolen side view mirror, and attempts to pry off
the California license plate and the Porsche emblem in various
attacks by vandals. In Aschaffenburg, a smaller city in
Germany, my antenna was ripped off along with all the others on our
street. One night I caught a weirdo trying to get into the car.
It's nice to have a garage.
A senseless vandal must have enjoyed defacing the door of this car in Paris, France.
[0732Scratch. Photo by Stephanie.]
Do not leave anything visible in your car. Do not park it on
a dark side street overnight. The vermin hang out in the shadows.
Park it on a busy street under a street light. When I drove to Paris I parked on the
Champs-Élysée, a couple blocks from the
Arc de Triomphe. Don't even leave anything in the trunk. Chances are
that other keys fit your trunk. An out-of-country license plate
indicates a traveler and tells a thief that there are probably
goodies inside. Take everything to your hotel room and leave the
I used two devices in the car when we made our trip from Germany to and from Istanbul.
One was a lock bar connecting the brake pedal to the steering wheel. If
someone were to break in and hot wire the engine they would have a nearly impossible
job of driving anywhere but in a straight line. The other device was a fake burglar alarm.
It was just a little black box with a blinking red LED light that I put into a slot
on the dash. It made it look like the car had a burglar alarm at night.
For my Porsche I had the real thing, a full blown howler alarm that was activated by any
movement of the car. That could be another car attempting to parallel park in front or in back
which nudged mine. Earthquakes in California set it off a couple of times, as
did a tow truck which hauled it away once. Then there was the day in Haarlem when
some drunken Danes from a tour boat tried to roll my Porsche into
the Spaarne River. They could have done it if I hadn't raced across the street to stop them.
I warned the captain of the tour boat that I would sink his ship if that ever happened again.
SAFETY AND OTHER GEAR
Use of seat belts is required. Your car should also have some loose
items to help in emergencies. These include
a red reflecting triangle, towing cable,
emergency medical kit, and a fire
extinguisher. Several of these items are required by law in some
countries. Inquire at the local automobile club or at a police
Always keep a strong beam flashlight in the car.
When I drove through the east to Istanbul I also carried a
12 volt air pump for the tires. It came in handy. Several
drivers at border crossings wanted to buy it from me when they saw me
topping off my tires.
Extra Light Features
Many European cars are equipped with a rear fog
light. There is a switch on the dash for this. You'll probably have
to look in the owners manual to locate the switch. The fog light is
a single bright red light on the left rear. It can be seen from a
much greater distance than the normal rear lights. It is also a good
idea to use this when there is a light rain because the wheels
of your car turn up so much mist that it is hard to see through it.
This light cuts through a lot of mist. Another car can give your rear end
a bump if you're going too slow and road conditions are poor.
Another auto light feature you might find is a roll switch which
will raise or lower the aim of the headlights. Keep the lights pointed down in the city and
raise them for country driving. This switch is not the high beam switch.
That one turns on the brights as you know, something that you should rarely
As noted above, compass directions are not posted at intersections.
For example, in the USA you always see route numbers and "north" or "south"
etc., right under the route number sign. You will never see this in Europe. Heck, even route
number signs are relatively scarce in Europe. I should never say never since
compass directions will eventually be posted, probably. But you know that they will be in the
local language. Do you know est from ouest?
Therefore it is a very good idea to have a car compass. The better
quality ones have adjustment screws to let you compensate for
the metal in the car. All that magnetically inclined steel can affect
the operation of a compass considerably.
Get one with a night light and mount it on your dash.
Global Positioning System, GPS
The modern day equivalent of a compass is a GPS device. Actually, it is far more powerful
than a compass. It tells you exactly where you are and plots your course for you. Officially
named Navstar GPS, the main feature is a system of about 30 satelites owned by the
US Department of Defense. They broadcast signals which can be picked up by electronic
devices which most people just call a GPS. These devices use triangulation and super
accurate clocks to determine where on earth the device is and where it is going.
Assuming you are holding the device you will never be lost again.
That sure takes some of the fun out of life.
Then again a GPS can be fun. On a flight from
Minneapolis to Santa Ana the fellow next to me turned on his GPS. It was interesting to
track our progress and to know what it was we were flying over.
When renting a car in Europe many people will not drive out of the parking lot without
a GPS in their hand. I have never used one but I can assure you that I wish that I had one
of these genies on some of my drives. I can read maps and follow signs but Europe is not
where those talents are appreciated. If you are out in the boonies you often need a
local guide to show you which road to get on and in which direction. A GPS is the
closest substitute for a local guide. But neither is foolproof. A map and compass is a recommended
These signs in Nova Milanese, Italy point you in the direction of a half dozen villages and cities,
the village center, and a couple of motels.
Distance is given but no route numbers.
NOTE TO READERS
I welcome questions and comments. If you have any concerns about your trip to
Europe that have not been covered well enough in this chapter do not hesitate to write and ask.
My email address is
When you write please include as much detail as possible. There are about 50 countries in Europe.
It will help me answer if you mention the countries and/or cities you plan to visit.
I will reply in a day or two.
Don't forget to scroll through the Table of Contents below. The other 29 chapters of
HOW TO EUROPE
are also available, free to read on line.
For a check-off punchlist of everything go to The Finale,
Packing List and Last Call:
For Travel In Europe.
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Note: Italicized notations by the author.
Guidebooks and maps to keep you on the right road.
Signpost Guide Scotland
Your guide to great drives.
Provence, French Riviera
Michelin Map 527
Pays De Loire France
Michelin Map 517
Michelin Map 513
Stockholm & Sweden
Michelin Map 735
Michelin Map 720
Michelin Green Guide
A comprehensive guide to 3,000 hotels and restaurants in 44 major cities throughout Europe, in English.
Separate books in the Michelin Red series cover individual countries in greater detail. This is a must have
for frequent travelers.
Main Cities of Europe 2013
' ' ' ' ' '
It rains. Be prepared.
Totes Titanium Auto-Open/Close Umbrella
Weather protection is important. This is a great lightweight water repellent windbreaker.
Turfer Women's Featherweight Jacket
This is a more substantial windbreaker.
Devon & Jones Women's Signature Colorblock Jacket
Look sharp and be comfortable.
Hot Chillys Women's Peach Skins Solid T-Neck Shirt
London Fog Women's Double Breasted Trench Coat
Clarks Women's Wave.Run Slip-On
Tilley Endurables TH9 Women's Hemp Hat
Weather protection and extra pockets.
SCOTTEVEST Travel Vest for Men
SCOTTEVEST Travel Vest for Women
I wore one similar to this on my early spring trip to London and Dublin.
Leather Bomber Jacket
My "standard" shirt for off-season travel in Europe.
Kingsize Big & Tall Turtleneck Long-Sleeve Cotton Shirt
My favorite T-shirt/undershirt has a pocket for securely carrying passport, cash, and credit cards.
Turfer Tagless ComfortSoft T-Shirt with Pocket
New Casual Grey Herringbone Wool Cap
Walk on cork for all day comfort.
Birkenstock Bali Sandal
Birkenstock Arizona Sandal
Just as comfortable as tennies but look great. I've gone through several pairs over the years.
For leg comfort on the plane.
Arriva Travel-Tec Travel Legwear with Smart Compression Technology
Block the light and noise while flying.
Bucky Shades Sleep Mask
Certainly a better pillow than the corporate issue on the plane.
Bucky Fuzzy Wuzzy U Pillow With Snap & Go
You will need one or more of these plug adapters for your appliances and chargers.
For details on electricity in Europe see chapter 11,
Electricity in Europe: Travel Voltage Fundamentals
Plug Adapter (doubler)
Universal to Continental Europe "Europlug."
4.0 mm prongs
SIMRAN PLUG ADAPTER
Adapts grounded USA plugs to European "Shucko" plug.
4.8 mm prongs
This is a universal plug adapter for the UK and Ireland.
Grounded Adaptor Plug for Britain and Ireland
This series of "3-Pack" Ceptics brand grounded universal plug adapters is handy if you are carrying multiple
gizmos or if you have travel companions who also need a charge.
Britain and Ireland
This 110-250 volt power surge strip has three universal outlets and an American grounded plug
so it needs a plug adapter for the countries you are visiting.
Make sure your gizmos are rated for 110-240 volts.
SM-60 Universal 3 Outlet Power Strip Surge Protector for Worldwide Travel. 110V-250V with Overload Protection.
For charging up to six gizmos at a time use this 250 volt universal
power strip. It comes with a grounded Continental plug.
6 Universal Outlets
220/240 Volt 50/60Hz
LiteFuze WonproGrounded Universal 2 in 1 Plug Adapter Type J for Switzerland
If your gizmos charge through a USB port this can keep you going. European cars have the same
12 volt system as American cars.
Scosche Dual USB
This transformer rated for 200 watts will power many of your appliances if they are only rated for 120 volts.
Transformer - 200 Watt Non Grounded Heavy Duty
OK, this is the 1,000 pound gorilla. If you are moving over and taking your kitchen blender,
coffee maker, electric saw, drill, and etc., I recommend it.
Transformer - 1,000 Watt Non Grounded Heavy Duty
Absolutely the best battery for digital cameras which use AA batteries.
AA Lithium Batteries
Rechargeable batteries are expensive but pay for themselves over and over.
This charger is good for worldwide voltage and comes with 4 pre-charged batteries.
It requires a plug adapter for the countries you are visiting.
Sanyo SEC-MQN064 Eneloop 4 Pack AA NiMH Pre-Charged Rechargable Batteries
with Worldwide 110-240 volt charger
This kit includes a pair of rechargeable batteries with a USB powered charger.
SANYO NEW 1500 eneloop 2-AA Ni-MH Pre-Charged Rechargeable Batteries
w/ USB Charger
Make sure that your electrical appliances are 110-220 dual voltage so they will work in Europe.
These appliances require a plug adapter(s), NOT a converter, for the countries you are visiting.
Vagabond Compact Styler
Conair's Dual-Voltage Ionic Hair Dryer
Conair Flat Iron 2" Ceramic Straightener
Travel Hair Setter
SteamFast SF-717 Home-and-Away Mini Steam Iron (dual voltage)
Braun Series 1 150 Men's Shaver with Automatic Worldwide Voltage Adjustment
For light sleepers here is an international "white noise" machine. Includes a Continental
Marsona TSCi-330 White Noise Travel Sound Conditioner For both USA and International Use
For coffee or tea in your room, without waiting or paying for room service.
Lewis N. Clark Immersion Heater 120/240V
Starbucks makes the best instant coffee I have found, and these little packets cost only 58¢ each
in the 50 unit box. That's a bargain in the USA and an absolute steal anyplace in Europe.
Starbucks VIA Ready Brew Coffee, available in House Blend, Colombia, Italian, and Italian Decaf roasts.
Bring home the memories.
Olympus FE360 8MP Digital Camera with 3x Optical Dual Zoom (Silver)
A camera case protects your LCD screen.
Case Logic ECB-1 EVA Compact Camera Case (Black/Red)
This is the camera that I use,
Nikon D60 10.2MP Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)
with this amazing lens,
Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR [Vibration Reduction] DX Lens
and this filter.
HOYA 72mm Circularizing Polarizing Filter
Adorama SMALL 4001
Sony DCR-DVD610 DVD Handycam Camcorder with 40x Optical Zoom
To open your can of beans or tuna, this will definitely help you picnic roadside as you travel.
Zyliss 20362 Lock-n-Lift Manual Can Opener
Your negotiating assistant will save you cash, as described in chapter 6.
8-Digit Display Hand-Held Calculator by Sharp
Be on time. Trains and planes don't wait.
Casio Men's G-Shock Ana-Digi Chronograph Sport Watch
Casio Women's BLX100-1 Baby-G Multi-Function Digital Black Resin Sport Watch
It also works for civilians on butterfly trips.
Lensatic Military Marching Compass
Tune in to local radio for a new experience.
FM/AM Radio Walkman
with MDR Headphones
This will come in very handy very often.
This is one amazing tool. You will have to put it in checked luggage.
New Wave Multitool
with Leather Sheath
Wash in your room basin and save time, trouble, and money.
Woolite Laundry Soap
20 packs, ¼ ounce each
Inflatable clothes hangars help with drip dry clothes washed in your room.
Inflatable Travel & Laundry Hangers Set Of 4 by Whitney Design
Rolling luggage sure beats lugging a pack around on your back.
Delsey Luggage Helium Fusion Light 21 Inches Expandable Carryon
Day luggage for your walkabout.
Travelpro Luggage WalkAbout LITE 4 Deluxe Tote
Wear a money belt under your shirt to protect your passport and valuables, especially if you are staying in hostels or dorms.
Victorinox Deluxe Concealed Security Belt
An RFID blocking wallet protects your passport and credit cards from identity theft in public places.
Travelon RFID Blocking Passport Case
This portable combo door stopper and alarm will give you additional security in your hotel room.
GE 50246 Smart Home
Door Stop Alarm
Keep your stuff organized.
Luggage Packing Cubes
eBags 3pc Set
eBags Small Packing Cubes - 3pc Set
The two gallon size is excellent for packing your clothes, but it is hard to find in Europe.
2 gal. clear plastic bags
ZipLoc by SC Johnson
This is much stronger than duct tape.
1" x 60 yards
3M Company #8957-1
Don't go anywhere without good guide books and maps.
Eyewitness Travel Guides
Michelin Map 715
Frommer's 30 Great Drives in Great Britain
Frommer's 25 Great Drives in Ireland
Frommer's 25 Great Drives in Germany
Frommer's 25 Great Drives in Tuscany and Umbria
Frommer's 25 Great Drives in France
Bring a lighted magnifying lens to help you read these maps.
Michelin Road Atlas Europe 2012
Michelin Atlas France
Michelin Atlas Germany, Benelux, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic
Michelin Atlas Italy
Bausch and Lomb 2X Folding Lighted Magnifier
Who wrote this?
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